On our recent visit to Cyprus, my friend Desmond Tutu and I were greeted courteously and warmly by all our hosts. Among the most generous was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus, His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos II. He agreed to meet us in the magnificent Holy Archbishopric in Nicosia, where we were given an excellent lunch and enjoyed a lively conversation. Our aim was to encourage the Archbishop to use his undoubted role and influence to bring people together from both sides of the divided island – Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.
At one point Arch (as we affectionately call our dear Chair) appealed to the Archbishop of Cyprus as a Christian leader to do things that might not be easy, but that are eventually for the good of all the people. “I don’t think God made a mistake in putting you here,” said Arch. With a wry smile came the reply from His Beatitude: “Usually God doesn’t make mistakes.”
This was the Elders’ fourth trip to Cyprus in the past two and a half years and we had previously come away from the island feeling optimistic about the possibility of achieving a solution on uniting the island.
This time I came away thinking that, although a solution can be reached, at this point the prospects for a breakthrough in the long-running negotiations seem to be receding rather than drawing closer.
That morning we had already listened to the elected leaders of the Turkish Cypriot community, Derviş Eroğlu, and the Greek Cypriot community, Demetris Christofias. The leaders did not seem to be leaning forward to me – they were leaning back, each pointing to others for the lack of progress.
Fortunately, our other encounters in Cyprus revived our spirits, kindling hope that perhaps “people-power” can bring the two communities together more quickly than the politicians.
We had been sensing for some time that we as Elders could have limited impact on the political process, but that perhaps we could make a modest contribution to peace efforts by working with a number of admirable bi-communal NGOs and with young people to help address the painful wounds of the past.
Cypriots from both sides suffered terrible violence and war in the 1960s and 1970s with around 2,000 people officially reported missing. It has only been in the past few years that the Committee on Missing Persons (CMP) has been able to help families to recover the remains of their relatives.
The CMP has teams of archaeologists - Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots - working shoulder-to-shoulder in muddy trenches and forensic laboratories to locate and identify the bones of the missing, helping to bring closure and some comfort to grieving relatives.
The main reason for our visit to Cyprus was to launch a documentary film about the work of the CMP that some of my fellow Elders – Lakhdar Brahimi, Jimmy Carter and, of course, Arch – had made during a previous visit to the island. Accompanying the Elders in the film are four teenagers, two from each side of the island. By common consent they are the real stars of the show.
It was a chilly night in the UN-run buffer zone when we premiered the film in the only restaurant that both communities can reach easily. But the mood inside the packed hall was one of warmth and excitement.
One gentleman told us, “I was truly moved by the documentary. I think every effort should be made to show it in schools. Looking at these four young compatriots of mine, it gives me great hope.” In fact, many of the guests were calling for our short film to be shown in schools in the north and south of Cyprus.
One of the teenage participants, Thalia Ioannidou, summed up the evening and the reason for our visit to the island when she told the audience “The book of the past cannot close unless you find out what is in it.” I couldn’t agree more.
Read Cypriot teenager Michael Panayi's blog about promoting coexistence in Cyprus, Crossing Borders with Friendship
Photos: behind the scenes as the Elders film their documentary, "Cyprus: Digging the Past in Search of the Future
Read Desmond Tutu's blog about making the documentary, Forgiving, not forgetting
Watch a short trailer for the film