‘Devilish Marks’ and Rape in the Time of Genocide

“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.”

‘Devilish marks’

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.”

Khardalian with a tattooed woman and her child in Der Zor.

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.”


Screenings of “Grandma’s Tattoos” and discussions with the director are being held this month in Detroit, New Jersey, and Boston.


Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).


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  1. I wonder how many “Islamized” and raped Armenian grandmas died, since last few decades with the promise of our lord in their holy hearts…I am sure they never forsake him until the end…May God bless them all…Bible, John chapter 5:24 said the words of Jesus Christ, “and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand”

    • The muslim´s lord and your´s are but one and the same, i suggest you read more than one single book! As for the so called “words of Jesus” Mohammed spoke almost the very same word by word to his followers, both godspells have the exact same validity and none of them is but a way for mankind to hurt mankind.

  2. With this note i would like to express my congradulations and thanks to the Anca Glendale chapter ‘s administration for organizing so quick another presentation  yesterday at the Youth Center in Glendale in order to keep their commitment after Friday’s full up event at the Glendale Library. Bravo

  3. It seems awful to say “I am looking forward to seeing this film” when the story is so awful.  But I am.  I want to understand and never forget the horror that some of our grandmother’s endured.   The struggle for justice goes on in their names.

  4. Amen to that Grish jan..

    I was forunate enough to be present at the last screening that took place in Glendale on Dec 6th.  I decided to take my mother with me and when I told her the documentary is about Armenian women with tattoos, she immediately remembered another relative of ours who is long gone but she also bared tattoos… however, we would never know where she got it from because the topic was never discussed in the house…

    Sitting in the audience and watching as the segments of the movie changed from one clip to another, my body started to shiver from anger… few times I could not control the flood of my tears that kept rolling over my face… i was choking and could not breath.. i kept thinking the horrible and painful life our women went through and how the Turks can put them through all the suffering that they did.. I kept thinking about whether or not these young women, girls and boys who were slaved for sexual pleasures/prostitution wished they were killed at the marches than suffer such unthinkable pain…

    I hope this story among many come to light and be shared for everyone to know the magnititude of emotional, physical and mental suffering Genocide had on ARmenians… and let all those heartless countries who has not recognized the Genocide see what they are covering… covering the most horrific mass killing and near anniliation of an entire nation…


  5. I watched a documentary on a 3 class Turkish TV for a while ago regarding the invasion of the Russian Army to the Black sea region. I am sure the producer and other people had no idea how the Armenians tell their stories. The jargon of the narrative and describing the events are pretty much the same. Something clicked in my mind that these are cultural similarities rather than the actual accounts. 

    • you maybe should come and interview me
      and I tell you the real accounts about both of my grandmas,
      survivors of the genocide.I could show u some proof also of the
      lands confiscated etc..
      what you should do is travel and check some archived photos
      of the people tortured and mutilated then your senses will
      come to u before writing such sentences.

  6. ‘Something clicked in my mind that these are cultural similarities rather than the actual accounts. ‘

    So you, Ms. Monastras, are stating that the Armenian victims made up the stories ?
    Same as you claim the Armenian Genocide ‘is a fabrication by defeated Armenians’

  7. Avery,
                Keep in your mind what ever televise in Turkey must be guided and co ordinate with penal code 301, otherwise stories won’t be a “halal” news for those faithful Turks!!Monastras like too many other faithful Turks believe in Turkish TV, and I wonder, for how much longer, Allah is willing to keep those brainwashed, over crowded people in a rotten “Midnight Express” defective cars!!

  8. I know Grish. 
    Ms. Monastras is an old Denialist foe.
    Unlike most brainwashed Denialists, she is intelligent. Thinking adversaries  like her are more dangerous to our cause than programmed automatons.


  9. Monastras,

    “Something clicked in my mind that these are cultural similarities rather than the actual accounts.”

    I think you might want to expand and clarify what you mean in this sentence. 

  10. Every Armenian man must watch this short movie and burn the image of what was done to our Armenian women  into their  permanent memories.
    Particularly the incident with the little girl in the rowboat.
    Particularly the story of the  100+ y.o. grandma in Yerevan.
    Retain her words and the image of  her  tears in your permanent recall.
    Armenian men who could protect them were either already  murdered or were physically unable to help: they had to endure the unimaginable humiliation of watching their mothers, wives,  daughters violated by the savage beasts in front of their eyes.
    When you have abundant force and power, you have the option  to use  it or not when you need it.
    When you have insufficient power, your options are limited or nonexistent: you can only watch helplessly.
    Develop abundant force and power, Armenian men.
    And remember the little girl in the rowboat and the grandma well – Armenian men.
    For that  day.

