Arrival: Yezidis and an un-United Nations

Yezidis, Alagyaz, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 1998


Combining elements of Zoroastrianism and other religions, the Yezidis are the largest ethnic minority in Armenia today. Considered by many academics to be ethnic Kurds who didn’t convert to Islam, they are also the reason why I moved to Armenia in October 1998. Indeed, although I had visited Nagorno Karabakh on assignment in 1994, I had since moved on to work on the Kurds in Turkey and had no immediate intention to step foot in the Caucasus again. However, in June 1998, an opportunity arose to visit Armenia for the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project.

With most of Armenia’s Muslim Kurds having fled with the Azeris at the beginning of the Karabakh conflict, this pretty much meant the focus was on the Yezidis.

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Living On The Streets

Homeless Karabakh war veterans Robert and Gor, Yerevan, Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 2004


Although this blog was meant to start in January 2012 there always seems to be something to post about before then. So with the New Year almost upon us, it’s perhaps only right to think about those less fortunate than ourselves. For example, although some things have changed for the better in Armenia since I’ve been here, poverty levels remain high, and for rough sleepers in the Armenian capital, known locally and somewhat derogatarily as bomzh, the situation is still very dire indeed.

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Prologue to Armenia: The Black Garden

Kelbajar © Onnik Krikorian 1999


Why doesn’t Armenia have an army?
— Because everyone wants to be the General.

That was a joke told to me by my father in 1991. It wasn’t very funny, it has to be said, and given that it coincided with the Armenian military engaging neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, it also wasn’t particularly factual. Indeed, such prowess did the Armenian military show on the battlefield compared to groups of disorganized units on the other side, usually under the command of warlords more concerned with protecting their financial interests in Baku, that it wasn’t long before Armenia took control of just over 16 percent of what the international community considers sovereign Azerbaijani territory.

Over 25,000 people were killed in the fighting that followed and over a million forced to flee from their homes. Even today, dozens are killed in cross-border skirmishes every year and a lasting peace remains elusive.

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Poverty in Armenia

Squat, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian 2004


Although this blog will mainly be a personal account of life living in Armenia since 1998, it will also take a look back at key issues which still affect the country today. One of those issues is poverty, a topic I covered extensively from 2000 to 2006. Back then, the Armenian Diaspora was largely ignorant of such problems and not least because of the new construction work evident in the center of Yerevan. However, that was just a fascade to the real situation for many Armenians, and especially those with large numbers of children.

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Coming Soon in 2012

In October 1998, after being offered a job with the United Nations, I decided to relocate from London to Yerevan, the Armenian capital. In June the same year I had already made my second visit to the country to document the Yezidi minority and it was then that I had been offered the position. Some four years after first setting foot in the Caucasus to photograph the 1994 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh, having worked on the Kurds in Turkey since then it seemed time for a change for both personal and professional reasons.

London-Armenians warned me against the move, however, saying that it wouldn’t be long before depression set in after witnessing first hand the poverty, corruption and insular world-view that has defined much of the country’s post-Soviet development.

They were right, and eventually my first book, Armenia: Poverty, Transition and Democracy was published in 2004 by the Gomidas Institute following the controversial and bitterly disputed re-election of Armenian President Robert Kocharian in February/March 2003 and Georgia’s Rose Revolution at the end of the same year. Even so, the publisher had suggested another title. Rather than a collection of articles and photographs, the idea of my first-hand account of my experiences in the country, published as Down and Out in Yerevan, was floated about.

The time was not right then, but a few elections and even a war in neighboring Georgia later, it is now. Chronicling a country crippled by economic collapse, political and economic corruption, conflict, and closed borders with two of its four neighbors, this blog will be frank, honest and pull no punches. Coming soon in January 2012.

Onnik Krikorian

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