The Daily Mail presents a shocking collection of harrowing photographs of the death and destruction reaped on Armenians by Ottoman Turks a century ago that were taken by an American and a colleague who risked imprisonment to smuggle them out and show the world the full horror of what happened.
John Elder and Armin T. Wegner both documented the unimaginable suffering they witnessed in images which helped build a case against a Turkish government which still denies the slaughter of up to 1.5million Armenians constituted genocide.
As Armenians mark 100 years since the atrocities, many Western countries still do not use that word, and US president Barack Obama is once again unlikely to do so in his upcoming statement marking the anniversary despite pledging he would during his election campaign.
Wegner, a volunteer military nurse, set up clandestine mail routes with foreign consulates and embassies to get many hundreds of notes, annotations, documents, letters and photographs of the Armenian deportation camps to Germany and the United States.
He did so in defiance of strict orders from the Turkish and German authorities aimed at preventing any evidence of the horrors of the ‘genocide’ reaching the outside world.
But his ruse was discovered and he was arrested by the German authorities and put to serve in cholera wards in Baghdad at the request of the Turkish command.
There he fell seriously ill, and German-born Wegner left for Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in November 1916. Hidden in his belt were his photographic plates, and those of other German officers, with images of the Armenian massacre to which he had been a witness.
His images still retain the power to shock as the world marks the 100th anniversary of the ‘genocide’ today.
In one, two Armenians are pictured hanging in the street in broad daylight in the capital Constantinople while a crowd, including women and children, looks on.
The image was taken in 1915 just before the mass deportation of Armenians to the desert had begun. Hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes in Anatolia and herded towards Syria.
Three generations of the same family of refugees take shelter from the son in a makeshift tent. Many of those targeted for expulsion starved to death, were shot or bayoneted by Ottoman Turkish soldiers
The then two million strong Armenian minority were persecuted by a government suspicious that as Christians they were more loyal to Christian governments like that of Russia than they were to the Ottoman caliphate.
Though they had thrived under Ottoman rule, despite being regarded as ‘infidels’ by their Muslim rulers, the Armenians were resented for their relative prosperity and success compared to many Ottoman Turks.
The Ottoman government began their campaign in earnest after Armenians organized volunteer battalions to help the Russian army fight against the Turks in the Caucasus region. The Ottoman government used this as a justification to begin their forced ‘removal’ of Armenians the war zones along the Eastern Front in a bid to ‘Turkify’ what remained of a ailing empire.
The deportation began following the rounding up of 235 Armenian leaders and intellectuals in the capital on April 24, 1915 – the anniversary of which is marked today. Many of those then targeted for expulsion starved to death, were shot or bayoneted by Ottoman Turkish soldiers.
Another photograph shows the bodies of three murdered young boys lying in a gutter, one of them stripped naked, while two others look on. More than 150,000 Armenian children were left parentless by the end of the First World War.
And in a third of Wegner’s incredible images taken in 1915, a band of Armenian deportees, including a woman carrying a baby, children and elderly men, stagger through the desert along an unpaved road in the blazing suns towards their hellish new lives as refugees.
Elder, from Pennsylvania, was a relief worker in the Armenian capital of Yerevan from 1917 to 1919. He also painted a heartrending picture of the nightmare he witnessed using his camera.
The divinity student defied instructions given to relief workers and other foreign personnel to evacuate the Caucasus, fearing that tens of thousands more Armenians would die of starvation if the relief programs were discontinued.
He and fellow YMCA colleague James Arroll remained at their posts channeling relief fund to orphanages and soup kitchens.
The pair were instrumental in providing care for thousands of Armenian orphans and arranging for the training and employment of 11,000 adults.
Elder’s pictures of orphans are particularly harrowing, some of them clearly starving with angular bones poking through the stretched skin of their shrunken bodies.
In one eerie shot a human skeleton is pictured resting in a refugee graveyard while a black clad figure walks away from the camera in the background. In another refugees desperately forage for food by a railway track.
In light of such evidence Obama’s reticence to use the word ‘genocide’, in a bid to placate America’s Turkish allies, has disappointed many.
Several US officials said there had been a sharp internal debate over whether to use the 100-year anniversary to call the killings ‘genocide’ and make good on the president’s campaign promise, particularly after Pope Francis used the term earlier this month.