BOOK - BENEATH THE CAROB TREES - Healing and Hope.
Book Title: Beneath the Carob Trees: The Lost Lives of Cyprus
Author: Nick Danziger and Rory MacLean
Publisher: Armida/Galeri Kultur
The gentle, almost wistful title of this remarkable book conceals tragic tales of unspeakable horror. Award-winning photographer Nick Danziger and bestselling author Rory MacLean have collaborated with the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP) in order to create a publication approved by the United Nations. Funded by the European Union, the book focuses on the arduous search for the remains of Cypriots (both Turkish and Greek) that died and disappeared during the bloody tensions between the two post-colonial communities in 1963-1964 and 1974. Grim though the subject matter undoubtedly is, Danziger's lens and MacLean's pen have come as close to doing justice to this heinous and complex topic as any set of creative minds can be expected to do.
To quote MacLean: 'The primary objective of the CMP is to return the identified remains of missing persons to their families in order to arrange for a proper burial and close a long period of anguish and uncertainty' (p. 29).'
This endeavour commenced under the auspices of the CMP in 1981, and to date, while hundreds of remains have been located and several identified, the remains of hundreds of individuals are still unaccounted for. The CMP has had to engage in the grueling and often sadly thankless task of requesting informers to come forward with information on the whereabouts of people who might have been killed and buried.
Often this proves difficult because many Greek and Turkish Cypriots simply 'disappeared'-snatched from their homes or workplaces; and in some cases were even taken off vehicles of public transport, such as buses. Naturally, virtually all are assumed dead, and even those who knew them are now in the late autumn of their lives since decades have passed since the strife and conflict, though unhealed wounds still abound.
But as the project continually and continuously demonstrates, humans are incredibly resilient when it comes to granting dignity to the dead. Families in Cyprus have braved the loss of homes, livelihoods, possessions, and material goods but, regardless of the uniqueness of their personal tragedies, all are united in their desire to attain closure as regards the bones and remains of their loved ones. Danziger's photos display an extraordinary breadth and scope, ranging from portrayals of diplomats interviewing key personnel, to ruined houses, to archaeological excavations, to funerals and counselling, and of course, bones - literally hundreds of them.
In the hot, occasionally unforgiving climate of Cyprus, MacLean notes, it takes human flesh just a matter of three months to decompose. However, bones exist for centuries, and CMP's archaeological teams engage in widespread and highly sensitive excavations across the country, especially around the UN-declared Buffer Zone in old Nicosia that officially divides the formerly hostile communities-a zone that is only a few meters at its narrowest but extends to six kilometers at its widest. Sometimes the clues are just misleading and end up frustrating even the most patient and determined of investigators, but CMP personnel believe that the rewards outweigh the tribulations. Sadly though, even the most rewarding of excavations are simply pyrrhic victories, given the deep and profound sense of tragedy that pervades this noble but difficult endeavour.
Following the excavations and the unearthing of remains (some of which naturally date from much earlier periods) the bones are most likely to be those of the disappeared and are forensically cleaned and catalogued painstakingly. Occasionally, belongings of the victims such as rings found on skeletons, for instance, are used to identify them, though only thorough genetic analysis (which is conducted on virtually all the relevant remains) can determine identity with over 99 percent accuracy.
Sometimes a lucky guess helps pinpoint whose remains are before one - in one case a man was identified because he was one of the few who possessed gold teeth! MacLean recounts interviews with several descendants of the disappeared as well as his interactions with forensic specialists, geneticists, grief counsellors, and sometimes aged individuals who knew the victims when they were much younger. Danziger's pictures are bracketed between a forlorn shot of the abandoned Nicosia International Airport (where some of the worst fighting took place) and an old, and equally abandoned, Trident plane which acts as a metaphor for the general theme of aging loss that pervades the book.
Books such as these leave one with deeply conflicting views about humanity. On the one hand there is no escaping the undercurrents of barbarism affiliated with such strife and violence; yet one's faith in humanity can be partially restored by the courageous efforts of the CMP teams, none of whom are strangers to fierce opposition and death threats. The reality of fear is prevalent throughout the text - one informer only spoke out after the murderer had died, finally admitting that the victim was shot and buried beneath a carob tree. But healing and hope are fortunately also part of the complex equation entailing the CMP's work. And for that alone, readers can be somberly thankful.