“The story of those who didn’t die—the story of young women who survived and stayed behind—has never been told. Men write down history. So it is with Genocide. There is no room for the women. They were impure, tainted, and despised. Yet they were the ones who suffered most. They were the ones who paid a terrible price. They had to carry the heaviest burden of all: They had to regenerate life.”
These powerful words are narrated by Suzanne Khardalian, the director of “Grandma’s Tattoos” (2011). The film chronicles her quest to uncover the atrocities that scarred her grandmother, a woman who bore “devilish marks”—tattoos on her face and hands—that were the persistent reminders of a time in captivity and of rape. Much of her experiences remain a mystery to her progeny, but the few tidbits Khardalian discovers years after her grandmother’s death are but a faint yet terrifying echo of the hellish occurrences that haunted the survivors to the grave.
Variations of the “weird” tattoos inked on the grandmother’s face were seen on other female survivors as well. Thousands of these women—documented “cases”—lived and died quietly. Their stories still remain underdocumented, and even taboo.
The League of Nations Archives in Geneva houses a collection of intake surveys from the Rescue Home in Aleppo, Syria, between 1922 and 1930. It details the profiles of around 2,000 women, girls, and boys who often escaped captivity—as domestic and sexual slaves—making their way to the Home. The tattoos stood out on many of their faces and hands. They were the fortunate ones who were able to flee from their captors.
Military men, Turks, Kurds, and Arabs would either snatch Armenians or bribe the gendarmes escorting the deportation caravans and bring Armenian women, girls, and boys into their homes, and harems, as servants, slaves, wives, or concubines. Others were sent to state-run orphanages, where a Turkification process was underway. Accounts from the deportation marches tell of mass mutilations and unimaginable sexual violence. Children were raped then shot, as they became unable to continue on the death marches. The “good looking” deportees were distributed among men in different villages. Girls were sent to high-level government officials for their sexual pleasure and forced into orgies. The director of the Rescue Home, Karen Jeppe, stated that out of the thousands of women who came her way, only one had been spared sexual abuse, as Matthias Bjornlund notes in his article “A Fate Worse Than Dying.”
The Armenian children who were transferred to the perpetrator community—a common phenomenon in genocide—were regarded as slaves by Western humanitarians, since they became a source of free labor, were subjected to forced conversions and child marriages, and were sold on impulse, writes Keith David Watenpaugh in his paper “The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, 1920–1927.” Jeppe estimated that there were as many as 30,000 Armenian survivors held in rural Upper Mesopotamia.
“The children and young people arriving in Aleppo told of deportations, separations, mass extrajudicial killings, and repeated rapes, followed by years of unpaid servitude as agricultural workers or domestic servants, servile concubines, unconsenting wives, and involuntary mothers,” writes Watenpaugh.
These survivors were placed in the bottom of the “gendered hierarchy” within the household, explains Watenpaugh. Because they were unprotected, they could be sold or sent to a different household on a whim. The girls were desirable as brides or second wives as they had neither protectors nor a bride-price. All children born to these girls belonged to the fathers. Furthermore, “unrelated girls and boys in the household—regardless of religious or ethnic origin—were sexually available to senior males.”
The women and children who were finally able to escape and find their way to the rescue shelters and orphanages had to piece together what bits of themselves they could salvage to see to the rebirth of the nation. The hardships were not lacking for the survivors, and as they tried to simply survive, many of the horrors were buried, along with the bones of their loved ones.
Khardalian’s documentary adds another chapter to this story of quiet suffering that many women bore in the decades following the genocide. The loss of lives and land has dominated the discourse on genocide, often at the expense of the stories of the survivors, specifically the women. The mass rapes, enslavement, and servitude were not closed chapters. Those scars remained with the surviving victims, who mostly kept their silence. Sadly, rape remains a taboo topic within Armenian communities. Often it is the victim who is viewed as somehow tainted or incomplete. Furthermore, in an effort to “protect” both victim and honor, lips stay locked and eyes look away. Sometimes it may take more than a lifetime for scars to summon truth, as was the case with the grandmother’s “devilish marks.”