  11. Avery,
                  Now, that you have described her in AW, something clicked in my mind. that  Ms. Monastras is a multicultural oriented lady, it seems to me that she loves to watch Turkish “kanal 3″… this music will chase her from Black sea area toward Altai Mountain, by famous Midnight Express luxury freight-liner, while having her Turkish delight!!
    Giorgio Moroder Chase (theme from Midnight Express) – YouTube

  12. Avery  jan– LOVE your last post.. wow that was very powerful and very direct to all Armenian men.. i hope each and every one of them reads and truly understands the meaning of your comment.. it was very meaningful and very useful….

    Grish jan– great clip..:) very relevant to what is being discussed here about denialists such as Monastras… 

  13. Monastras : I am the son of a orphan Armenian man who survived and found himself in the desert of Syria. During his entire live he had demonstrated  3 -5 times per year nightmares where he indicated “please do not kill me”. This is not a fabrication my dear. It seem you have not felt on your skin as Armenians say. What a shame to watch Turkish historical programs.

  14. Avery said: “Ms. Monastras is an old Denialist foe.
    Unlike most brainwashed Denialists, she is intelligent”

    Yes, she is intelligent , a real scholar comparing to O.K. Cengiz, Ayse Gunaysu, Orhan Pamuk, Akçam .
    When i read her i feel relax as a Turk.
    She is a Nene Hatun, a Halide  Edip Adıvar, a Sabiha Gokçen.

    Monastras, i am proud of you.

    • would you be proud to know that these savage acts
      were true and commuted by the ancestors if yr country?
      If u wish not to live in denial seek for the truth
      and abandon ignorance. Educate yourself and
      nurture your soul with truthful feelings. Denial only
      will make you bitter. Do some research, ask yrself
      international historians and scholars they see the genocide
      as a reality that occured why are we not accepting it
      a historic fact! You just need to be informed from archived
      libraries that deals with historic facts!! start your mission!

    • It is purported that Sabiha Gokçen was an Armenian orphan to the parents killed by the Turks during the Armenian Genocide.

  15. Necati Bey– your comment is automatically voided because we dont’ consider your comment  anything but a comment coming out of a nasty liar…nto surprised that you would consider Monastras intelligent because she is as notorious as yourself… two peas in a pot… but i am glad you two are on the same boat… more embarassment for you…….

  16. “Something clicked in my mind that these are cultural similarities rather than the actual accounts.”

    You are so ridiculous it is not even funny. The very act of having tattoos on their faces and bodies is the very first clue to the horrible conclusion of the Armenian Genocide. Are the tattoos also imagined? No, are those “cultural” as well? Absolutely not, the Armenians that died on the death marches had it easy. The children, girls and boys, they truly suffered. What is imagined is the Turkish cultural collective of a “civil war”. Even today, Turks are fighting an imagined enemy. Every schalor, publisher, or journalist that writes about the Christian Genocide in Turkey is investigated to find links to Armenians, Greeks, or Assyrians. The paranoia among Turks is amazing. 

  17. I forgot to mention my opinions on the documentary. I think it is important piece of our history to have the conclusion to the Genocide investigated. I don’t think having been silent for so long contributed to anything meaningful. These woman should have been interviewed and motivated to reveal what happened a long time ago. It is important to accept the truth, whatever the truth is and however it may impact anyone. 

  18. Given the topic of this article and film, I’d like to throw in the link to a radio program regarding Armenian genocide orphans who grew up in Turkey. It is the story of an orphan told by her granddaughter and gives a glimpse into the lives of these orphans that we do not hear too often. It is a story similar to Fethiye Cetin. It was recorded in Turkey and it appears no Armenians were involved in the making of this radio program.
    “Remains of the Sword: Armenian Orphans”
    If I remember right, the title is not explained in the program but I think most here are familiar with the term and what it means and any listener who didn’t will also come to understand.

  19. Latest  News  has  it  that:-
    On December 22  ,2011,French Senate will vote  on Resolution  already passed by lower Chamber, Assamblee  Nationale of France,Law that stipulates  DENIAL OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE IN   F R A N C E    IS PUNISHABLE   by a fine of 45,000  Euros and One year imprisonment.
    On another panel in this Forum the U.S. Congress  is to vote -or already  has-on Resolution 306  that stipulates(mind  you I do not use other words)that Republic of Turkey  should return ¨stolen¨ Churhces, monasteries, schools, Hospitals, riches etc., to Armenians that were submitted to Genocide-to that  effect….
    My my ….does  this mean that at long  last JUSTICE  will prevail upon my tortured  murderd   nation….
    Let  us  hope  before New year  both will be passed and then the Senate also ratify it. 

  20. I realized  something recently. Not all armenians are terrible. The fascist commenters here in AW and terrorist Armenia State do not represent the whole Armenian Nation.

    There are also good and reasonable Armenians too such as Georgi Vanyan, a REAL human rights activist.

    • we r not fascist nor terrorist it is yr way of thinking
      that is distorted.. you are the fruit of disguised nation
      what do u expect.. you cannot know better. You will
      defend yourself because you are not well informed.
      Do some research.. enlighten yourself.We do not
      want to judge you we just want the truth to be
      proclaimed by yr nation as a reality that happened.
      It is just simple history facts don’t lie!

