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Armenia: Yezidis Endure Years of Living Dangerously

Ethnic minority blames official discrimination for failure to remove potentially lethal electricity pylons from their village.
By Gayane Mkrtchian
Electricity has its own voice here - it crackles and hisses, and it defines the Amo district of the village of Zovuni in central Armenia where power lines are within touching distance of the rooftops.



Two hundred members of the Yezidi ethnic minority living under the electricity pylons have asked to be moved away from them for decades, to no avail. There are a total of 1,100 Yezidis in this village of 5,200.



“Forty years of crackle and noise. We go to sleep with this sound and wake up with it. In rainy or windy weather, it turns into a violent hissing. The power lines start humming and we think the end is nigh,” said Uso Avdalian, 75.



Officials say they cannot afford to move the pylons but the Yezidis, who have their own language and religion and tend to live as a community, suspect official discrimination.



“Being under high voltage lines is harmful for people’s health. It’s like being in a radioactive area. It leads to cancer and heart disease,” said Mikael Mardumian, an official with the national electricity company. “But technically it’s impossible for us to move the power lines. It would require a huge amount of money. Why should the company do this at its own expense?”



Avdalian escorted us through the Amo district, showing us the extent of the pylons. As he passed into the neighbour’s yard, he said a few quiet Yezidi words to calm the barking dogs, then pointed up to the roof of his home.



“When I lift the pitchfork to fetch some hay from the roof, sometimes I happen to slightly touch the lines. Once I got an electric shock. When the rains start, it gets more dangerous,” he said.



Avdalian’s wife, one of a group of brightly head-scarfed women washing clothes in the yard, asked her husband for permission to speak - as is required by Yezidi custom - and let out a torrent of words.



“When it rains or thunders I run to my neighbour’s house, away from the power lines. We live close to death,” the 51-year-old said at last.



Avdalian’s ancestors settled in this village in 1915 when they fled Turkey, where Yezidis were persecuted by Muslims who accuse them of devil-worship. With a total population of around 60,000, the Yezidis are the largest minority in Armenia, most having arrived in the country in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries. Their unique faith combines elements of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Unlike Armenians, they are Kurdish-speakers.



“These power lines were set up in 1965. They promised to move us out of here and reimburse the cost of our houses, but we are still here,” he said.



The Yezidis have been complaining for years. Soviet Armenia’s agriculture minister Vladimir Movsisian visited in 1988 and pledged action, but efforts to move the lines were disrupted by a devastating earthquake that struck Armenia.



“All the machinery that was brought to work in the village was sent to the disaster area. We could hardly complain about it, because those people were in a far worse situation then us,” said Avdalian.



Movsisian was not the last politician to promise action for the Yezidis. Before the 2003 presidential election, President Robert Kocharian pledged to remove the power lines, as did Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian on the eve of the 2007 parliamentary elections.



Village mayor Serzhik Avetisian is at the end of his tether. “Who else can we appeal to?” he asked.



Following a demonstration in early October, Khachatur Vardanian, the head of the Armenian cabinet’s department for local government affairs, and Hranush Kharatian, who heads the department for ethnic minorities and religion, visited the village.



“There isn’t a programme for responding to these issues,” said Kharatian. “We need a combined effort by the ministries responsible for local administration, energy and urban development.”



The Yezidis in Zovuni have other complaints – they have asked the government for land they can use as a “lalesh” or a shrine, but officials are setting conditions that the community says it cannot meet. According to the rules, any organisation applying for a plot of land for a facility of this kind must submit details of a bank account containing number with at least 500,000 drams, 1,500 US dollars.



Kharatian says the government allocates 818,000 drams - about 2,500 dollars – to each of the 11 associations that represent ethnic minorities, and this year President Kocharian gave the Yezidis and another group, the Assyrians, an additional grant of one million drams.



“They could use these resources to set up the foundation they need to build a shrine,” said Kharatian.



The Yezidis also want a new cemetery, complaining that the piece of land allotted to them is too rocky and is also unsuitable because it is wedged between a lemonade factory and some stables.



None of the three Yezidi candidates running for the recent Zovuni council elections was successful, which they say was no accident. They want to see at least one Yezidi staff member in the local government to address their specific problems.



“If the government wants to drive away these people, let them set up a commission to expell them. Seven hundred Yezidis have left the village in recent years. Their cattle stock has also decreased by 30,000 to just 10,000 now,” said Aziz Tamoyan, chairman of the National Union of Yezidis.





Kharatian insists there is no discrimination towards Yezidis, and disputes Tamoyan’s claim of an exodus from the village.



“The Yezidis' problems are mainly in Zovuni. The priority is to look after those people living under the power lines. The government needs to find an urgent solution to this,” he said.



Gayane Mkrtchyan is reporter for Armenianow Online, and a member of IWPR's EU-funded Cross Caucasus Journalism Network Project.