Northern Ireland has moved beyond the Troubles, but the fates of many kidnapping victims from the conflict still remain unknown decades later.
On Monday, however, one of the mysteries was finally solved when police used a DNA test to identify the remains of Brendan Megraw, a Belfast man who has been missing for the past 36 years. His body was discovered October 1 in a drainage ditch near Oristown bog, about an hour's drive northwest of Dublin.
Megraw was 23 when he was abducted by the IRA. One Saturday morning in 1978, a group of nine men turned up at his apartment in west Belfast's Twinbrook estate. They drugged his pregnant wife, telling her not to worry because her husband would come back. She never saw him again.
Megraw's brother Kieran told VICE News that his feelings after hearing the results of the DNA test were hard to describe. "It's just sort of a massive relief that it has been confirmed as Brendan, so there's a sense of joy," he said. "There's also the sadness that he was murdered, but to be able to find him is tremendous."
Brendan Megraw was one of 17 people suspected of being abducted by the IRA or the Irish National Liberation Army between 1972 and 1985. The missing are commonly known in Ireland as "the Disappeared." Megraw's body is the tenth to be recovered to date. Others taken included former Cisterian monk Joseph Lynskey, and Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10.
All their families tell similar tales of the years after they went missing. Searching for information proved fruitless, but rumors would reach them suggesting their loved one was in Canada, or in hiding, or even back in Belfast.
"There were days when we thought he was going to be coming back, or maybe we thought he was bound to come back at Christmas time, he always liked to be around home at times like that," Kieran Megraw said. "We'd ask family, and people in different places, different people, but nobody seemed to know anything."
Until the mid-'90s, the Megraws thought they were on their own. But then they slowly began to realize there were other families in the same situation. "We all started asking questions," Kieran said.
For the Megraw family, the major breakthrough came in 1999 when — as part of the peace process — the IRA handed over a list with the names of nine kidnapping victims.
Along with the list came the information that Brendan's body had been buried in Oristown bog in County Meath, which is in the Republic of Ireland.
"We didn't know where Oristown was; we had to look it up," Kieran recalled. "It was 70-odd miles away from Belfast."
The Megraws thought they would recover Brendan's body in a couple of weeks. It took another 15 years.
The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains was established in 1999. A joint effort between the British and Irish governments, its mandate was to coordinate searches for "the Disappeared" and hunt for answers. They eventually received a tip that helped narrow down the location of Megraw's body.
"When the body and the remains were found we went down that evening and said prayers and decades of the rosary," Kieran said. "The thing for myself was that when Brendan was killed he was probably on his own. He never thought that he was going to get back home again. So that's always been the target — to get his body, get him back home to Belfast and then he can be buried with his mom and dad."
Kieran remembers his brother as fun-loving, even when the rest of the country was in turmoil: "He was into motorbikes and music at the time — Cream, that sort of stuff — and just really having the good times. He was very particular about his appearance — always making sure everything was ironed or cleaned, shoes polished."
When the list came out in 1999, the IRA said they targeted Brendan because he was an "agent provocateur," but Kieran said that didn't help them understand why he was killed. "It's just Belfast, Northern Ireland at that stage, there was a lot of different stuff going on," he said. "A lot of different families were causing a lot of trouble. It could have been the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, a lot of that happened."
It remains uncertain how much IRA leaders knew about the murders, and whether any of them should face prosecution. An Irish Independent/Millward Brown poll carried out in May revealed that 45 percent of Irish voters believe Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was involved in at least one of the murders, specifically the killing of of Jean McConville. He was brought in for questioning about the case in May, but subsequently released. Adams still denies that he was ever in the IRA.
To Kieran, it no longer matters who was responsible for his brother's death. "It's hard to know what was going on in those days," he said. "Whether he [Adams] was involved, whether the leadership was, you sort of hear so many different stories."
Kieran said he just wants to focus on the fact that he's got his brother back. He said the Megraw family is "past the stage of anger," and now trying to ensure Brendan is not forgotten. He said their mother had Brendan's name put on a family headstone before his body was found, and that's where he will be buried next week.
"I'm also keenly aware that there's still some families waiting for information," Kieran said. "They're still looking to get their loved ones home so if anybody reads this story and knows what took place then I'd plead with them to come forward with their information to the Commission."
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