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Bodil Biørn

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Women Missionary Workers
Kvinnelige misjonsarbeidere

Documenting genocide

Women Missionary Workers (WMW) was established in 1902 after the pattern of Danish and Swedish sister organisations. WMW soon focused on the humanitarian situation for the Armenian people, who for some years had been subject to oppression from Turk authorities. In 1905 the missionary nurse Bodil Biørn (1871-1960) was sent to Armenia. First based in the town of Mezereh (now Elazig) and later in Mush she worked for widows and orphaned children in cooperation with missionaries from the German Hülfsbund. She witnessed the massacres of 1915 in Mush and saw most of the children in her care murdered along with Armenian priests, teachers, and assistants. She barely escaped after 9 days on horseback but stayed on in the region for another 2 years under increasingly difficult working conditions. After a period at home she again went to Armenia and until she retired in 1935 worked for Armenian refugees in Syria and Lebanon.

Bodil Biørn was also an able photographer. Many of her photos are now in the WMF archive, which since the organisation was dissolved in 1982 has been preserved in the National Archives of Norway. In combination with her comments, written in her photo albums or on the back of the prints themselves, these photos bear strong witness of the atrocities that she saw.

During World War 1 reports out of Armenia and Kurdistan to the outside world had to be carefully worded if they were to pass the censorship imposed by the Turk authorities. Extracts of letters from Bodil Biørn were published in the WMF newsletters to their members all over Norway, and they constitute eye-witness reports of what has been regarded as the first genocide of the 20th century. Missionaries from other nations have made similar contributions.

But it is Bodil Biørn’s pictures of the many people that she met – smiling and expectant in times when things looked promising, terrified and despairing in the face of extinction – that leaves us with the stongest impression.

See also