  21. Random Armenian.. thank you for the link… wow.. that was just very emotional radio show… that is something notorious Monastras, Robert The Turk, Yahya the Turk, Necati and every denialist on these pages should listen to and then see if they can blow hot air by stating the stories are false and it is just “cultural” made up things.. these denialists are jokes..

  22. Mr. Palandjian.. lets hope that Senate will pass it … i pray to God they will.. i am waiting for them to do something right.. for ONCE… I will also pray hard for France to pass that law.. and get every denialist that dare to open their mouth and deny the facts thrown into jail…

  23. Oh yeah, a “REAL” human rights activist, Georgi Vanyan.
    Unlike  the genuine human rights activists Ayse Gunaysu, Ragip Zarakolu, Orhan Kemal Cengiz,…..

    Georgi should go to Sumgait, Kirovabad, and Baku and see if he can find out about the extinguished human rights of hundreds of massacred Armenians. He should explore the finer aspects of human rights of teenage Armenian girls who were gang raped, murdered and mutilated by Fascist Musavat mobs. After he is done, maybe he can ask Baku authorities  about the human rights of Manvel Saribekyan: remember him ? the young Armenian shepherd who was abducted, tortured, then murdered by Azeri goons in uniform.
    Or maybe Georgi can ask Azeris in Baku about the human rights of Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan: who was murdered in his sleep by Ramil Safarov, a lieutenant of the Azerbaijani Amy. And Georgi can ask Mr. Aliyev why is a psychopathic ax murderer considered an Azeri national hero. 

    Or, Georgi can meet the parents of the young Armenian solders in Stepanakert and discuss the human rights of their sons, whose human rights were completely extinguished by Azeri snipers.

  24. gayane,
    You’re welcome. It’s an authentic story told from ground-zero. It also highlights a great irony in Turkey. In a country where there is imposed amnesia regarding Armenian history, there are Turks who know and live with this past that is not to be talked about nor named. I thought the granddaughter spoke well and openly. It’s 30 minutes to boot, not some 5 or 10 minute piece.

  25. Very interested in viewing the Movie when it is available, or to purchse the video if it becomes availablie…..I applaud you for becoming involved with a topic of these poor unfortunate girls (women) that has never been exposed or researched. Thank you for a wonderful expose on this Horror !!
    Sincerely, Alma Tomasian Apton

  26. Neacti, Monastras,.. what a shame for you in expressing your unbalanced commentaries and monking the historic pain of our nation. The time for the Armenian Genocide recognition will come, very soon though.

  27. One of the commenters says she wishes to watch the film. It is available on Internet and can be easily watched at http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=endscreen&v=bwj4e_f_1DI It is reaaly a good film but wonder if it is offensive to label tattoos devilish while some people regard it s a form of art or part of their culture. My comments about this film is at http://armenianholocaustmystory.blogspot.com/2012/04/from-de-sica-to-khardalian-rape-in-war.html

  28. I am forever trying to educate myself on all things related to Armenia, as I am an American/French woman married to a wonderful Armenian man. My 102 year old grandfather was the first to tell me about the Armenian genocide. In his youth, the Armenian genocide was a commonly taught and discussed historical FACT throughout America and other countries. That is until after WW2, when Turkey became a strategically important country. As it stands, the deniability of the Armenian genocide is in its last days, and a golden opportunity is quickly passing for Turkey to do the right thing and recognize what the rest of the world knows. Time will not erase historical fact as much as some may be counting on. The risk is that Turkry passes their shame to yet another generation, further cementing in the minds of the world their self centered need to uphold a lie that no reasonable person or country could believe. Most developed countries have had to admit HUGE failings within the same generation in which they occurred, what makes Turkey above this monumentally important step? Until Turkey can admit the past, how can anyone trust them in the future?

    • I agree with you, Michelle. Your words of acknowledgement of what befell the Armenian nation are much appreciated, as well as your understanding of the need for Turkey to end their denial. Welcome to the Armenian family, sister.

  29. My grandmother Victoria seradarian was the most beautiful woman, Her parents and brother beheaded right in front of her. Raped and tattood all over her body unlike the pictures ive seen. Mostly fern like leaves everywhere. dispite the horror she went through. She was so loving to all, allways smiling. I have six daughters, One of them looks and is her soul brought to life. She died at the age of 98 in 2002.

  30. Every crime committed against every human being since the beginning of time on this earth has been recorded and no perpetrator will escape punishment , rest assured .

  31. There is a world of difference between Christianity & Islam. Christianity tells of a loving God who cared so much for mankind that He sent his Son to die on the cross for the sin & forgiveness of any and all who accept salvation as a free gift. resulting in eternal peace, love & joy. Islam on the other hand is a religion that imposes its self on people. There is no freedom, peace or love. It is “Allah’s will” if a person is “saved” or goes to heaven for eternity. and the Koran teaches that eternal life can only be gained by “good works” or merit earned by performing so religious observance.

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