It's one of the hardest things that I've ever had to do, in facing the reality of the world. Not in the mundane, psychic torture of adult life, but in the sudden violent shock of having something immediately brought home. After studying philosophy, and politics, and ethics, for so long, it felt like a gut punch to come face to face with realities that I knew existed in an abstract, over there, away from me manner, but couldn't really comprehend in full until I was in the same room as the bodies of the people that I'd studied. Seeing rows of skeletons laid out on tables felt entirely surreal. To sit and talk with the individuals, whose job it is to find these bodies, incredible. To look down on a body, and at best sometimes, a set of shoes or a wallet found with them, and to discuss how it's possible to identify them, and give them back to families, providing solace and the chance to heal for people who have had open wounds for decades.
Last December, I had the opportunity to visit a body identification center in the UN Border Zone between Turkish controlled Cyprus and Cyprus. The body ID center worked to find out the fate of the thousands of missing persons from the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, when over 160,000 Greek Cypriots fled from and expelled by the Turkish invasion in the North, and 40,000 Turkish Cypriots who were expelled to the Northern side from the majority, culturally Greek community in the South. The individuals at this center, in the UN buffer zone between the two halves of the island, lived, ate, and breathed deaths and the lives that came before it.
Numbers are a tricky thing. When it comes to people especially so. As comedian Eddie Izzard commented, "We sort of can't handle it, you kill one person it's called murder you go to prison and they hit you with a brick, you kill twenty people you go to a hospital and they look at you through a small window forever. And over that, we can't deal with it." Even more complex are numbers that involve refugees.
It's a hard concept to even imagine. Piles of people dead. At a funeral with one person we even struggle understanding. Just seeing one corner of one, relatively small, conflict created strange reverberations of empathy for both victims and perpetrators.
As we discussed the work of some of the individuals at the center, a number of questions rose up about how they went about their work. What sort of techniques did they use to find bodies? How did they get individuals to come forward and tell them? What sort of stress must it accumulate on them, constantly being around the remains of murdered individuals? Many things I learned that day, were interesting and worth pondering.
One interesting item about the individuals working there, was that every scientist and investigator not only had the opportunity to but was required to, talk to a therapist about their work and about the content of what they saw and discovered. Indeed, even the therapists and psychiatrists for the scientists had therapists and psychiatrists of their own.
In discussing the investigation, the question arose of how they were able to get people to come forward without fear of being prosecuted for murder? The answer is that, Any person who came forward with information as to the location of missing Cypriotes from the invasion, would be given a full pardon to any crime that they were involved in, relating to the missing person. Earlier in the discussion, one of the investigators had given allusions to, and then told stories of, truly bone chilling events that they had been not only been told, but told by the individuals who took the actions. They recalled standing above a piece of ground, and speaking with a man who pointed out the spot in the ground where he, along with others, had shot and buried four people. Months later after confirmation, that same investigator was on sight as the individuals were uncovered from the earth, one after the other over the course of days. Or rather what was left of them.
The thought of standing there, watching as a person pointed where and how they murdered people. Simply. Calmly. And then that night the same person went home to their family and ate dinner. Of sitting and sipping tea with someone and then thinking later how they've killed children as small as my youngest sibling.
As we passed on from the discussion we were warned about the contents of the next room. As we exited the trailer-like building and crossed the compound into another, we went from cold to warmth to cold. As we entered, laying on table after table were the broken and decayed remains of human bodies. Long limbed skeletons, dispersed into sections of broken and fragmented bone with some major sections still intact. And at the head of each, a silent skull.
What I didn't expect at all once we were in, was the mundaneness of it all. The very calm, almost office-like atmosphere. There were no epiphanies, and no uncontrollable grief in that room. No huge surge of emotion. Just interest and intrigue about the process and about the location. Almost like a tour of a museum. Just tables and bones, and scientists sitting behind them, diligently sorting, stacking, and cataloging. As we passed through we were informed that the scientists were not allowed to give a cause of death, but looking at some of the skulls, with a single hole, it wasn't hard to draw conclusions.
As we were leaving, and in the months to follow, I haven't stopped thinking about that visit. I don't think that I can impart what I learned from that experience. Just as it changed me because I saw it in person, so too does it lose impact in the retelling. The best way that I can explain it is that the dark edges of the map have been filled in a little bit more. You realize that the monsters there be outside of the borders of what you know, aren’t. They’re a part of humanity. One that has to be dealt with constantly, and unfailingly. We have a tendency to see things as a linear wave, unturnable and unstoppable. Until it crests and rolls back. After months the predominant feeling in me isn't sorrow, or confusion, or hopelessness like I thought it might be, but resolve.
In a strange way, I feel stronger, more sure, and more capable of dealing with one of the biggest questions that swings both how I see the world, and how I interact with it: Whether it’s true that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. After seeing it, I want to increase the empathy of the world and to increase the ability of people to think for themselves even more. Help increase the amount that people talk to each other so that while instances like this might not be impossible to prevent, we can heal, learn from, and move past. To understand something, truly, you have to look it full in the face, and continue not in spite of it, but with understanding of it.