‘Devilish Marks’ and Rape in the Time of Genocide

"Devilish Marks"

From The Armenian Weekly

“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 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 under-documented, 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 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 Wattenpaugh.

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.


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  1. E.T. said:

    Sorry but Suzanne Khardalian’s words sound neither powerful nor penetrating. It sounds cliche, right out of the everyday movie trailer. And as such it turns the underlying topic from human tragedy to just mere drama.

  2. Norin Radd said:

    “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.”

    While no one can question Ms. Kardalian’s good motives for this documentary. YET AGAIN, there are those Armenians among us that are always ready to quickly “look within” for “problems” in our culture. This poor woman suffering at the hands of Genocidal Turkish authorities and later experiencing horrors beyond compare did not hide her frightful past experience as a “burden of shame” due to her Armenian community’s supposed “intolerance of the impure”.

    She hid her experience for the same reason many women who have been raped worldwide hide their experience, out of perhaps personal shame, or some form of post traumatic stress disorder in which they try to heal from their experience via self-suppression. Such self suppression by the victim is not unique to Armenian communities, it occurs everywhere with such victims, including the thousands of rape victims here in the US. Get your facts straight Ms. Kardalian and Asbarez.

    It HIGHLY IRRESPONSIBLE of Mr. Khardalian and frankly shameful on her part to attribute her grandmother’s silence as a bi-product of her Armenian community’s supposed hyper-criticism or cultural intolerance. This is not only absurd but also a poorly thought out comments such as this one by members of our community, especially those in positions of media or leadership are the reasons why time and time again we as Armenians through false self accusation, give birth to unfounded generalizations regarding our own way of life, culture, and value system.

    No Armenian of sound mind would ever be hyper critical of a genocide survivor regardless of what traumatic experiences the victim may have had. Where are the Asbarez editors, do you not read what you are printing or putting up on the web? Reading the above comment by Ms. Kardalian leads one to believe that we are intolerant of a genocide survivor simply because she was a victim of rape, this is irresponsible and insulting commentary by Ms. Kardalian and certainly callous journalism by Asbarez at best.

    Please think before you speak or write, you will do the rest of the ten million Armenians worldwide a lot of justice. Here is some educational material for both Ms. Kardalian and Asbarez staff to read by the National District Attorney Association, a brilliant article that objectively characterizes the pattern of rape victim behavior.

    Please educate yourselves so that next time you do not denigrate our culture with imbecilic commentary:


  3. bigmoustache said:

    yeah i didnt read the rest of this because i read how “men ignore the women and only talk about the genocide” let me tell you something. the slavery and abduction of our women has always been at the forefront of armenian genocide rememberance and armenian vengeance. ive known some armenian grandmothers who had tattoos, ive always loved all armenian grandmothers especially my own. . i view and treat them with the respect they deserve for who they are, what theyve been through and the languages they speak.

    some armenian grandmothers have been ashamed to reveal their meaning to their kids and grandkids but i see no shame in them, i love them just the same and see those as the marks of someone who has been through hell and back AND is still able to sit silently. bearing the pain alone. i respect them for their strenght.
    just ask these survivors what armenian fedayis should do and see the fire in their souls!