Re-encountering the departed

Many of us will have a faint recollection of our grandfather and who he was. But some of us never get the opportunity to meet him, for the course of life sometimes prompts their departure before our own memory begins to give fruit.

And that’s okay, elderly people die; life goes on and families evolve into new dispositions.

Anna Photiadou has always known of her grandfather as departed. For the Cypriot community and her surroundings, her grandfather was also known as one of the then-estimated 1,619 missing persons as a result of the 1974 invasion. At the age of 76, Kyriakos Photiades disappeared in August 1974.

“It [the fact that her grandfather was one of the missing] always made an impression on me, because of the Cyprus problem and the stories that surround it,” says Anna.

“There was a certain number of missing persons and my grandfather was one of them; he stood out, and, as a young girl, it always impressed me,” she smiles. “Whenever I would tell someone about him, there was an immediate a reaction.”

Some 43 years later, and, perhaps, against all odds, the family was notified that the remains of their father, brother, uncle, grandfather and great grandfather – the man who had been a missing presence in the Photiades’ households for decades – had been found.
It was the Committee of Missing Persons (CMP) that called the family in January to notify them of the finding and to return Kyriako’s remains, to be followed by an official burial and, thus, closure to years of anguish, uncertainty and questions.

“I have always thought about what kind of person he was and what relationship I would have had with him… It’s a consideration,” Anna muses.
“In Cyprus, because we grow up with this notion of missing persons as being heroes with regards to the war; with regards to what they potentially lived through, they are identified as heroes by society. [As a family member,] you don’t know how to react, you don’t really know how to put it in a context,” she adds.

“And, therefore, you always question it. I have always felt sorrow for the injustice of his disappearance, not knowing who he was… especially being that he’s such a close relative of yours and you can’t find out what happened; you will never know.”

To this end, for Anna, the figure of her grandfather was left somewhat in silence. Very little was said about him, and very few notions of the person he was have made their way through time.
“I have a very vague image of who he was. The family spoke very little about him. My father never really said much about him.
“I don’t really remember my grandmother, Anna, talking about him either; she died 15 years ago. I don’t have a memory of her talking or explaining anything about who he was. I think it’s got to do with the fact that when something hurts you so much, or if you have memories of war, betrayal, death, you close into yourself.”

Notably, most Cypriot families have been directly or indirectly affected and, as envisioned by the CMP, the identification and return of remains is hoped to instigate the healing of old wounds and bring closure.

For Anna, having to come to terms with insights of her grandfather’s story; seeing the remains of the boots and shirt he was wearing, identifying the location where he was found and generally understanding the process undertaken in order to be able to honour her elder with a burial ceremony, has brought her ‘closer’ to her grandfather, not denying the reassembling of her wider family tree.

“My parents have started a process of talking about him because of the whole process of identification, but my father has also opened up more towards the ideals of who he was,” she says.

“Talking about him instigates many questions from my side, and, of course, this also urges you to start asking questions. You begin to ask questions to people who knew him and that’s when the stories begin.” Or perhaps, this is where a storyline begins, and where imagination begins to root itself in facts and narratives that have been dormant.

The burial of Kyriakos Photiades’ remains is planned for April 8 at Ayia Varvara church in Kaimakli where he was born, although he later moved to the village of Palaikithro in the north where he married. Anna today describes her grandfather as a lonely person, always outdoors and rarely home, someone who never really spoke much, something she puts down to her grandmother’s dominant figure within the family.

“A story about him that remains with me is one that my mother told me. My eldest sister, Maria, was born in April of 1974, a couple of months before the invasion; she met him, even if she was only two months old,” Anna tells me.

“My parents had taken her to the village [Palaikithro] to meet my grandfather and Maria was crying. My grandfather asked my mum to take Maria into his arms. My mum gave her to him, but she was a bit reluctant… Because he was always in the background of things, I think she just assumed that he wasn’t good with children.

“Questioning if he was alright with the baby, my mother said he had answered that he knew how to hold a baby. ‘Do you know how many children I have raised?’ My mother recalls Maria calming down, and eventually stopped crying in my grandfather’s arms. These are the things that you begin to gradually get to know about. This is what’s nice for me,” says Anna.

And then the wider picture starts falling into place, too, with the wider family coming into the nuclear family’s journey, or merely reflecting on the series of events prior to his death is what will celebrate his being and ring sound as one acquires details.

“My grandfather had six children, four brothers and two sisters. All of them survived the invasion; the eldest son, my uncle, died just two weeks after we found out about my grandfather being found, and one of my aunts left for Australia just after the invasion. All of them had children when they fled,” reveals Anna.

But what seems more striking is the fact that Anna’s father has found out about his father’s fate, at the same age his father was when he died.

“We still don’t know how he died and we will never know,” defines Anna, “we don’t know if he was shot, stabbed … or if he had an accident trying to leave… he was old, but he was still working in the fields.”

Having her father as a tribute to what it means to be 76, mentally, but most importantly physically, Anna attempts to put into parallel what her father would do today, at the same age her grandfather was, should the same fate knock on our doors.

“How do you leave? Who wants to leave? Who is stubborn enough to want to stay behind? Who is strong enough to come with you? All the brothers and sisters left with their children, all the men were soldiers, the women left with the kids, each of them having three to four kids each,” reflects Anna.

And all these people will reunite on April 8. To put their elder to rest, but also to rediscover the stories, people, lives and potentially questions of a family that can finally come to accept the fact that their grandfather, father, brother, uncle, cousin and companion, will never return. And that’s okay.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London