11 May 2011 was the funeral of my father’s uncle, after whom my father was named. In the words of my great-uncle’s son, this was “a late funeral.” 47 years late…
In the last few years, there have been many late funerals on both sides of Cyprus. Those of us who lost family members in the 1960s and 1970s have finally discovered where and when they died, as a result of recent efforts to find them and exhume their remains. With every funeral, we bury our hope that our loved one might still be alive. Every funeral reveals the pain and anger that has been building up inside us.
Growing up on a divided island
When I was born, Cyprus was already divided: Greek Cypriots on one side, Turkish Cypriots on the other. There were no crossings – there weren’t even any communications between us. The two sides of the island may as well have been two countries at opposite ends of the world. Until a few years ago, all this seemed normal to me, as I am too young to remember the days when the two communities lived together.
Recently, I have realised that it is very strange for people who share a past on such a small island to have ignored each other for so many years. One of the disadvantages faced by my generation is that most of us do not know anyone from the other side of the island. In 2003, when crossings through the neutral zone started, some of our grandparents managed to reconnect with their old friends from the other community. But we, the young people of Cyprus, did not have any pre-established cross-community relationships.
When I was a child, I used to look at our family tree and think of stories about the many names with the word “missing” next to them. My generation has grown up listening to stories about the missing and the dead, about the houses and towns our families had to leave. We often do not have the courage – and to be honest, the willingness – to start communicating with the people on the other side. There is also some understandable discouragement from some older community members who had first-hand experience of the suffering.
Discovering we have a lot in common
I have been studying at the University of Richmond in the United States for a year now. Now that I can see Cyprus from a distance, I notice how much of our culture we have in common, despite the differences in language and religion.
More and more, I think that bridging this divide and forming connections across the border is not only possible, but necessary. I believe that even if a political solution is found in Cyprus, it will not work until people generally have positive opinions or feelings about the other community. If we acknowledge each other’s pain, learn from the past and turn our prejudices into mutual understanding and support, the solution will likely come.
Healing the wounds of the past – in Cyprus and elsewhere
I hope The Elders’ documentary, Cyprus: Digging the Past in Search of the Future, will show the world that nobody can really win a war. When a war ends, tears do not.
Although it may seem like our wounds are re-opened with every missing person found, in fact, this is part of a healing process. Sometimes, the hope that our loved ones were alive and might come back one day outweighed our pain. But now, accepting our loss and going through the pain we have kept inside for years is essential on the way to more peaceful communities. Only when we are done with the past, can we face the future.
I hope, as the people of Cyprus, we learn to honour the missing persons and the dead of both sides, and work together to ensure nobody else suffers the same fate. In this way we can be a model for other countries that have missing persons, contributing to peace not only on our island, but globally.
The biggest change, I believe, is made by regular people. By helping to build a bridge of understanding between our communities, we who were born into conflict and division can make our land more peaceful, our future more confident. There are many ways to work for this goal and there is always hope as long as we keep it alive.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.