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'The Pain Will Never Go Away': Searching for the Disappeared People of Cyprus

Journalist Sevgul Uludag has spent years searching for answers about thousands of people who disappeared during conflict between Greece and Turkey for control of Cyprus in the 1960s and 70s.
Photo de Petros Karadjias/AP

In January, in a tranquil, overgrown field dotted with olive vines and fig trees in northern Cyprus, the remains of a 56-year-old man were pulled from the bottom of a well.

It marked the end of a decades-long quest for the truth for the family of Kyriakos Constanti Hadjisoteri, one of an estimated 1,500 Greek Cypriots who were forcibly disappeared following the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974. They were not the first to go missing - a decade earlier around 500 Turkish Cypriots had vanished during another bout of bloody ethnic unrest.


Fought over by Greece and Turkey for hundreds of years, Cyprus never fully recovered from the 1963/4 and 1974 conflicts, which saw the island effectively partitioned into Greek and Turkish sides and more than 200,000 Cypriots expelled from their homes. While Turkish and Greek Cypriots to a large extent remain estranged, one question unites families across both communities - what happened to the disappeared?

Hadjisoteri's mystery was finally solved thanks to the work of investigative journalist Sevgul Uludag, a Turkish Cypriot who started writing about the missing in 2002 after finding out that a friend's father was one of them. "It was a big taboo in our community to speak about the missing," she told VICE News. "I started to break that taboo by writing stories."

As Uludag began to put names and faces of the missing in the public domain, she became a figurehead for the relatives' search for truth. She advertised her phone number and began receiving hundreds of calls from people asking her to help looking for their relatives, or offering information on unsolved cases.

'Greek Cypriot relatives were led to believe that their missing were alive in Turkey. Turkish Cypriots believed that their missing were alive and imprisoned in a monastery.'

A United Nations Committee on Missing Persons was created in Cyprus in 1981, and after two decades of work began locating and excavating mass graves all over the island. The bodies of more than 400 Greek Cypriots and more than 100 Turkish Cypriots have so far been identified.


But the island's long history of bitter conflict, where atrocities were committed on all sides, has left many Cypriots with a deep distrust of authorities, and a deep fear of what might happen to them if they talk about abuses they saw and the people responsible. When a UN badge or an underlying threat scares people off, Uludag offers a safe way to speak out.

"I [told people] I don't want to know your name if you don't want to say," she said. "But if you know something that happened in your village please call me and share with me what you know."

The authorities had "played games" with the people of Cyprus for decades, said Uludag. "Greek Cypriot relatives were led to believe that their missing were alive in Turkey. Turkish Cypriots until 1974 believed that their missing were alive and imprisoned in a monastery. The Greek Cypriot community had no idea that the Turkish Cypriots also had missing persons, they thought the only missing were Greek Cypriots. Turkish Cypriots too saw themselves as the only victims in this conflict."

Sometimes readers will offer to show burial sites to Uludag, who says she faces threats for her work from people in whose interests it is for the truth to remain hidden. The journalist has investigated mass executions by both paramilitary groups and civilians, in which Greek and Turkish Cypriot men, women and children were killed.


Related: Cyprus Signs Military Deal to Let Russian Navy Use Its Ports.

Angry relatives seeking vengeance for murdered relative is also a real possibility, so she keeps all her sources a closely-guarded secret. "If they agree, we go [to burial sites] together with the officials to show them. If they want to remain anonymous, I go with the officials on my own later."

The final resting place of Kyriakos Contanti Hadjisoteri, a farmer from the small village of Komi Kebir on Cyprus' northwestern coast, had long been hidden. Rows of olive vines now line the field home to the well into which his remains had been thrown, and its entrance was barely visible.

Uludag had been contacted by two different villagers, who told her of rumors a local priest had been thrown down there in the months following the 1974 invasion. The journalist worked with an archaeologist from the CMP to locate the well. A skeleton, with broken ribs and a gunshot wound in the skull, was pulled out and later identified as the farmer.

While scores of Cyprus' disappeared were killed by military or paramilitary groups, others were murdered by opportunistic or resentful civilians, emboldened by the lawlessness and hatred around them. That is what is believed to have happened to Hadjisoteri, who had been determined to stay in Cyprus while unrest erupted around him in 1974, despite his wife and daughter fleeing to the UK.


"From what we understand it was a local Turkish Cypriot villager who came along wanting my granddad's cement mixer," Hadjisoteri's grandson, Kyriacos Kyriacou, who lives in the UK, told VICE News. "My granddad said no, some sort of battle ensued and this man ended up taking him, shooting him, chucking him down a well and then moving into his house and taking it for his own."

The version told to Uludag differs slightly - that Hadjisoteri was taken by a group of Turkish Cypriots came and took him away after he complained about the cement mixer. But when Kyriacou visited Komi Kebir in 2013, he was told by villagers that his grandfather's killer, now in his 90s, is still living in the house to this day.

'His name is up on a tombstone which he never had before and my family can go and visit him.'

Kyriacou approached the house and knocked on the door. "[The occupant] put his shutters up and said 'Go away, you don't belong here,' he was very hostile," he said. "That was really hard, especially after seeing the UN pictures of my granddad's skeleton. I think about what happened. We hope it was a quick death."

Fresh hope has emerged in Cyprus following the election of the moderate Turkish Cypriot Mustafa Akinci as leader of the Turkish north of the island at the end of last month. He has begun peace talks with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades (leader of the Greek Cypriots), the first meetings between the two sides since last October.


Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Turkey to pay $100 million in compensation for its invasion of Cyprus, $33 million of which will go to relatives of the disappeared and $66 million to Greek Cypriots who live in the Karpas peninsula, an enclave within the Turkish part of the island.

Finding out the truth about what happened to disappeared relatives was painful, said Kyriacou, but essential for repairing the damage inflicted by the past. His parents never gave up hope that one day news of his grandfather would arrive.

"He's buried alongside my gran now," he said, describing an emotional funeral which was attended by the head of Cyprus' civil service and army, police and political party representatives and broadcast on state television. "His name is up on a tombstone which he never had before and my family can go and visit him."

Uludag is invited to many of the funerals and shares a sense of closure with the relatives. "Finally they have a grave and their lives, paralyzed for so many decades, have a new phase," she said. "The pain will never go away but at least they have the remains of their loved ones to bury and not wait forever for him or her to come back."

Follow Joshua Surtees on Twitter: @Josh_ua_Surtees