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Tattoos of Grandma – film about Armenian Genocide

A filmmaker Suzanne Khardalian from Sweden makes a journey into her own family’s history to investigate the terrible truth behind her grandmother’s odd tattoos. This is  a  movie that reveals the veil of thousands of forgotten Armenian women, who survived the Genocide in Ottoman Turkey but were forced into prostitution and were tattooed to distinguish them from the locals.


“My grandma was abducted and kept in slavery for many years in Turkey. She was also forcibly tattooed as a property, same that they used to mark cattle. The discovery of the story has shaken me. Grandma Khanoum’s fate was not an aberration. On the contrary, tens of thousands of Armenian children and teenagers were raped and abducted, and kept in slavery,” Suzanne Khardalian said.
Suzan Khartalyan was the first person to shoot in 1988 a documentary titled “Return to Ararat” covering the story of Armenian Genocide. Today shooting another film the director puts important questions and facts which have never been touched.


“The topic of Genocide is like a red line existing in my life and in my work,” Suzan said in an interview with “Ermenihaber.am”.

– How did you have the idea to tell about the fates of Armenian women who survived genocide?

-After the Ruanda Genocide and Darfur, media outlets have begun widely covering stories of raped women. Studies have been held, which revealed that raping women were a part of military strategies during genocide. Hence, they weren’t only annihilating the rivals physically but they were destroying their genetics.

And did that strategy being applied during the Armenian Genocide?

– Yes, I found out that this same strategy was being used during the Armenian Genocide. During the genocide Armenian women who were just targets have been raped, raptured and used. If men were killed, hundred thousands of women knew they were living but living dead.

– How did you unveil this mystery?

– During my studies, I’ve found some strange photos of Armenian women and girls in the archives of National League. They were photos of young women who had tattoos. Every case has an attached document about the story of a girl – name, family, when they were raptured, how long they lived in slavery, etc.

– How old were those girls and women?

– I was really shocked when I saw those documents, because some were aged 8-12. But I was deeply shocked when I saw my grandma’s photo there, who had tattoos all over her hands and face.

– So was your grandma also “embossed”?

– Yes, I didn’t love my grandma. She wasn’t like other grannies, she didn’t like physical contact, she didn’t like hugs and kisses. We were afraid of her, and her tattoos. I didn’t understand what signs they were. But then I’ve found out it when I saw the photos of those girls.

-Why were those tattoos?

– Many Armenian women were kidnapped by Kurds and Arabs. Many were robbed by Turks. In those days Armenian women and children were all abandoned in streets, and anybody could take them. How many do you want, who do you want? They could take them. Then they were sold, I hear some stories that depending on woman’s age and how much she was “used” the price differed. This was like a business. Tattoos were made to show that the woman belonged to this or that tribe.

– Thus each tribe had its tattoo?

-Yes, each tribe had its own tattoo. Tattoos were signs of property. My studies brought me to Frezno. There I found a group of women who were called “Blue lips”.

-Suzan was your granny talking about her tattoos?

– Never. I remember my granny wearing white gauntlets to hide her tattoos. She was trying hard to hide, to escape her life she used to have in genocide years. She has cleared her memory and we couldn’t speak about it at home. We were hiding that page of her life in darkness. Until 16-17 I knew nothing about genocide. I knew my granny for 20 years, but I knew nothing about her. As if she was, but she wasn’t and in this dilemma she was keeping her secret.

-You said your granny’s sister also had some tattoos. Wasn’t she speaking about it either?

My granny’s sister also had those tattoos. She also refused any talks about it. I used to ask her why she didn’t speak about it, and one day she got angry with me and said: “Do you want me to tell you that Turks have done this? Does it really differ?”

– Did they do those tattoos against the women’s will?

Surely. Nobody asked them about it. There are hundreds of stories how those women were clearing their tattoos after their slavery. Some even used some chemical stuff to clean them.

– How those women managed to live bring those “embossed fates” on their shoulders?

They were rejected by the Armenian men. Yet in 1924 Armenian women were trying to restore their virginity through plastic surgery in Beirut. Those women who were tattooed were rejected by Armenian men; those tattoos told everybody their shared life with other men, with Islam. Some pages of history we’ve been keeping secret because it was shameful.

-Is it possible to show through documentary the emotional part of the issue?

It was very important to show both the emotional part and the facts. The film is interesting when you can find yourself there.


Source: Panorama.am

Author: Interview by Astghik Igityan

The film in English  is  available here:



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