The Human Rights Historian and the Trafficked Child …

Perspectives on History
The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association

The Human Rights Historian and the Trafficked Child Writing the
History of Mass Violence and Individual Trauma

Keith David Watenpaugh, October 2013

>From The Art of History column in the October 2013 issue of
Perspectives on History

Photo from Khachadour Beroian’s 1923 intake survey, League of Nations’
Rescue Home, Aleppo, Syria. Courtesy of the United Nations.

The eyes of a young woman, stolen from her family when she was six
years old and kept as a slave for a decade, stare back at me from a
League of Nations’ document and across the elapse of 90 years.1 They
belong to Loutfiy Bilemdjian from the city of Ayntab, now Gaziantep,
in southern Turkey. Hers is the 1,010th entry in a collection of
notebooks that record the narratives of young survivors of the 1915
genocide of the Ottoman Armenians as they entered the care of the
league’s Rescue Home in Aleppo, Syria. In addition to the narrative,
each page includes a photograph taken at the time of admission and as
much biographical information as the young person could
remember-parent’s name, place, and date of birth.

As Loutfiyé told a league relief worker, at the onset of the genocide,
she and her family had been forcibly displaced to upper Mesopotamia,
where they were set upon by Ottoman irregular soldiers. She witnessed
the killing of her mother, father, and one of her brothers. A soldier
took her as booty and sold her to someone, who then resold her to a
wealthy man named Mahmud Pasha. He sent her to his house, where she
remained for 11 years. In 1926, she escaped across what had become the
international border between Syria and Turkey and reached Aleppo,
where she found one of her surviving brothers.

Elements of her story are similar to entry number 961, which tells the
story of Zabel, the daughter of Bedros from Arapg#r, a village known
for its wine grapes and woven textiles. She was sent into the Syrian
desert in 1915 with her mother, five sisters, and a brother. Along
with other girls from her village, she was gathered by Ottoman
gendarmes and sold. In the elliptical language of the interwar period,
her purchaser “married her.” She was 7 or 8 years old at the
time. After 11 years she learned that other Armenians had
survived. She escaped and made her way to Aleppo where she was
reunited with family. Her story is not unlike that of number 209,
Khachadour Beroian, from the city of Kharpert, now Elaz## in Turkey,
whose picture shows him wearing a kaffiyya and a wool-lined caba’
coat-clothes he wore as an unpaid agricultural laborer in eastern
Syria before he ran away from the farm where he’d been forced to work
for 9 years. He was around 12 years old when his father, Avedis, was
killed at the beginning of the genocide. Like other orphaned children
in his city, he had been rounded up and sent to Syria in a deportation

Over the course of two summer days, I sat in the reading room of the
league’s archive in what is now the UN’s Geneva headquarters, and read
these stories, one by one, hour after hour. Each record told a
consistent story of survival in the face of extrajudicial murder,
forced migration, enslavement, or sexual violence.

The stories tore at me.

Perhaps it was because I knew people who could have been their
descendants; their names, their faces, their places of origin were all
familiar. I knew, as a historian of the period, that these were the
few who by force of will or circumstance (or both) had
escaped. Hundreds of thousands of children were killed during the
genocide, and, at the time of the Rescue Home’s operation, tens of
thousands of Armenian young people were still living in slavery.

The stories stayed in my mind even as I left the archive and walked to
my apartment, passing under the canopy of the most magnificent Cedar
of Lebanon I had ever seen. That night I awoke screaming from a dream
the details of which I’m glad I couldn’t recall. Making Meaning of

What burdens do such stories of individual trauma and survival place
on the historian? Trying to answer this question is important,
inasmuch as the spoken, written, and forensic texts of witness,
memory, and testimony form the building blocks of human rights
history. But the question can also be answered by thinking about why
the league’s administrators recorded and preserved these
stories. Clearly, the biographical data and pictures were a tool for
family reunification. Sometimes, a page’s overleaf has an entry on the
placement of the young person with family nearby, or, like Khachadour,
emigration to join his brother in America. Combining photographs and
individual stories gave human meaning to the raw numbers needed by the
league’s bureaucracy; it was calculated to generate funding or support
from representatives of member states and secretariat officials.

