MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 507: Armenias Yezidis Bemoan Lowly Status

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Fri Aug 28 19:37:21 2009

Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <editor@iwpr.net>

August 21, 2009

Locals say officials were not ready for independence and may
not even want it.  By Alan Tskhurbaev in Tskhinval

community claims it faces systematic discrimination.   By
Aghavni Harutyunian in Zovuni and Arpi Makhsudian in

gives glimpse of lost ethnic harmony.  By Seymur Kazimov
in Tbilisi




Long-marginalised community claims it faces systematic discrimination. 

By Aghavni Harutyunian in Zovuni and Arpi Makhsudian in Yerevan

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

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

“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.



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