When did you lose your heart, TRNC?
Last Sunday, I appeared on a live Facebook stream to discuss the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Britain and its Turkish Cypriots and to tackle head-on the misinformation being perpetuated in North Cyprus about attempts to repatriate fourteen deceased persons from London.
The previous day, a leading TRNC daily had published an article littered with errors. It led with claims that ‘2,500 Turkish Cypriots were being repatriated from Turkey and the UK between 6 and 15 May’ (it turns out this story was lifted from one about Greek Cypriots). It also carried dire warnings that contrary to advice by the TRNC Health Minister, eight covid-infected bodies were being repatriated.
I, and many others, were furious at this sensationalist piece of drivel designed to create fear and a furious backlash amongst the TRNC public, which seemingly has little understanding of what happens to the virus when a person dies.
Looking at the comments on social media, that’s exactly what the newspaper achieved. Their story went viral, and predictably a paranoid and ill-informed public vented their anger at why officials were allowing these bodies to return, given the apparent risk to the TRNC. These keyboard warriors seemed indifferent to the fact bereaved families would also see these comments, many cruel and dehumanising, reducing the dead to “diseased bodies’ without any compassion or consideration that they are someone’s mother, father, brother or sister, who deserve respect in death as in life.
I eventually spoke to the editor who removed the article from their website, but the damage had been done. Sunday’s interview was a chance for me to help set the record straight on behalf of the bereaved families and the UK Turkish Islamic Trust (UKTIT), a registered charity in East London which has been responsible for repatriations of deceased Turkish Cypriots since 1977, my mum among them.
UKTIT has been trying to repatriate 14 bodies to North Cyprus since the coronavirus pandemic began. The first eight scheduled to return all died of non-covid causes, such as dementia, diabetes, and heart attack. Some families have been waiting patiently for up to six weeks for permission, necessary because at the outset of the crisis,one of the decrees issued by the TRNC Council of Ministers was to ban the return of all human remains.
At the time, no one gave much consideration to this, but as the number of Turkish Cypriot deaths in the UK mounted – to date, at least 91 Covid related – along with dozens who died of non-Covid reasons, efforts to repatriate some of these to their homeland came unstuck.
UKTIT, an organisation I support on both a voluntary and professional basis, oversees all formalities related to the repatriation of bodies. Before coronavirus, the process was relatively simple. After the death certificate was issued, families would obtain a free-from-infection form from a certified medical practitioner and, with the help of UKTIT, secure written permission from their local coroner to take the body abroad for burial.
The funeral arm of UKTIT would then book the flights for both relatives and the deceased, which would travel via Istanbul to Ercan. Relatives would arrive the night before, the coffin the following morning, with the burial taking place on the same day.Permission from the TRNC government was not required, as everything was handled with the families, UKTIT and the local council responsible for the cemetery where the person was to be buried.
The lack of flights to Cyprus (both sides) currently means a more convoluted journey is required. Working with its logistics partners, the UKTIT must now fly the bodies on a cargo plane to Istanbul, then take them by road to Mersin and by boat to North Cyprus.
Initially,it appeared that Turkey would be problematic given the curfews and restrictions in place. But the brilliant Yurt Disi Turkler organisation in Ankara, which is tied to the Turkish Presidency and supports the Turkish diaspora worldwide, stepped in to help. They spoke with Greater Istanbul Council, which has agreed to provide the funeral cars free of charge for the 1,000 mile trip to Mersin – normally something only available to Turkish citizens, but in this time of crisis, Turkish Cypriots are to be treated the same. In Mersin, the head of the port authority has assured UKTIT that everyone is on standby to ensure a dignified transfer from road to boat is swift. Truly we could not ask for more from Turkey.
However the shipping companies have told UKTIT that even if they take the coffins to Mağusa or Girne, the ban on human remains means they cannot unload them port side. This applies to non-covid bodies too.
All power rests with Ali Pilli, the TRNC Health Minister, who is responsible for public health and who can reverse the decree, or put it back to the Council of Ministers.
Despite pleas to him, his undersecretary Ali Caygur, the TRNC Prime Minister Ersin Tatar and his Deputy Kudret Özersay, it appears the TRNC does not want to admit the bodies, which remain in a morgue in East London.
The failure to overturn the ban has left bereaved families utterly distraught. Many have branded the TRNC Government “heartless” for preventing this most sacred of journeys to take place. It goes against all our Islamic beliefs, which requires the deceased to be returned to the earth as soon as possible. Those of you who live in North Cyprus will know, that’s often the day after a person has died.The denial of a burial in a person’s native country runs counter to the rights of those born in Cyprus, but who sadly died abroad. They include many with pre-paid plots next to their already deceased partner or, in two cases, their sons.
We are all traumatised by the effects of coronavirus, but truly when did the TRNC lose its ability to empathise with those grieving? When did it stop caring about the rights of its own people abroad? The dead in sealed coffins can’t harm us, even those that are infected with Covid-19, but this cruel indifference to the urgency to lay their loved ones to rest will leave the deepest wounds and drive the biggest wedge between the TRNC and its UK diaspora. Please Mr Tatar and Mr Pilli, I urge you to act fast and positively. God – and the rest of the world – is watching.