Hatoun is sitting up still with her back against a tall palm tree, her head bowed as though she’s asleep. She has seated a doll she received as a present from an American aid worker in the same position against another, smaller tree close by. She has torn the doll’s head off and placed it face-up next to its body.
Hatoun is one of the main characters in Chris Bohjalian’s recently released masterpiece on the Armenian Genocide, The Sandcastle Girls. She is a child of not more than 7 or 8. Hatoun is a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. And in this scene, Hatoun is re-enacting the murder, by decapitation, of her mother and older sister, which she witnessed on the long march from Adana to Aleppo.
No scene in any other book has haunted me to this extent. And certainly, no other character I’ve come across has pierced through me with the same intensity. This scene has taken a life of its own in my mind, epitomizing the millions of untold stories of suffering, of trauma, of feelings experienced both by those who perished during the genocide and those who survived.
I have reflected on this moment over and over during the past 10 days since I put the book down. How did genocide survivors deal with and try to overcome the trauma they experienced? What did they feel on those marches, in the concentration camps, witnessing the brutal murder of family members, throughout the starvation, the deprivation, the humiliation? How were raped women and young girls ever able to love and have sex again? What type of parents did orphaned children manage to become? How did their experiences during the genocide impact their day-to-day life as survivors?
I tried to recall stories about my own ancestors who had survived the genocide, in hope of remembering a habit, an incident, a characteristic, anything of theirs that would tell me something beyond their story of survival, beyond the chronology of how they ended up where they did.
I remembered that my maternal great-grandmother, who suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s at old age, would stand in front of a mirror, stare at herself in horror, and ask her grandchildren to give “this poor starving orphan” some bread and water. My great-grandmother was a survivor of the genocide, rescued by a Turkish man who adopted her somewhere along the march from Harput.
I recalled hearing about other survivors and their stories. A friend’s grandfather, also a genocide survivor, would have an anxiety attack if he ever walked into the living room and saw there was no food on the table. There always had to be food on the table. I recalled the horror an Armenian-American friend managed to inflict upon his grandmother while she babysat him one day, when he innocently opened the door to a stranger. After all, isn’t this how it started for many—with an unannounced visitor at the door?
I spoke with my parents, I spoke with my husband to try and dig out more memories that would help me understand how genocide survivors dealt with their trauma—something we might have overlooked or forgotten. How did my husband’s grandfather, a survivor with a remarkable story that took him from Hassanbey to Australia, overcome seeing his father, along with all the other men in the city, rounded up in the city square, their beards set on fire until their bodies turned to ashes? Some of these stories we will never know.
I remembered Suzanne Khardalian’s film “Grandma’s Tattoos” and the story of a grandmother as told through the eyes of her grandchildren: A woman rendered cold, distant, and strange after her experience being raped as a child while escaping the genocide.
Too often when we’re busy advocating for genocide recognition and fighting denial, are we prone to “forget’’ the names and faces behind the numbers. Too few are the survivor accounts that take us so deep into the psyche of the survivors themselves beyond the story, beyond the events, beyond the facts.
The Sandcastle Girls brought a forgotten or neglected aspect of the genocide to life for me. It reminded me that our ancestors were not only stories of survival. They were flesh and blood, heart and soul. They felt, they hurt, they struggled, they loved, they lost, and they loved again—they were.