Most Americans can’t even find Armenia on a map (hint: sandwiched between Turkey on the west and Azerbaijan on the east), much less recite any of its history. But it was in this tiny, tormented country that the blueprint for the most awful invention of the 20th century, genocide, was sketched out 100 years ago. Orphans of the Genocide, a documentary airing Thursday, is a melancholy recitation of a story that should be more widely known.
It’s not an easy story to tell. Rooted in the ancient religious conflicts that erupt periodically where Europe and the West grind up against Asia and the East, the murder of something over a million Armenians at the outbreak of World War I occurred before the age of mass media.
And the complexity of the genocide’s origins doesn’t help. Christian Armenia had for centuries been a bone in the throat of Islamic Turkey and its Ottoman rulers’ imperial ambitions. But what caused the Turks to start slaughtering the Armenians at that particular moment remains obscure, lost in the maze of geopolitical maneuvering that plunged Europe into World War I.
What’s clear is that, despite Turkish denials that continue to this day, they did start the slaughter, first wiping out the men who might have been capable of resistance, then, more leisurely, stamping out the women and children who survived. When it was all over, somewhere between half and three-quarters of Armenia’s population was composed of corpses. Their grisly legacy was the word genocide — literally the killing of an entire people, coined by historians to describe what the Turks did.
Orphans director Bared Maronian, a former staff producer at WPBT-PBS 2 and himself of Armenian descent, mostly avoids the political side of the equation — not necessarily a wise decision, for his film sometimes feels a bit untethered. And the massacres of men that started the genocide are barely mentioned in passing.
It’s the systematic obliteration of the survivors of the initial carnage, the defenseless Armenian women and children, that interests him most. And he has done a magnificent job of tracking down old photos and newsreel footage of the time, giving his film a profound power well beyond that of a collection of talking heads.
Like cattle, the women and children were herded barefoot into the desert and driven east toward a barren region known as Der Zore.
Pretty girls rubbed their faces with mud in futile hope of avoiding the epidemic of rape. The refugees died in such profusion that, even today, shallow excavations inevitably turn up a litter of human bones.
The few children who didn’t perish were sent to “Turkification centers” where they were assigned a new language, religion and names, and then moved on to threadbare orphanages. Life inside the orphanages was hard; outside, it was brief. Kids over 14, considered poor candidates for Turkification, were hunted down like feral dogs.
The language used to tell these stories is restrained, even bland. It doesn’t matter. How can you not be thunderstruck with horror to gaze at a hundred kids in an orphanage, some pensive and some smiling, when you know that all of them were dead in a matter of weeks?
The most powerful single image is of an Armenian woman, nearing the end of her trek to Der Zore, one small child clinging to her skirts, another on her back, and a swaddled infant in her arms. Their eyes are hunted, and haunted, and they look unaccountably familiar. And then you realize you’ve seen them before, in Auschwitz, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, anywhere that the demons in men’s hearts break free.