The drive from the Cypriot capital of Nicosia to Kokkinopezoula (Red Lake) is bucolic for the most part, passing through rolling green hills and empty pastures. But as you approach the lake—a man-made remnant of a mining history that dates back 6,000 years on the Mediterranean island—appearances start to shift; tiered layers of clay rise up, the soil turning dramatically red. Google lists Red Lake and the nearby mine as a tourist attraction (both are part of a UNESCO geopark), so it wasn’t particularly surprising to locals that it would be a tourist who found the first body, bound in a sheet and bobbing at the top of one of the mine’s flooded shafts, on April 14 of this year.
What was shocking to locals was that the woman—later identified as 38-year-old Mary Rose Tiburcio—would not be the only victim. It quickly became clear that the small Mediterranean country had its first serial killer: over time, the bodies of four other women and two young children would be found in the area near the mine. All had been killed over a three-year period. After police arrested Nikos Metaxas, a 35-year-old army officer and father of two, he quickly confessed, telling police, “I am bored. I want to go to prison. Bring some paper so I can write it all,” before putting down a 10-page confession.
Over time, the bodies of four other women and two young children would be found in the area near the mine.
While some Cypriots have asked themselves how something so horrific could happen on their island paradise, others—though stunned by the brutality of the crimes—are less surprised. “People are shocked because we’re a community of taboos. Everything looks perfect on the surface,” Magda Zenon, of the Cyprus Women’s Lobby, said.
In reality, Cyprus is something of a microcosm of Europe and the vulnerabilities of migrant women. Indeed, the wounds cut deepest in the island’s immigrant community. All of the murdered women were foreign domestic workers—the alleged first victim, Livia Florentina Bunea (as well as her child), was Romanian; the other five were Filipina. As woman after woman went missing, police repeatedly ignored pleas for help from desperate friends and family. No Amber Alerts were put out for either of the two children. When first made aware of the disappearance of Mary Rose Tiburcio, one police officer allegedly said he was “too old to concern himself with Filipino women.”
No Amber Alerts
In the spring, rescue crews, firefighters, and helicopters were dispatched to look for Suzanne Eaton, an American biologist who had disappeared in Crete, and, then, Natalie Christopher, a British scientist who had vanished on the Greek island of Ikaria; their bodies were discovered within days.
“The whole Filipina community—we knew that these women are missing, with all the technology and social media,” Lissa Jataas, co-founder of Obreras Empowered, an association that promotes the rights of domestic workers in Cyprus, said. “Our consulate informed the police they were missing. We presumed that [the police] were doing their job.”
Police simply told concerned families and friends that the women probably “went north” to the Turkish-controlled sector of the island. Since the 1974 Turkish invasion, following a botched coup d’état by the Greek junta, Cyprus has been a divided country. A tense spine, manned by United Nations peacekeeping forces, separates the Turkish Cypriot north from the Greek Cypriot south.
“It is common that women go to the other [Turkish] side to have a better job, because they offer a little more money, and they can work in shops, hotels, salons—here you’re only allowed to work in a house,” Esther Beatty, chairperson of the Federation of Filipino Organizations in Cyprus, explained. But, she said, “it’s complete negligence” on the part of local authorities. She listed the glaringly obvious clues: Tiburcio’s passport was in the Filipino consulate, being renewed; Romanian national Bunea left behind her eight-year-old daughter’s medication; none of the women had withdrawn money from their bank accounts, or told anyone they were traveling to the other side of the island.
Police simply told concerned families and friends that the women probably “went north.”
The neglect shown by the police is demonstrative of what Nicos Trimikliniotis, a professor of sociology at the University of Nicosia, calls institutional racism. “There is a deeply rooted discrimination against women, and a patriarchal approach to the rule of law, and this is amplified a thousand times if you add two other elements—they are foreign migrant women, and they are lower-class workers,” he said.
As Trimikliniotis pointed out, the family unit is the most important element of Cypriot society, and domestic workers are providing vital, intimate help, yet they are regularly mistreated. Several women in the 16,000-member-strong Filipina community told similar stories of overwork, blurred boundaries, sexual harassment, breach of contracts, and neglect.
As of last count, there are at least 30,000 foreign domestic workers in Cyprus. After the Cypriot “economic miracle” of the late 1980s, massive growth translated into a burgeoning middle class. Domestic workers gave Cypriot women the freedom to pursue work outside of the home.
Yet the importance of domestic workers is rarely reflected in their treatment. The minimum monthly salary for a six-day workweek is $518. After taxes, workers usually pocket 75 percent of their salaries and the majority send the money back home to the Philippines. Most of the workers (nearly all of whom are women) are reluctant to confront their employers. “Of course our work is risky,” one domestic worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “They treat you like a slave; they don’t treat you like a human.” Another woman put it this way: “Maybe it’s the color of our skin. The dogs are more of a priority than us.”
For some, it’s no surprise that the killer, Metaxas, preyed on the women and their economic vulnerability. His modus operandi was to find women online or in the street, offering up to $25 an hour for housecleaning or to look after an aging relative for an afternoon. “He really penetrated our community and really took advantage [of the fact] that these women are fragile, are marginalized, everything,” said Jataas. One of the younger victims, Arian Palanas Lozano, was supporting her eight brothers and sisters back home, and her blind mother. She was 28 and had been in Cyprus less than a year when her life was taken from her.
“Maybe it’s the color of our skin. The dogs are more of a priority than us.”
“Are we a victim of this guy, or are we a victim of society?” Jataas asked. “The answer is both.”
Some changes have already been made—both the chief of police and the country’s minister of justice were sacked. Cyprus called on the United Kingdom and Israel for help finding the bodies, employing specialist divers with robotic cameras. On June 12, the body of Mary Rose’s six-year-old daughter, Sierra, was found at the bottom of Lake Memi, near Red Lake. The Cypriot government will pay for the dead to be returned to their families, a small solace. For his part, Metaxas has received seven consecutive life sentences.
Back at the rusted mine shaft, there is now a makeshift memorial, though the flowers have long dried out and the few photos of the women are faded from the intense Mediterranean sunlight. At the mouth of the mine (now locked with a hastily erected gate) stands a statue engraved with a poem by Costas Montis, a renowned Cypriot writer. He wrote it with the dark, cramped work of the miner in mind, but it rings eerily true for the fate of these women and girls: Mary Rose Tiburcio, Sierra Graze Seucalliuc, Arian Palanas Lozano, Maricar Valtez Arquiola, Livia Florentina Bunea, and Elena Natalia Bunea:
“The mine … where the man of the sun and the wind crawls like a worm to find, or not find, again the open hole that will take him back to life, the mine that became a curse and accusation, legend and history.”
Sarah Souli is an American writer based in Greece