Michelle Tusan Maps Armenian Genocide With Innovative Technology

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — On Wednesday, April 20, the University of Michigan Ann Arbor’s Center for Armenian Studies played host to a lecture in conjunction with the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on April 24.

The speaker, Prof. Michelle Tusan of the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, showed the ways in which modern mapping technology can be used to better understand the geography of the Armenian Genocide and in particular of refugee movements that spanned the Middle East and the globe in the wake of the First World War.

Tusan, a native of Fresno, received her PhD in history (specializing in British history) from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1999. In more recent years, she has focused on the World War I era and the treatment of minorities in the Ottoman Empire. Her training in British history has allowed her to shed light on the dual role Britain and the other Allies of World War I played in the region; i.e. military action against the Ottoman Empire as well as humanitarian aid for minorities.

Tusan’s recent publications include Smyrna’s Ashes: Humanitarianism, Genocide, and the Birth of the Middle East (2012), and The British Empire and the Armenian Genocide: Humanitarianism and Imperial Politics from Gladstone to Churchill (2019).

A small group of students, academics, and friends of the Armenian Studies program gathered at University of Michigan’s Weiser Hall for the lecture, which was also presented live on Zoom.

New Technology Sheds Light on Past

Tusan’s lecture was titled “Geography of Genocide: Mapping Refugee Movement at the End of World War I.” She has worked with a mapmaker using ArcGIS digital map technology to visualize the movement of people in the wake of the Armenian Genocide and First World War. The changing demographics of the Middle Eastern countries formed from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire were heavily impacted by these events.

Tusan suggests that Western historians are too focused on the European theater of World War I, particularly the “Western Front” between Germany and France. Military activities happening elsewhere are relegated to secondary importance, and thus the war is considered to have ended with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, which ended fighting in Western Europe.

Conveniently, the Armistice of Mudros, which temporarily ended hostilities in Turkey, was signed a month prior; historians therefore portray 1918 as the end date of the overall World War. But Tusan argues that historians in the West need to pay more attention to the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I, and the rise of the Kemalist movement meant that warfare continued in the Middle East until the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923. This also begs the question as to when the Armenian Genocide ended: 1918, 1923 or even 1930, when laws were passed expelling all remaining Armenians from the Anatolian interior.

Ultimately, Tusan argued for an end date of 1923 for World War I and considers the Treaty of Lausanne to be the document that brought an end to the war.

If scholars were to consider the “postwar” events of 1918-1923 in the Ottoman sphere as part and parcel of the Great War, it would aid in understanding of regional and world history, she argued.

The lecture brought out a number of facets, such as the fact that civilian populations were being used as a “weapon of war.” On one hand, the Ottomans were slaughtering Armenians in furtherance of their various objectives while on the other hand the Allies’ humanitarian mission to the Armenians went hand-in-hand with their military activity against the Ottomans.

Tusan frequently referred to the British occupation of Baghdad in 1917 as a turning point in the refugee crisis. From 1915 to 1917, Armenians were internal refugees; after 1917, the Allies set up a humanitarian aid network that worked to undo the genocide ongoing under the Ottomans.

Areas where deportees had ended up came under the military occupation of the Allies and rather than bringing refugees to the West or to other parts of the Middle East, they were working to get the refugees home, ostensibly while looking to occupy the parts of the Empire where those homes were located.

As a cultural historian, Tusan says she “looks for patterns.” In the case of the Armenian Genocide and this mapping project, she wanted to focus on individuals. Much of the important work of delineating the political causes of the Genocide, the orders given by Ottoman officials, the chronology, and so on, has been done. Tusan’s current project aims to focus more on the human side: how people experienced the Genocide.

By reading survivor memoirs, which in some cases have not been taken as seriously by scholars previously, Tusan is seeing the facts on the ground of what happened in real time during the atrocities. But she needed “a new model to pin down the human aspect of the Genocide.” As she formulated it, “quantitative data allows me to ask qualitative questions.” That’s where “deep maps” and the technology of ArcGIS comes in.

Armenian Genocide Left Few Traces

With the help of deep maps, Tusan is able to compare and contrast the journeys of multiple survivors at the same time. Most people who have studied the Armenian Genocide have seen the famous maps with large red dots — the larger the dot, the more deaths which took place in that location. Tusan’s map project is like that map but with extra dimensions and with the stories of an increasing list of individuals.

Deportation routes, amount of time spent in internal exile, how, when, and where survivors move all matter, says Tusan. It is time to show the data relating to the many personal stories that have been written down and collected over the years, and “expand the story as far as I can,” she stated. Therefore, the basic concept of the project is to plot onto a map the route and stopping places of every individual whose story is used.

Concentration camps were formed in the desert in location like the infamous Deir-ez-Zor. But many of these sites were converted into humanitarian refugee camps after the British conquered Baghdad and went on to occupy other parts of the Middle East. This led to a very important observation by Tusan: the Armenian Genocide left few traces.

That is to say, although the Armenian people left an enormous amount of heritage in Turkey (despite the government’s continued destruction of churches), the actual genocidal apparatus left few traces; there are no gas chambers such as students of the Holocaust can view in modern-day Auschwitz, for example.

The only things left are mass graves, which, as Tusan pointed out, the Turkish government today will explain away as the casualties of war or civil unrest. This brings greater importance to Tusan’s project of bringing to light the geographic realities of the Armenian Genocide.

A World That Did Not Want Them To Exist

Tusan displayed several maps, showing for example generalized deportation routes. Collating information from 34 survivor memoirs, several routes were used throughout the period and these were displayed in a stylized manner so as to make clear how many of the sources used each route. Tusan also showed her audience maps depicting where survivors ended up and their routes leaving Anatolia.

Thirty four is a low number of sources when talking about the Armenian Genocide, of course, but Tusan stressed that this project is just beginning and not only does she plan to add many more accounts, but intimated that collaboration with other academics was possible and desirable, in order to expand the project to include as many survivors as possible.

The deep maps concept allows for the computer program to create multiple different map images with one, some, or all of the source information; it is a concept most are aware of from everyday use of Google Maps and similar applications, but which has not fully been applied to historical research.

Eyewitnesses and aid workers also have stories that could be added to the project. They are “participants” in this historical event as well, said Tusan. After the 1917 occupation of Baghdad, aid was easier to access. For her as a World War I historian, this aspect is particularly interesting.

Tusan also showed maps that depicted the journeys of subgroups of survivors, such as all women or all single men. Gender and life status differences seemed to play a role in the survivors’ fates; for example women tended to have a long journey while single men seem to have moved around a great deal.

Tusan noted that political exiles often ended up settling in locations where communities developed, yet some of these locations were “unexpected” as refugee destinations, Tusan hypothesized that political exiles sparked community formation in such places.

Tusan noted that many survivors actually did try to go back to their homes in Anatolia, some under the protection of the French occupation of Cilicia. After 1923 as the Republic of Turkey came into existence, some victims remained “in a world that didn’t want them to exist.”

There was an attempt to adopt survivors into Muslim families, which was one way to make them disappear. But because their presence disrupted the social order, the Turkish government eventually resorted to an edict of expulsion in 1930. Turkey tried to form itself into a homogenous ethno-state, relabeling the Kurds as “Mountain Turks,” and so on.

Tusan’s conclusion was that “genocide is the experience of a people,” and so it is the individual experiences of survivors that she highlights, while keeping a historian’s objective attitude.

by Harry Kezelian The Armenian Mirror Spectator

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