Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia's Yezidi Kurds

A glimpse into the life of Armenia’s biggest minority community as it struggles to survive in the 21st century.
By Zhanna Aleksanian, Andrei Liankevich
  • Yezidi Oman Aliyan at a shepherds' camp near Michim Shamirama, Armenia. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Yezidi Oman Aliyan at a shepherds' camp near Michim Shamirama, Armenia. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Shepherds' camp. Near Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Shepherds' camp. Near Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Osan Malekian taking a rest after a day in the fields. Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Osan Malekian taking a rest after a day in the fields. Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Shepherds' camp near Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Shepherds' camp near Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Gulia Ozmanian with her grandson Nukzar. Near Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Gulia Ozmanian with her grandson Nukzar. Near Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Zakhar Oliyan with his grandson in the shepherds' camp near Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Zakhar Oliyan with his grandson in the shepherds' camp near Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Gulia Ozmanaian sews up a tent in the shepherds' camp on Mount Ara about 40 km from Yerevan. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Gulia Ozmanaian sews up a tent in the shepherds' camp on Mount Ara about 40 km from Yerevan. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Women carry up buckets of water from a stream at the shepherds' camp on Mount Ara. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Women carry up buckets of water from a stream at the shepherds' camp on Mount Ara. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Gulia Ozmanian with her grandson Nukzar at the shepherds' camp on Mount Ara. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Gulia Ozmanian with her grandson Nukzar at the shepherds' camp on Mount Ara. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Gulia Ozmanian cooks potatoes on a gas stove with her grandson Nukzar. Mount Ara. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Gulia Ozmanian cooks potatoes on a gas stove with her grandson Nukzar. Mount Ara. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Yezidi women celebrate New Year at a cemetery near Zevyni, near Yerevan. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Yezidi women celebrate New Year at a cemetery near Zevyni, near Yerevan. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Yezidi women bake lavash bread before putting it in a special earth stove known as a tandyr. Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Yezidi women bake lavash bread before putting it in a special earth stove known as a tandyr. Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Norar Aliyan jumps over blocks of dung, which are used by Yezidis as heating fuel in places where there are few trees. Mijin Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Norar Aliyan jumps over blocks of dung, which are used by Yezidis as heating fuel in places where there are few trees. Mijin Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Shepherds drive their flocks to Mount Ara with Mount Ararat rising in the background. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Shepherds drive their flocks to Mount Ara with Mount Ararat rising in the background. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
  • Jangi, Olekhan and Jasik Daleyan playing. From the age of four children help their parents to graze cattle and often miss classes in school as a result. Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)
    Jangi, Olekhan and Jasik Daleyan playing. From the age of four children help their parents to graze cattle and often miss classes in school as a result. Michim Shamiram. (Photo: Andrei Liankevich)

The Yezidis, also known as Yezidi Kurds, are Armenia’s largest minority community. Life is hard but generally they do not blame Armenians and have good relations with them. Their main complaints are against the Armenian government.

Many Yezidis began to settle in Armenia during the Russian-Turkish wars of the 19th century and more fled with Armenians during the massacres of 1915.

Neither Christian nor Muslim, practicing their own ancient rites, the Yezidis stayed when Azerbaijanis and Muslim Kurds fled Armenia at the beginning of the Nagorny Karabakh dispute in 1988-90.

They keep an ancient nomadic lifestyle and live by breeding cattle and sheep.

According to Armenia’s 2003 census, there are more than 40,000 Yezidis in the country and they comprise three per cent of the population. The head of the Union of Yezidis, Aziz Tamoyan, puts the figure at around 30,000.

Difficult social conditions have caused many to emigrate, especially to Russia, over the last few years. Around fifty families have left the village of Zovuni in the Kotaik region alone.

During land privatisation in 2002 many Yezidis lost their pastures and were unable to press their case with the authorities. They also complain that they have lost irrigation water for their orchards, while nearby Armenian villages have water.

The Yezidis have no representatives in the government or parliament

In the spring Yezidi families take their herds and flocks into the mountains for summer grazing. They stay there seven months until the first cold autumn weather.

“In Soviet times we went up into the mountains at the end of May but now we go at the beginning of April,” said 42-year-old Suren Tamoyan. “It’s not because life is good. The earlier we climb into the mountains, the more feed we save for our cattle.”

“Many people say that you rest up in the mountains but you have to see that it is not rest, it’s torture,” said Tamoyan. “It is the nomadic life. I myself am disappointed with this life.”

“You cannot keep a family on 100 to 150 sheep, you can just exist on that. You can’t save any money, we buy all of our animal feed. The agriculture ministry doesn’t help us at all. I am tired of living this life.”

The women work all day, making cheese and milk and baking bread in special clay ovens. Even young children have their own responsibilities.

The photographs shown here by Andrei Liankevich trace the nomadic life of the Yezidis, which is closely intertwined with the seasons. They are always ready to move on so there is nothing superfluous. Everything is connected to the animals – the wool, cheese for sale, yarn, bloc?s of dung dried by the houses just by the entrance. They have very little furniture and you rarely see photos of relatives on the walls.

The long trek into the mountains each summer is prepared long in advance. Moving up to the meadows of Mount Ara takes one or two days. After that the shepherds move their camp every couple of weeks, grazing and living on mountain slopes at a height of up to three thousand meters. At the last stage, the camp will be moved to an Alpine meadows where there are plenty of herbs and plants for the animals.

The future of Armenia’s Yezidis depends crucially on the next children keeping the culture and language. Currently Armenia has no Yezidi schools or textbooks and all education is done in Armenian. But the Armenian education ministry has promised that there will soon be Yezidi text books and classes taught in their language twice a week.

Text by Zhanna Alexanian and Andrei Liankevich. Photographs by Andrei Liankevich.

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