The tensions that flared at the Maratha and Santalaris-Aloda cemeteries last week should serve as a wake up call for both the Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci and Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades, for the urgent need for preparing the people for solution at grassroots level.
Last week, Izzet Izcan, the leader of the Turkish Cypriot United Cyprus Party BKP and Andros Kyprianou, the leader of Greek Cypriot AKEL, accompanied by their delegations, visited the cemeteries of Turkish Cypriot victims of mass murders by EOKA B paramilitary organization in the Famagusta region in 1974. Their intention was to pay respect and place flowers on the graves. They had also visited the Constantinou and Elenis cemeteries in Nicosia earlier that day, where Greek Cypriot civilians killed in 1974 are buried.
The well-intentioned act however, was not received well by the families of the victims of Maratha, Santalaris and Aloda. They furiously protested Izcan and Kyprianou, shouting slogans and accusing the party leaders for using their dead for scoring political points. One of their biggest complaints was that the politicians, who had not set foot there for all these years, had not informed them about this “out of the blue” visit.
“This is so disrespectful,” shouted one man. “My one-month-old baby lies there. Where have you been for 41 years?”
Clearly frustrated by the criticism, Izcan called the protesters “nationalist, bigoted, fanatic and aggressive.” They were no different from “hooligans” he added. Kyprianou said the protesters were “blinded by hatred and fanaticism.” Both BKP and AKEL, as well as the majority of the Turkish Cypriot media, condemned the protest with similarly insensitive language.
This incident is clear evidence that while the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders seek to devise a settlement plan on the table, they also urgently need a plan for actual peace and reconciliation among the people. And the families of the victims are of the most important groups that need to be addressed with utmost care. Hundreds of Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot civilians were killed during the inter-communal clashes in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The families of both the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot victims need to be taken into account and listened to in this process. They need to feel that their pain is recognized, validated and legitimate. Peace cannot be achieved by ignoring them, looking down on them, calling them names or marginalizing them. This would only incite more opposition and start a new cycle of negativity.
Doctor Christalla Yakintou, an expert on transitional justice, who works with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham, UK, said the families of the victims should not only be listened to, but should also have actual presence on the negotiation table, if the aim is sustainable solution.
“We need to make sure that victims have a real voice at the table. A peace agreement that ignores the voices of victims and their families is a very fragile peace agreement,” said Doctor Yakintou, “If they are included in the process now, it will be easier to know and address their fears – both in the plan and afterwards. In countries where victims have not been included meaningfully from the beginning, the peace plan has suffered from a lack of legitimacy. Reconciliation is a multi-faced process. It is not an outcome.”
Tamer Sadanoglu, who lost his father, mother and two sisters in the inter-communal clashes, was among the protesters at the Maratha and Santalaris-Aloda cemeteries last week. “We also have things to say. You cannot organize such an event without telling us and say ‘we came here for peace,’” he told Turkish Cypriot daily Yeniduzen after the incident. “We only want a little respect. If you keep ignoring us like this, there is no way you can reach peace… They should have taken us into consideration and visited us beforehand. They should have told us: ‘We are sorry; we have never come here all these years or brought flowers to the martyrs. But now, we want to contribute to peace and therefore, we want to visit the cemetery. But if they plan to bring peace to Cyprus by acting like this and ignoring us, they can forget about it.”
In fact, “The worst thing you can possibly do is push reconciliation down the throats of victims and their families,” said Yakintou. “They have already suffered. By putting them in a situation where they feel pressure to forgive because we want reconciliation as a society, you traumatize them twice, and you make them victims again. Some people will forgive, and others will carry anger. What is important is that they feel they have a space where their stories are heard, and we have a duty to hear those stories – if they want to share them – even if we don’t like what we hear, even if they are angry stories. Without hearing their pain, we have no right to ask for anything.”