Armenia: Yezidis Losing their Land

Villagers from Armenia’s largest minority community have lost their grazing pastures and are being forced to leave.

Armenia: Yezidis Losing their Land

Villagers from Armenia’s largest minority community have lost their grazing pastures and are being forced to leave.

Yezidi Kurds have lived in the village of Zovuni in the Kotaik region of central Armenia since 1915. But many of them will not stay much longer.

“Armenia is our home, our motherland,” said Aziz Tamoyan, chairman of the National Union of Yezidis. “The graves of our departed are here. How can we leave all this?”

Officially, there are 60,000 Yezidis in Armenia, making them the country’s largest minority group. They are non-Muslim Kurds, many of whom have lived in the region since the Russo-Turkish wars of the 19th century. Others left Turkey together with the mass flight of Armenians in 1915. Tamoyan estimates the real population figure may have dropped to 30,000.

The community has no representation in the presidential apparatus or parliament. They have no schools, special classes in Armenian schools or textbooks. The last teacher of the Yezidi Kurdish language in Zovuni died recently.

In Zovuni, the Kurds live peacefully alongside Armenian families. Many of them are godparents to each other’s children. They are always invited to each other’s weddings. The Yezidis have no complaints against Armenians - only against the latter’s bureaucrats.

“We are informing you that if our pastures are not returned to us, we will say ‘Take our houses, take our cattle, we are leaving Armenia,’” reads an open letter with thousands of signatures, sent to the president, prime minister and parliament of Armenia. “We cannot live like this any more and we leave our fate to the will of God.”

The Yezidis complain that recent land reforms have cheated them of the mountain pastures, where they grazed their cattle and therefore of the main means of feeding their families.

The problem arose last year when the Armenian government decided, under its privatisation programme, to put up for auction plots of land under the control of the Kotaik district. As a result, 25 Yezidi families lost their pastures and many of them sold their cattle.

The president’s adviser on national minorities Razmik Davoyan said, “These are not the time-honoured lands of the Yezidis and therefore they were put up for auction. However, the only people who lost their lands were those who did not put in their applications in on time or whose applications did not meet the right requirements.”

Yezidi village elder Serzhik Avetisian said that local people knew nothing about the auction until it was actually held. “No one came to the village and told us anything,” he said. “It’s true there were announcements in the papers, but no one in the village reads the papers.”

Majit Amarian was forced to sell 90 cattle from his herd, as he had nowhere to graze them. The minority have been allowed to use the pastures only to the end of this year. “I’ve been supporting a family of 20 with these cattle,” he said.

Tamoyan charges that the auction was politically motivated and its aim was to drive the community out of Armenia.

Local people told how Lyuda Ohanesian, who acquired much of the Kotaik land, visited the region with her relatives and threatened the Yezidis, telling them to get out of Armenia. “Armenia belongs to the Armenians and your place is on the other side of Mount Ararat,” Ohanesian said, according to the shepherds.

They also say that they hear similar statements every day from others, including the local authorities.

Outside Zovuni in the hamlet of Avo live around 1500 Yezidis. The streets are not asphalted and there is water and mud everywhere. The electricity power lines pass through this part of the village and you hear their buzz wherever you go.

This part of the village has a terrible health record. 73-year-old Oro Avdalian says that his wife, brother and sister-in-law have all died from different diseases, while many of his 11 children and 60 grandchildren are sick. The authorities have promised to move the community from this place several times, but nothing has happened.

The minority has great difficulty communicating its problems to the outside world. The National Union of Yezidis puts out a newspaper called “Yezdikhana,” with a print-run of 1,000 copies, but it comes out infrequently, when the publishers get hold of money. The Armenian government gives the paper a yearly grant of one million drams (less than 2000 US dollars.)

The arrival of a journalist created a huge stir in the village. People said excitedly that the coming article would solve their problems. “If people read about this on the Internet, people will come and help us,” Tamoyan said. “The Internet will save us.”

None of the Yezidis said there were any inter-communal tensions between them and the Armeians. One of them, a young man by the name of Tornik, just said sadly, “Why am I at fault because I was born a Yezidi?”

Zhanna Alexanian is a journalist with Armenia Now,

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