Between 1963 and 1974, the tiny Mediterranean island of Cyprus was rocked by years of bloody political and intercommunal conflict. After more than a decade of rising tensions and sporadic violence, the crisis finally reached breaking point in 1974, when the island was invaded twice in one week: first by a military coup ordered by the Greek government – at the time a military dictatorship – and then, five days later, by Turkish forces claiming to defend both the country and the Cypriot Turks who lived there.
Hundreds of thousands of Cypriots became refugees thanks to the fighting, while thousands more were simply lost – with families to this day relying on the work of organizations like the Committee of Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP) to find their missing loved ones.
One person lost in the conflict was Ahmet Cemal Hergune. The details of his gruesome death and miraculous discovery have gone viral over the last few days, and for good reason – the story, with official-looking photos from Central European News, seems just too bizarre to be true.
Unfortunately, if something is too bizarre to be true, it probably means it's false.
According to the story as reported by the usual suspects, Hergune met his end when Greek combatants took him and two others into a cave in the mountains and threw dynamite in after them. The explosion was so strong that it blew a hole in the cave wall, letting in just enough sunlight for Hergune's last meal – a fig – to eventually grow into a tree marking the trio's remains.
Eventually, some 37 years later, an unnamed researcher noticed the "unusual" tree and decided to investigate. Horrified to discover that it had sprouted from a human body, he alerted the police, and, thanks to DNA samples, Hergune's family was finally given closure.
"The fig remnants in my brother's stomach grew into a tree as the sun crept into the cave through the hole made by the explosion," Hergune's sister reportedly said. "They found my brother thanks to that fig tree."
It's a good story. But unfortunately, a bit of investigative digging by local news outlet Cyprus Mail has revealed the truth is not quite as sensational as it's been reported.
"According to the CMP sources, the case dates back to 2006," reports the Cyprus Mail. "[The CMP] received information that there were Turkish Cypriot remains – three people – in a cave close to the sea and they went to excavate in accordance with their mandate."
Some details of the story are reasonably close to the facts: There was indeed a fig tree growing in a cave, and it might even have been what alerted officials to the site. A 2008 account from Turkish Cypriot journalist Sevgül Uludağ says that the lonely tree was noticed by Xenophon Kallis, a government official deeply involved in the search for missing persons. But it was growing on a beach, not in the mountains, and the tree definitely hadn't sprouted from human remains.
"Sources in the north close to the CMP also concurred that the remains were found away from the tree," the Cyprus Mail explains. "[S]cientifically it was not possible that it happened the way it was related by the family."
For Hergune's family, Cyprus Mail's sources added, the idea that a fig tree growing from his body eventually led to Ahmet's discovery is probably just a comforting story to help them deal with their loss. But, for the rest of us, it should serve as a reminder to double-check the wild reports you read in the tabloids.