By Nicholas Bray
NICOSIA—Cradling a skull in her hands, Popi Chrysostomou surveys a sea of bones laid out neatly on tables around her. Some are sorted by type; others form near-complete skeletons. Scores of vertebrae make up a macabre design on one table. On another, bones are tidily arranged into feet.
A hole the size of a pea is clearly visible in the side of the skull. Dead bones don’t talk, but the hole shows that this person was shot in the head. Chrysostomou refuses to speculate on who shot this person and why, but that question is at the heart of a conflict that has poisoned life on this once idyllic island for more than half a century.
The skull and the bones around it come from a mass grave uncovered in a mountainside just an hour’s drive north of Chrysostomou’s lab near Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus. Chrysostomou leads a team of forensic anthropologists whose job is to fit the bones together and identify who they belonged to, using whatever clues they can gather and backing them up with DNA testing. Once identified, the remains are placed in coffins and handed over to the victims’ families for burial. It’s a grim task—and a reminder that, nearly 40 years after the violent upheaval that led to Cyprus’s division into two separately ruled communities, deep scars continue to afflict this island in the eastern Mediterranean.
The bones belong to victims of the wave of killings that hit Cyprus in July and August 1974, after an attempted coup d’état sparked fighting between the island’s Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian majority and its Turkish-speaking Muslim minority. Amid violence triggered by the Greek-backed insurrection and an ensuing Turkish military intervention, some 5,000 people lost their lives. More than 1,000 “missing persons” are still unaccounted for. The bones on Chrysostomou’s tables are all that remains of some of them.
Cyprus is a small place—just one-third the size of Massachusetts. But the conflict that has divided it for four decades has major ramifications for Europe and the wider Mediterranean region. Though an island, Cyprus is also a fault line—between East and West, Christianity and Islam, atavistic nationalism and borderless globalization. It is a place shaped by conflicting histories and competing grand strategies, and the path it takes will reveal a great deal about the prospects for international cooperation in an increasingly polarized world.
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Nicholas Bray is a former European correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and former head of media relations for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
(Photograph courtesy of Rachel Killsemo)