Boston magnate Silas Endicott has brought his daughter Elizabeth with him to Aleppo on “a small philanthropic expedition.” Their mission is to deliver food and supplies to survivors. Elizabeth, a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College, with a rudimentary knowledge of Armenian, plans “to chronicle what she sees for their organization, the Friends of Armenia.” Having taken a crash course in nursing, she also plans to volunteer at the hospital.
But within minutes of arriving and meeting the American consul, they come upon a “staggering column” of women who are all “completely naked, bare from their feet to the long drapes of matted black hair. . . . Their skin has been seared black by the sun or stained by the soil in which they have slept or, in some cases, by great yawning scabs and wounds that are open and festering.” They are being herded through the town by Turkish soldiers before being marched east, supposedly to be placed in “camps,” a word the consul says is a misnomer: “I am told that slaughterhouse is more apt.”
Among these desperate deportees, Elizabeth befriends a woman named Nevart and the young orphan she has saved. “This is Hatoun,” says Nevart. “Like me, she is unkillable.” Having witnessed her own mother’s beheading, Hatoun is virtually mute. Nevart’s generosity toward the child is a poignant reminder of kindness and courage set against the inhuman acts being perpetrated around them.
A few days after arriving in Aleppo, Elizabeth and her father are in a restaurant with the consul, when an Armenian engineer named Armen enters with two German soldiers. “Germany and Turkey are allies,” one of the trio explains, as they all begin talking. But alarmed by what their ally is doing to the Armenians, these Germans are secretly taking photographs, although they know it’s illegal. “It’s espionage. It’s treasonous.” The consul urges them to get the pictures out or give them to him.
“We want to be sure that Americans know how dire the situation here has become,” Elizabeth tells Armen the next day. As their friendship moves quickly toward romance, Elizabeth learns that Armen has lost his wife and baby daughter. “I need to do something,” he tells her. “I can’t be a bystander to all this. I can’t die a sheep.” What he does next will change their lives.