• Home
  • À propos de nous
  • Notre expertise
  • Nos secteurs
  • Notre équipe
  • Careers
  • Cambio
  • BGC Squared
  • Insights

Finding Missing Persons in Cyprus

This project was made possible through co-funding by BGC Squared.

 

Cyprus is very hot, but I’m frequently reminded by the local Cypriots that it was much warmer a few weeks ago. If it wasn’t for air conditioning and a healthy water intake, I’m not sure I would have survived our visit in early September (2023). Together with my BGC Engineering colleague, Zachary Alexa, long-term collaborator Harry Jol of the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, and Connor Jol from the University of British Columbia, I travelled to the island nation of Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. This trip was part of a geophysics project to assist the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP) in Cyprus, and made possible by the CMP, and co-funded by the EU, BGC
Engineering’s philanthropic organization, BGC Squared, and The University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire.

 

The CMP was established in 1981 by leaders from the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities with the participation of the UN. The mandate of the CMP is to recover, identify and return to their families the remains of 2,002 missing persons (492 Turkish Cypriots and 1,510 Greek Cypriots) who went missing during the intercommunal fighting of 1963 to 1964, and during further violent unrest on the island in 1974. Cyprus became an official member of the European Union in 2004, and the EU has been the main financial contributor to the CMP since 2006. To date, the CMP has found and exhumed 1,204 missing people and identified 1,034 of them, a recovery rate of 51%. As expected, the rate of recovery of those missing has decreased with time to the point where more sophisticated investigation methods are now required to narrow down search areas, including geophysics.

Looking into the United Nations buffer zone in the old town of Nicosia.

Our late friend and colleague, the archaeologist and historian Richard Freund, introduced BGC to the CMP through a connection with a U.S. Ambassador. Richard had shown examples from our work at Holocaust sites in Lithuania and Poland, and the CMP members (a tripartite committee that includes a UN representative as well as Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot representative) were eager to get us to Cyprus to demonstrate how electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) are used to better characterize the subsurface at complex locations, where excavations could be time consuming and futile without further details of what lies beneath the ground. Bruce Koepke, Committee Secretary and Acting UN Member, had offered to guide us for the week, facilitating access to all the sites we were to visit, and making sure we were connected with key CMP staff.

 

The CMP’s work is impressively detailed and comprehensive and team members include investigators, archivists, land surveyors, GIS-mapping specialists, archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, geneticists, and psychologists, with equal representation from the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities. By spending the week with a group of 10 to 15 members from each community, we heard their perspectives about the complex situation on the island. Overall, the CMP members we spent time with were educated, collegial, and really positive, nice people to spend the week with.

From left to right: Bruce Koepke (Committee Secretary, Acting UN Member), CMP’s Turkish Cypriot Member Hakki Müftüzade, CMP’s Greek Cypriot Member Leonidas Pantelides, Zachary Alexa (BGC), Harry Jol (University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire), Alastair McClymont (BGC), Connor Jol (University of British Columbia).

The CMP follow a five-stage process:

    1. Investigation
    2. Excavation
    3. Anthropological analysis of remains
    4. Genetic testing and matching, and
    5. Identification and return of remains to families.

The investigation process involves gathering eyewitness testimonies and, unlike similar investigations that have occurred after the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s, all those who testify are given amnesty and have their identities protected. Cypriot families with missing relatives were also invited to contribute DNA to a protected database to be used for subsequent identifications.

During the week of September 4, we were taken to four different sites (two on each side of the island) to demonstrate the GPR and ERT technologies and share results. For each site we were given some details of eyewitness testimonies. At the first site, eyewitnesses (who were interviewed under protection of anonymity) described the location where a vehicle with 10 to 20 passengers was last seen in 1974. Could we narrow down where the passengers may have been buried in a pit? At another location, an eyewitness recalled last seeing 5 to 10 people at a ravine in 1963. Years later, a soccer pitch was constructed over the ravine. Could we map the low points of the ravines under the field, so that coring for DNA or excavations could be better targeted? We used these testimonies to help guide our work.

Harry Jol (left) and Connor Jol (right) in the middle of a GPR survey grid.

That Friday, we presented findings to the three-member CMP committee and gave a tutorial on the methods used to a group of about 30 CMP staff. Afterwards, we were taken to the anthropological lab, where the painstaking work of identification from human remains is done. Bruce had asked us beforehand if we were comfortable with viewing skeletal remains and then handed us over to the anthropological laboratory coordinators for the tour. He also requested that we not take any photos due to the sensitivity of the cases. Inside the lab were a series of complete and partial skeletons from recent recoveries on tables, and several lab techs were busy completing various tasks to analyze and classify them. Some bones from the skeletons of two individuals were darkly stained after having spent years in a well—abandoned water wells were common locations for hiding bodies. Another set of bones were mere fragments, the original grave having been disturbed by farming or construction activities, and what was left had been sifted from the soil. The challenge for the forensic anthropologists was to determine how many people had been buried at the location, which can only be revealed through complex DNA analysis of a significant sample of the fragments. If a single fragment yielded DNA from a unique individual, further testing and excavations would be recommended.

 

The two CMP laboratory coordinators also explained the process of notifying family members and returning remains for burial. I got the sense that it was this stage of the process—bringing closure to families after decades of uncertainty and grief, and following years of painstaking investigative work—that motivated the CMP members to do what they do.

Zachary Alexa, BGC, monitors one of our ERT surveys while wishing the date palm trees were a little taller to provide some shade.

As we said our farewells to the team, I asked Bruce if it really has been worth it to go to such lengths and commit so much time and resources to finding missing people. His response was that, considering all the efforts to establish and maintain peace in Cyprus, the work of the CMP has been held up as a success story because it was transparent, equitable and has allowed both sides to work together on a common goal to find the missing. I couldn’t help but feel that something similar may be required in Canada as we strive for truth and reconciliation with First Nations in the aftermath of Indian Residential Schools.

The Buyuk Han community square, north Nicosia.
Alastair McClymont, Ph.D., P.Geo., Senior Geophysicist
Alastair McClymont Ph.D., P.Geo., has over 15 years of experience in the application of diverse near-surface geophysical techniques to geotechnical assessments, hydrogeological studies, contaminated site remediation and other projects.
FR