Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

DNA Detectives on Divided Cyprus

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

DNA Detectives on Divided Cyprus

Article excerpt

Mysteries created in the confusion of war rarely become easier to solve as time goes by, memories fade, and records are lost.

But on the island of Cyprus, where nearly 2,000 people on both sides of the ethnic Turkish and Greek Cypriot divide are still counted as missing a quarter century after a brutal conflict, DNA testing may help bring "closure" and healing.

The key to the puzzle is to be found not in archives, but in a few refrigerators. Scientists of the Greek-led and internationally recognized government of Cyprus keep a "bank" of 4,000 DNA samples and a computer database of relatives of missing persons. They hope to use these tools to identify remains. Employing methods first developed by Western forensic experts, Cypriots have for several years made genetic profiles of many of the 1,493 cases of missing Greek Cypriots. Some 500 Turkish Cypriots are also missing. Most disappeared or were killed during the summer of 1974, when Greek Cypriot hard-liners staged a coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece, and mainland Turkish troops invaded to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority. Some 30,000 Turkish troops still occupy northern Cyprus, providing backbone for the ethnic Turkish statelet recognized only by Ankara. A joint UN Committee for Missing Persons was set up in 1981, but a 1996 report of the London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International called the lack of progress "inexcusable." A breakthrough came July 31, 1997, when leaders from both sides agreed to raise the missing persons issue above politics and exchanged information. But that exchange has all but dried up. Each side now accuses the other of stalling, and of politicizing a humanitarian issue. "The DNA technology ... can provide answers," says Marios Cariolou, director of the DNA identification laboratory at The Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics in the divided capital, Nicosia. "The willingness of people to participate is very, very closely tied with political developments," Mr. Cariolou says. "If they feel that nothing is going to be done about the missing people, then there is no point in coming." An American precedent In the past decade, DNA-aided identification has revolutionized forensics work. …

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