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Lys Anzia – WNN Features

 Armenia youth at the Armenia Genocide Museum

Armenia’s youngest generation, including boys and girls, honor the dead at the Armenia Genocide Museum and Institute in Yerevan, Armenia in November 2011. Image: Brent Granby

(WNN) LONDON, U.K.: In a searing, impact-filled letter written to Swiss Armenian woman filmmaker Suzanne Khardalian, human rights activist Odette Bazil reached out to reveal her insights to the hidden depth and true story of countless Armenian women who faced atrocity during  years of cultural genocide. It revealed the same suffering described in Khardalian’s 2011 debut film “Grandma’s Tattoos.”

With her work as a British advocate for Armenian women and their families, Iran-born Bazil is also the Co-Founder and Executive Secretary for BAAPPG – British-Armenian All-Party Parliamentary Group who has worked tirelessly to bring the issue of human rights and the suffering of Armenians to the attention of Britain’s Parliament.

“Film has the potential to urge the viewer to confront a past moment – one that has been lived, but never internalized, and thus never understood…,” outlined Khardalian as she asked viewers to decide for themselves what her film means to them in a statement made as the film premiered. “Is there anything at all to learn from genocide?” she added.

Described by BBC news as “…one of the worst crimes in our age,” the widespread ‘slaughter’ of Armenians during the years of genocide, continues to hold secrets and trauma that have yet to be completely revealed. The true impact on the lives of generations of Armenian women who were born after the genocide is still unfolding say advocates.

“The story of those who didn’t die—the story of young women who survived and stayed behind—has never been told,” said Nanore Barsoumian, assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly in December 2011. “Men write down history. So it is with Genocide. There is no room for the women. They were impure, tainted, and despised,” continued Barsoumian. “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.”

Today the evidence of the violence has expanded its reach, brought forward through advocates and past efforts by global governments and agencies, including the United States House of Representatives.

“The Armenian Genocide and these domestic judicial failures are documented with overwhelming evidence in the national archives of Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, the United States, the Vatican and many other countries…,”  said a 2007 session by the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee that found wide support in 2009. “…and this vast body of evidence attests to the same facts, the same events, and the same consequences,” continued the report.

With documentation covering ‘crimes against humanity’ the issue of belief in the Armenian genocide, and its proof, has now brought a growing acceptance to the very definition of genocide. But even as recent as 2009, some scholars and historians continue to dispute that the crimes against the Armenians during the conflict were all part of a what many claim were not a targeted genocide against ‘Christian Armenians.’

A tattooed Armenia woman kept as a slave during the years of the Armenian Genocide

The haunting portrait of an Armenia woman with tattoos on her face, indicates that she was ‘owned’ by someone as a forced wife and sex-slave during the years of the Armenian Genocide. Image: AGMI

Today the tide against the belief in genocide is shifting toward the believers, even as some opposition still exists, as more and more evidence of targeted atrocity has been brought through photos, old newspaper articles and documents to the public.

In its earliest days, dating back to the year 1299, the Ottoman Empire grew to span a gigantic region in what is today over 40 separate countries. From 1915 to 1923 it is now believed that over 1.5 million Armenians met their ‘untimely’ deaths. This number, in spite of the inability of making a true count, is over half of the 2.5 million Armenians who then called the region home.

The impact for survivors was ‘more than devastating’ say human rights advocates, especially for Armenian women who were trapped in a war zone where protection for themselves and their families had all but completely vanished.

“…[m]utilation, violation, torture, and death have left their haunting memories in a hundred beautiful Armenian valleys, and the traveler in that region is seldom free from the evidence of this most colossal crime of all the ages,” said United States General James Harbord in a testimony given before the U.S. Congress in 1920 while the genocide was still in process.

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In a one-on-one interview with Lys Anzia from WNN, Odette Bazil reveals the root hatred that fueled the Armenian genocide and the effect it had on Armenian women during the turn of the 20th century as well as today’s generation of Armenian women.

Lys Anzia/WNN: Why was the suffering of the women during the Armenian genocide kept such a secret inside Armenian families for generations?

Odette Bazil:   The suffering of Armenian women from the rape and force-tattooing of the Turkish-Muslim flag to their faces and hands during the Armenian genocide in 1915 has been kept silent and secret inside Armenian families because of the agonizing SHAME that these women have felt for having been raped , violated , exposed and sullied .

The bestial actions of the perpetrators did not attack these women only physically but usurped, degraded and violated the very dignity and sanctity of their privacy which is the secret sanctuary and ultimate possession of any woman.

With a sad conviction, Armenian women came to realise that if the crime would become common knowledge it would bring shame not only to the woman herself but more specifically to her husband, her father, all the male members of her entire family and to all her relatives.

Rape and violation is not about sex . It is to stamp and confirm the violator’s will upon its victim. Force-tattooing a national-religious emblem on a woman’s face is to show possession of that woman; to show removal of her own identity and faith; and to show denigration and insult of her own religion. In most cultures, and not only in [the] Armenian, if a woman is raped by the enemy and tattooed with the enemy’s national and religious flag then she does not belong to herself anymore, nor to her family. She becomes the possession of the mind and will of the violator, of his religion and of his nation.

In the mind of that woman – and that of the society around her – she does not exist anymore as an Armenian, nor as a Christian. She looses her self-worth and self-respect, her honour, her faith, her very existence as an Armenian and a Christian human being and becomes a nothing and a nobody, a non-entity.

