Digging the past in search of the future

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Sunday, 6 February, 2011

Ahead of the launch of The Elders' documentary about the search for missing persons in Cyprus, Desmond Tutu and the Cypriot teenagers in the film speak to the Cyprus Mail about memory, forgiveness and reconciliation.

They say that youth is wasted on the young, but for the four Cypriot teenagers who embarked on a road trip with the three wise men of international politics to dig up the past and imagine the future, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

This time last year, two Greek Cypriot and two Turkish Cypriot teenagers got on a bus with three Elders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi and former US President Jimmy Carter to learn about the search for the missing of Cyprus.

A film crew followed the unlikely group around the island as they visited excavation sites in Strovolos and Kyrenia as well as the Committee on Missing Persons’ (CMP) Anthropological Laboratory in Nicosia.

Tutu and fellow Elder Dr Gro Brundtland will be in Cyprus this Tuesday to attend the resulting documentary, entitled Cyprus: Digging the Past in Search of the Future while Brahimi will join them on Thursday for special screenings in London at the British Parliament and with members of the Cypriot diaspora.

The 36-minute doc is a subtle reminder at a time when reunification remains at arm’s length that humanity continues to exist, not just on the Elders’ bus but around the island.

One of the teenagers counts 16 members of his family amongst the missing and yet began the journey with the neutrality and enthusiasm of someone setting off on any road trip. Another probed with youthful sincerity a CMP worker searching for bones knee-deep in the mud, discovering that she too has a relative still missing. The realisation sinks in that through all that mud and water rushing through the worker’s hands, fragments, traces and remnants of a past life could appear at any moment, providing the missing link to her relative’s fate.

At the CMP Lab, the group endure a sharp injection of ruthless history as the remains of the dead lay neatly arranged on the white-covered tables. The cavities in their skulls where a bullet once passed, more often than not from close range, are a gaping reminder of the holes in each community’s official history.

One teenager walks out the lab, visibly moved, grabs the others and makes them promise never to let anything like that happen again between the two communities.

Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the rapport between the teenagers and then with the Elders provides for great viewing. Not only do the two Nobel Peace Prize winners and former special adviser to the UN Secretary-General take the four under their wing with the care and earnest curiosity of grandfathers but, as becomes evident, the masters even learn a thing or two from their students.

“They are such fantastic young people, the two Greek Cypriots and two Turkish Cypriots, and their own relationship was something that made us so full of hope for the island,” said Archbishop Tutu, whose name became synonymous with the struggle in South Africa against apartheid in the 1980s.

The ebullient cleric also headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed apartheid’s demise, an institution largely credited with providing some form of closure for the thousands of victims of the regime while avoiding widespread bloodshed.

“Those young people are just amazing,” said Tutu of his cohorts.

“They are not unaware of their histories, they are articulate. And yet they’re saying, ‘Yes we want to remember our history, our past, but we do not want to be prisoners of that past. That past has formed us, but it must not be something that shackles us. It must be something that says in a way, never again should it happen that communities can be placed in a situation where they have to be at daggers drawn’,” he added.

Thalia, 17, from Larnaca told the Sunday Mail that she soon overcame her nerves at being in the company of the three larger-than-life figures when she saw how attentive they were to what each teenager had to say.

“Every single thing we told them, the next day they remembered and commented on it. I was surprised they were interested in what we had to say,” she said.

“They encouraged us. They shared their experiences with us and made us open-minded. They made us realise we should try to listen to each other’s problems and highlighted the importance of communication and understanding,” added Thalia.

At one point on the road, the Elders have a lively debate between them on the bus. Brahimi says it’s OK not to forgive or forget when someone has killed your loved ones as long as you don’t decide to go out and kill too. Tutu disagrees, arguing forgiveness will set you free.

“Most people are not willing to forget and definitely not forgive. I think it’s difficult,” said Thalia. She noted her appreciation for Brahimi who said it was OK and normal to feel that way.

“It shows they’re not trying to change the way people feel,” she said.

When the Sunday Mail caught up with the archbishop in South Africa, he was unflinching.

He asked what happens to the relationship between victim and perpetrator when there is no forgiveness.

“It’s going to be a relationship that is hampered by the memory and the aftermath. When you do not forgive in a way, as the victim you remain at the mercy of the perpetrator because the perpetrator has got you in this hook where you are always the victim.

“You have to understand, forgiving is never easy, don’t let anyone ever mislead you into thinking that,” he said, noting that he has seen it happen around the world from South Africa to Northern Ireland.

“It has often been the magnanimity of the victim which has helped to change the heart of the perpetrator,” said Tutu.

Forgiveness is a gift of the victim to the perpetrator. Whether the latter accepts it is up to them.

The archbishop highlighted the parallels between Cyprus and other conflicts around the world. First, that there are human beings on either side of the conflict, but also “people who are incredibly magnanimous on both sides”.

“You have the hardliners, and the people who want to exploit the situation for their own particular benefit but you also have incredibly courageous people who sometimes, against the majority feeling, speak out on behalf of goodness. We met such people on the island, who gave us very considerable hope.”

Tutu gave as example the two men in the documentary whose fathers both went missing, the Turkish Cypriot’s father in 1964 and the Greek Cypriot’s in 1974. Their remains were recently identified by the CMP.

“When you meet the two men whose fathers died in the fashion that they did and yet they can actually empathise with one another. It’s something that almost brings tears to the eyes,” he said.

He also pointed out the unique collaboration between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot scientists at the CMP.

“In many ways though scientific, it’s also a visceral relationship, dealing with things that are really sacred for people.”

Seeing the remains of the missing at the CMP Lab certainly left its imprint on the teenagers.

Tayfun Altaner, 17, from Nicosia said he saw anger, sadness, pain and war in the collection of bones on the table.

“Most people think we just saw skeletons, but that’s not right. Each skeleton has its own story. When I looked at the remains, I felt like they were saying, ‘Look at us, they killed us, buried us in unknown place, down a well’,” said Tayfun.

“If we don’t want a future like this, we need to respect each other, and see ethnic differences, like language and religion, as an advantage not a disadvantage. Then we can build a future and peace together,” he said.

The 17-year-old asked if the relatives of the missing can be friends: “Why can’t we?”

“Not everyone realises that the pain and suffering on our side was felt the same on the other,” said Thalia.

“The book of the past can’t close until we know what’s in it. It’s really important for people my age especially to learn the true story and what actually happened. Then it is easier to move on and get over the past,” she said, noting that people currently mistake the past for the present.

Tutu adds: “In many ways, this documentary is understated. It’s going to get at people not by shouting from the top of the mountain. It’s visceral at first, and then becomes cerebral afterwards as you’re working through the emotions.”

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