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.
A largely rural population often accused of devil worship because they believe that both good and evil are manifestations of God, the Yezidis are either misunderstood or simply ignored. Worldwide their precise number is unknown, but estimates vary between 200,000 and 500,000. According to a 2001 census, there are just over 40,000 in Armenia. Speaking Kurmanji, the main dialect of Kurdish spoken in Turkey, and insulated from other influences during the Soviet era, Armenia’s Yezidis are considered by many Kurdologists to represent the purest form of Kurdish culture in the region.
And I have to say, spending very little time in Yerevan and finding myself traveling around the villages and towns of Armenia instead, the Yezidis were indeed intriguing. Despite the poverty, not only were they hospitable and humble, but the ongoing struggle and debate over identity fascinating. While some Yezidis openly identified themselves as Kurds, others either preferred to hide it or deny it altogether. The reasons for this have a lot to do with the shared history of Armenians, Yezidis and Kurds, but are well beyond the scope of this podcast.Back in the capital during that first return visit to Armenia, I anyway attended a human rights conference organized by the United Nations Development Program, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, somewhat paradoxically, the Chinese Embassy. It was then that I was offered the opportunity to work for UNDP in Armenia. The prospect seemed enticing. Others in the London-Armenian community, however, weren’t convinced. “Whatever you do, don’t write about the Yezidis in Armenia or mention the Kurds,” I was warned. “You will get into serious trouble.”
Yet it wasn’t the Yezidis themselves that were to land me in hot water, but rather local Armenian staff at the UN who used them to create problems for me once I had relocated to Armenia in October the same year. In November, Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, had materialized in Rome and some of Armenia’s Yezidis protested in his support outside of the UN building in Yerevan. And when Ocalan was captured in Kenya by Turkish agents in February 1999, emotions ran high enough for the Yezidis to storm the UN building and take the head of UNHCR hostage.
They threatened to set themselves and him on fire, but the incident passed quickly without any such actions. It did, however, result in the UN closing operations down the next day unbeknown to me at the time. And so, with the building closed, I went to talk to those protesting and to take some photographs. Some fellow staff members had turned a webcam on the protest and used the recorded material to complain to the head of the UN about my ‘friendly nature’ towards the Kurds. Actually, the reasons for doing this were personal, but more of that in a later post.Suffice to say that as I was already tiring of the needless bureaucracy and inefficiency of the United Nations in Armenia – something my maternal Uncle, a British Army Colonel who had commanded UNPROFOR’s logistics operation in Bosnia in 1993 – warned me about, I decided to resign and volunteer at a local documentary film studio. The Yezidis, however, had at least gotten me my first byline from the region in an article on Kurdish nationalism in Armenia for Radio Free Europe. Later, my work on the Yezidis made it into a US Embassy Cable from 2006 released by Wikileaks last year.
Ironically, had the UN actually listened to me when I offered to brief them on the Yezidis when they started to protest, they could have at least been spared the ordeal they did experience. In retrospect, however, that probably doesn’t matter. The Yezidis proved to be a welcome and necessary break from the virtually mono-ethnic environment of Armenia. And they continue to be the same today.