The history of a Genocide survivor

Sadly enough, few people today know that the Armenian nation went through one of the most terrible wars that happened at the beginning of the 20th century- genocide. At least 664,000 and possibly as many as 1.2 million died during the genocide, either in massacres and individual killings, or from systematic ill-treatment, exposure, and starvation.

During this darkest period of Armenian history, Armenian women were victimized by prolonged agony. More vulnerable and less well-equipped physically and emotionally, especially during the forced deportations from their homes and villages of 1915, they had to take charge of the remnants of the family and face particularly tragic choices, to throw themselves down cliffs, to surrender to the raging waters of the Euphrates, or to live the life of a concubine in a Turkish or Kurdish harem—decisions to live or die, none of which offered true salvation, yet all of which demanded heavy compromises or extraordinary courage.

Grandma’s Tattoos is a powerful documentary that reveals the fate of thousands of forgotten women, mostly teenagers and young girls, who survived the 1915 Armenian Genocide but were forced into prostitution by their captors. Many of these women were tattooed as a permanent mark of their status.

Filmmaker Suzanne Khardalian begins the film by remembering her grandmother: “Grandma Khanoum was not like everyone else. She had blue tattoos on her face and hands. Strange marks that frightened us children… She despised physical contact. She never hugged anyone, never gave kisses. And she always wore gloves, which hid her hands and her tattoos, and her secret.”

Haunted by these memories, Khardalian embarks on a personal journey into her family history to investigate the truth behind her late grandmother. At first, no one wants to discuss it. Her grandmother never talked about that time with anyone. Her grandmother’s sister, now 98 and living in the U.S., even describes the tattoos, which she also has as decoration, a fad, something that all young girls did at the time.

Eventually, small truths are revealed and pieces of the puzzle begin to come together. In 1919, just at the end of WWI, the Allied forces rescued  Armenian girls and children who, during the war years, were forced to become prostitutes to survive, or had given birth to children after forced or arranged marriages or rape.At there wasn’t a small group of 100 people saved, not even 1000, nor 10000…the number of victims was really shocking. 100000 girls.  These women were forcibly marked, tattooed, as property, the same way you mark cattle.

Khardalian’s grandmother, we learn, was 12 years old when a Kurdish man offered to protect her from the war around them. Instead, he abducted her and kept her as his concubine. Following the war, many of these women were viewed as impure and tainted and often shunned by society.

An important documentary work that breaks through decades of silence, Grandma’s Tattoos tells a personal story that is indeed universal – the fate of women in conflicts and wars.

The Armenian Suzanne Khardalian grew up with her sisters in Beirut, Lebanon. Her grandmother Khanoum lived upstairs from them. The filmmaker remembers that her grandmother had frightening blue tattoos on her hands and face, and never was one to dispense hugs or compliments. In the voice-over, she explains that “We all felt ill with her suffocating presence.” No one knew how Grandma had gotten to be this way, and the past was never discussed. Years later, Khardalian immigrated to Sweden and made various documentaries about the genocide in Armenia. During World War I, Armenians were driven out of their country and into the deserts of Syria and Iraq. Many were murdered, and women and children were kidnapped and put to work as concubines for Turks, Kurds and Arabs. While doing her research, Khardalian found old photographs of Armenian women with the same tattoos her grandmother had. The shock was enormous: was Grandma one of the unfortunate ones? In this extremely personal film, the director sets out to tell Khanoum’s as yet untold life story. It brings her to Beirut, the United States, and deserts that are now known to be mass graves. Inevitably, her journey into her family history opens old wounds.

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