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

Armenia's Yezidis Bemoan Lowly Status

Long-marginalised community claims it faces systematic discrimination.
By Aghavni Harutyunian
Most of the population of the Amo district in the Armenian village of Zovuni are ethnic Yezidis, making it a rare place even in the multi-ethnic Caucasus, but visitors can be forgiven for not noticing. Their attention will be occupied by the loud buzz coming from the high voltage power cables overhead.



For the visitor, the noise may cause a headache, but the residents have lived with it since the 1970s, when the decision to install the wires was first made.



“When my father and uncle complained about it, they were told they would be given a house in a different place. Then the people went to the mountains for the summer, and when they got back, the lines had already been built,” said Qyalash Avdalian, an ethnic Yezidi whose family is considered the largest in the district.



Many local residents claim their health has been affected by the wires and that the government’s failure – over four decades – to reroute the lines or rehouse the Yezidis is a result of endemic discrimination.



The Yezidis are Armenia’s largest minority, with more than 40,000 people out of the country’s total population of 3.2 million. That makes Armenia’s the second largest Yezidi community in the world, a long way behind that in Iraq, which may be as large as half a million.



They speak their own language, Yezidi, which is related to Kurdish, and have their own religion called Yazdanism, which is often presented as “devil-worship”, but which in reality combines elements of all the Middle East’s faiths.



The government has tried to satisfy the Yezidis’ demands, but is starting from almost nothing, since they have long been marginalised. Vardan Astsatrian, the head of the government’s department for national minorities and religions, said the first job was to try to produce school books.



“In the last year books have been published for the younger children, and now we are working on a set of textbooks for the higher years,” he said.



But if he thought that was enough to please the Yezidis, he was mistaken. The new textbooks are written in the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish but printed in the Cyrillic script.



“We do not know this language Kurmanji and we don’t want to know it. It is as if Armenians had to learn in Azeri or Georgian,” said Hasan Tamoian, the head of Yezidi programmes at Armenian public radio.



Armenia has no Yezidi schools, and never has had. Yezidi children study in normal Armenian schools with special language lessons, but even that is under threat since teachers of Yezidi are paid so poorly that the programme may not last much longer.



Mamoian Asmar, for example, teaches in the village of Nor Geghi, which, like Zovuni, is in the Kotayk region, but wants to find a new job because there are few textbooks for her pupils and little money for her.



She only has textbooks for the first three classes, and has no idea what books the older children will use if she agrees to teach again.



“We are not going to teach the children the alphabet over again. Leaving that aside, the headmistress gave me extra teaching hours last year, but this year a teacher has demanded her hours back. What can I do then? I can’t solve this problem on my own. I am not going to go to work for just four hours,” she said.



If young Yezidis leave teaching, the current deficit of specialists will become even more severe in the future, something the government has recognised as a major problem.



“In Soviet times there were serious specialists – doctors, academics – who trained others. But now the specialists have died, or are too old,” said Astsatrian.



He said the government was trying to prepare a programme in which Yezidis could be allowed into university with lower marks than ethnic Armenians to help produce more teachers, but other officials say Yezidis often do not want to go to university, complicating the quest for a new class of specialists.



Tamoian said Yezidis should be grateful that they live in Armenia, where their situation is better than elsewhere. “In northern Iraq, in the Yezidis’ homeland, there are no Yezidi newspapers, there is no radio, no cultural organisations, and in Armenia conditions are better than ever,” he said.



He blamed the Yezidi view that they are discriminated against on the difficult economic conditions in the country, the proportionately poorer condition of Yezidi communities and a tendency not to emphasise education in Yezidi families.



But this does not wash with Aziz Tamoian, chairman of the Union of Yezidis, who was head of the village administration in Amo district in the 1960s and 1970s. He said the failure to remove the power lines as well as a consistent refusal to allow Yezidis to buy land, were proof of systematic discrimination against the community.



He said that the opposition of the villagers was ignored when the power lines were built, and that now some 40 houses are directly below the constant buzz of the cables.



But he did not get much sympathy from Electric Networks of Armenia, which owns the lines.



“When these high-voltage electricity lines were put up, there were no houses in the security zone. The village was located away from the line. There were just a few plots of land where sheep were kept,” said Shavarsh Avetisian of the security department, adding that the houses were built under the lines in the 1980s, and that the Yezidi residents cannot blame the electricity company.



“The national minority card is always being played here. The Amo district only appeared here after the electric lines were built.”



Aghavni Harutyunian is a reporter with Azg daily. Arpi Makhsudian is a reporter with Capital daily. Both are members of IWPR’s Cross-Caucasus Journalism Network.