In all families – and specifically in Armenian families – the honor of a wife, daughter or mother is the most proud and valued possession of that family. And if lost, the female becomes a subject of shame, degradation and extreme anger for her husband or father. [And] of rejection, curse and humiliation for her siblings and of complete social annihilation from the society where she lives and where she becomes a ‘pariah’.

In all cultures, rape has always been and will always remain a taboo subject because when exposed the shame connected with it must be exposed too. Suzanne Khardalian has shown immense courage in exposing the crimes committed against her Gran’ma. She deserves our admiration and our gratitude.

The rape of Armenian women and the force-tattooing of the Turkish-Muslim flag to their faces and hands – the ultimate crime committed against any woman – gave them such low self-esteem and feelings of being dirty, unworthy, dishonored and diseased that they refused any intimate contact with the members of their family – even with their own children. Unable to find the reasons for the crimes committed against them, …in their own minds and in the silence of their isolation they even saw themselves as the criminals and not the victims.

Rape and shame; rape and guilt; hatred for the branding on their faces; life-lasting agony: all this had to and will be kept secret and hidden for many more generations unless more courageous individuals like Suzanne Khardalian expose the vile and barbaric actions of an entire nation who was engaged in a frenzy of crime and aberrations.

WNN: What was the drive with the prejudice that faced the Armenians during the time of the genocide and how were women more impacted by this prejudice?

OB:   The drive with the prejudice that faced the Armenians during the time of the Armenian genocide in 1915 was the greed the Turks had for Armenian lands; their hatred of the Armenians whom they had never been able to subjugate and assimilate; their centuries-long dream of and commitment to a complete ‘Turkification,’ which in their eyes was hampered and endangered by the existence of the Armenians in Western Armenia.

Their unsuccessful attempts of Islamitization of that ‘Christian race’ [of Armenians]; their anger and envy for the cultural, financial and social successes attained by the Armenians; and the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity created by the chaos of World War One in Europe. …they could – at last – implement their genocidal project without fear of retaliation or intervention by any European power and with the support and military help received from the German government of the time, which was already the prototype of the destructive Nazi government who committed the [Jewish] Holocaust.

#1000_Armenia_family_honoring_dead_ImgBrentGranby

A modern Armenian family stands in the ancient Greghard Monastery in Yerevan, Armenia as a tribute to the Christians who perished in the Armenian genocide. Image: Brent Granby

The hatred the Turks had for the Armenian race, hatred advertised even now in Turkish children’s books where educative pictures carried various captions: “…this is a butterfly, this is a bear, this is an Armenian , he is our enemy.”

[This] was expressed against Armenian women by rape; by branding them with the Turkish-Muslim flag; by starvation; forced marches; forced entertaining of the guards by stabbing; by raping and killing of their children in front of their eyes; by mass burning of their old folk and ‘ugly-useless’ relatives; by creating such desperation and agony that thousands would throw themselves into raging rivers from the top of bridges. Or [the] exhausted, powerless and desperate would leave their children and move on as they had been ordered, whipped and lashed to do.

Often they would be negotiated and sold for few pennies to the nomadic tribes who were crossing the deserts. And their nightmares would continue. Sometimes for entertainment their guards would give them a respite and gather to have a bet about the sex of the child the young women were carrying. The bet was set by cutting open the women and removing the foetus.

Armenian women saw death as a liberation and prayed for that liberation.

The prejudice against Armenian women impacted them with traumas that remained unexposed because of the shame untreated; because of the lack of acknowledgement, unpublished because of the secrecy and overall unaddressed; because of the times and events which were affecting and changing the social order in Europe and the world; and unpunished because of the denial of that genocide by its perpetrators. A denial which is still in existence and force in Turkey where it is legitimated by the adoption of Penal Code 301, the prison sentence for anyone who would even mention the Armenian genocide!

WNN: Do you feel that any international group could have stepped in more to stop the violence against women during this time? We do know that Japan did try to offer some assist. How did this go? Who refused to step in?

OB: I have never known that Japan had tried to offer assistance during that period. If documents exist to that effect, then please do let me know.

To my knowledge, very little was done to help the Armenian women during the genocide as many of the civilised countries who would understand and evaluate the needs and situation, were themselves busy with the war and its destruction. Some Christian benevolent organizations gathered the orphans and transported them to other countries. Some found occupation and jobs for the educated Armenian women who worked in French, British, Italian, Dutch Syrian and Lebanese schools and orphanages.

Among the one million and half Armenians who perished during the Armenian genocide, the percentage of Armenian women victims has never been researched properly. No accurate number is available. But the suffering of those courageous women easily equals that of Jewish women during the [Jewish] Holocaust.

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This trailer is from the Swedish documentary film about the fate of the Armenian women during the genocide, filmed in Armenia, Syria, Lebanon, USA and Sweden, directed by Suzanne Khardalian , produced by HB PeÅ Holmquist Film, first released in Sweden in late September 2011. 

To see the complete film go to WITNESS on Al Jazeera News (English).

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For more information on this topic:

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In addition to her work on WNN – Women News Network, human rights journalist Lys Anzia’s work has also appeared on Truthout, CURRENT TV, ReliefWeb, UNESCO, World Bank Publications, UN Women, Vital Voices, Huffington Post World, The Guardian News and Thomson Reuters Foundation Trustlaw, among many others. Anzia is also the founder/editor-at-large for WNN.

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