Campaign poster for refugee relief, c.1917, W.B. King, Conwell Graphic
Companies, NY. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Washington DC.

A league-produced reenactment of a young woman entering the Rescue
House from a 1926 film-itself a remarkable and evocative piece of
evidence-shows her telling her story to a league employee, who then
translated and wrote it down.2 The field workers believed that the act
of telling one’s life story at entry helped the individual mark that
moment as a rupture between the time she spent as a trafficked child,
unconsenting wife, or domestic slave, and a new life as a member of a
natal community. Putting the story-her history-down on paper
acknowledged the past in a way that could help her make a dignified
return to something approaching a normal life. The break from the past
was reinforced as the young people shed the clothes they wore upon
entry and were given Westerntyle dresses or pants and had their hair

Bringing human meaning to “the number” is among the central challenges
of writing about genocide or other kinds of mass human rights abuses
like state violence, ethnic cleansing, and slavery. As historians, we
need to be able to write about the anonymous scope and remorseless
uniformity of genocide-to explain its modernity, its political and
social importance, and the intent of perpetrators. But as the numbers
mount they become numbing and mute, and the historical experience of
genocide is flattened.

A focus on the individual behind the cold numbers of dead or
trafficked children can obscure the larger concepts and even leave the
historian vulnerable to claims that his history is merely anecdotal or
unrepresentative. We have, nonetheless, a responsibility to listen
when we can to the voices of those victimized by human rights abuse
and to disentangle those voices from dominant narratives of powerful
institutions and nation states-especially in those very rare instances
when we hear children’s voices.

The Unbearable and the Historian’s Humanity

To achieve balance between these two ways of writing the history of
episodes like the Armenian Genocide, the historian should embrace his
emotional responses, like the ones I had at the archive, to unleash as
a tool of method his empathetic imagination. This way of imagining is
central to what makes our discipline humane and helps the historian
retain the humanity of his work (and himself) when confronted with
hate, violence, and inhumanity. Moreover, it can bring history and the
historian into broader conversations about justice, acknowledgement,
and reconciliation, which is one of the promises of human rights

In the years since I returned from the archive, those narratives have
shaped the way I’ve written about humanitarianism and human rights in
the Middle East.3 As Syria has again become a killing field, the
stories helped me think about what it means to be a young person
displaced by war-nd led me to a refugee camp in the Jordanian desert
to research and advocate for displaced Syrian university students.4

Even now, when I tell the story of the children in the notebooks to my
students or, recently, to a group of high school social studies
teachers preparing a curriculum on genocide, I can still feel a
burning ember of the sadness I experienced in the archive.

-Keith David Watenpaugh is a historian of the modern Middle East and
director of the University of California, Davis, Human Rights
Initiative. His work has appeared in the American Historical Review,
International Journal of Middle East Studies, Social History, Journal
of Human Rights, and Humanity and has been translated into Arabic,
Armenian, German, Persian, and Turkish. He is the author of Being
Modern in the Middle East, and the forthcoming Bread from Stones: The
Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism.

1. Archives of the League of Nations, United Nations Organization,
Geneva, Records of the Nansen International Refugee Office, 1920-47,
“Registers of Inmates of the Armenian Orphanage in Aleppo,” 1922-30, 4

2. Karen Jeppe, Danish Film Institute, director unknown (1926).

3. See my article, “The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide
Survivors and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, 1920-1927,” AHR
115, no. 5 (December 2010): 1315-39.

4. K. D. Watenpaugh, A. E. Fricke, et al., “Uncounted and
Unacknowledged: Syria’s Refugee University Students and Academics in
Jordan,” a joint publication of the University of California, Davis,
Human Rights Initiative and the Institute of International Education
(April 2013).

From: Baghdasarian