The Persecution Of Yazidis Goes Beyond Genocide

By Harriet Paintin & Hannah Kirmes-Daly

Lena, sitting outside her home in Alagyaz

“We are sun worshippers. The sun is God. Before, all nations were dependent on the sun and worshipped it, but now they have moved away from this, but we didn’t.”

The Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish religious group, and their ancient, syncretic (amalgamated) religion, have suffered violent persecution for generations. Deriving from faiths as diverse as Zoroastrianism, Islam, and Christianity, the Yazidi faith celebrates a deity known as Melek Tawas, or the Peacock Angel. One of the reasons for their marginalization is the fact that Melek Tawas is known in the Koran as “Satan,” leading to the misunderstanding that Yazidis are devil-worshippers.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire committed 72 genocidal massacres against Yazidis, forcing many to flee to neighboring Georgia and Armenia. However, today they face multi-faceted threats to their ancient religion, leading them to fiercely guard their traditions and culture.

On a cold gray February afternoon in Tbilisi, Georgia, we took the metro to a suburb called Varketili, where the community of a newly established Yazidi temple are actively engaged in raising awareness of the systematic persecution they are currently experiencing in Iraq at the hands of Daesh (ISIS).

In Varketili, the grayness of the sky was mirrored by the grayness of the crumbling Soviet-era tower blocks as far as the eye could see. People huddled in black coats walked quietly, eyes cast to the ground. Could this really be the location of a Yazidi temple?

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A prayer ceremony in the Yazidi temple in the outskirts of Tbilisi, Georgia.

Eventually, we found the temple, which bordered a neighboring wasteland. As we tentatively entered, a wizened old man dressed in brown robes and a white turban ushered us inside the temple, pointing out the peacock motifs surrounding the alter. In a room where men gathered, we were introduced to Vazir, a square-set man with a warm expression who began to tell us about the experiences of his community.

“Throughout Yazidi history we have always suffered religious discrimination. Arabs and Turks call us Kafirs (unbelievers) and in my grandfather’s time the Ottoman Empire persecuted us for this. Now in Iraq we face the same problem with Daesh, who are using neo-Ottoman policies. Today, many Yazidis are coming to Georgia from Iraq. Four families have recently come. In 2014, 70 families came but most of them left for Germany as there’s no work here.”

Vazir’s grandfather came to Tbilisi from Van, Turkey, after suffering Ottoman persecution, and his family has lived here ever since. Georgia was a part of the Soviet bloc until 1991, and we asked him about his experiences as an ethnic minority during this period.

“The Soviets were very good to minorities, they supported our culture and our language. We had schools in our mother tongue, theatre and dance, no problem. There was religion, but only in the church or the temple and not in the state. The social, economic and linguistic situation was far better for us back then than it is now.”

We paused as the elderly man in brown robes came in bearing a tray of tea and sweets. Vazir gestured at him and explained that he was the Sheik, the priest of this temple. We expressed our thanks for the warm, sweet tea on this cold day, and he smiled and sat down, watching the proceedings with a gentle curiosity. Continuing, we asked how things had changed for the Yazidis since the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Now, it’s not good. The economic situation is bad and we can’t have schools in the mother tongue. For some time, there has been a process of religious and linguistic assimilation happening.”

“What do you mean by assimilation? How is this different from integration?”

“Assimilation and integration are two parallel processes in Georgia and Europe,” he explained. “In Germany, they support integration into German society but they are also encouraging assimilation. For example, our language is Kurmanji, but now all the young people are forgetting this as they learn German or Georgian. Here, in Georgia, the main power is the Orthodox church, which is not supportive of or respectful toward religious minorities; the missionaries treat us badly, they disrespect us because of our religion.

“We need respectful integration, but slowly, Yazidis are being assimilated into the mainstream culture, in Georgia, Germany, wherever. That’s why we need to protect our culture and our identity and that’s why this temple is here, to combat attempts to assimilate us into the Georgian social and religious mainstream.”

Attention is often given to brutal, violent forms of persecution, such as the experiences of the Yazidis in Iraq. However, the slower, subtler forms of intolerance to minorities must also be considered as minorities try to preserve their way of life, even when this is squeezed to the outer most edge of the tower blocks of Tbilisi.

We decided to head to Yazidi villages in rural Armenia, where Yazidis live separately from their Armenian neighbors to preserve their culture and traditions. Alagyaz, a cluster of houses nestled in between towering mountain peaks, has been a home for Yazidis since they fled persecution at the hands of the Ottomans in the 19th century. The late winter sunlight reflected off a thick coverage of snow; it muffled the sound of our footsteps in the empty streets. The climate of Alagyaz was unforgiving.

We were invited to stay the night in the house of Lena, a fiercely independent elderly woman with fire in her eyes, and her daughter Azeroo. The rest of Lena’s children work in Russia, sending remittances to Lena to substitute the small income that their small shop provides.

All of us gathered around the wood-burning stove in the living room, warming our hands, as Lena told us about life in Alagyaz:

“Most people here work on farms, they have animals and they sell milk. I don’t — I grew up in Tbilisi so I didn’t learn this kind of work in my youth. I am a foreigner; I came here after my marriage. Back then we women lived in darkness, we couldn’t go out anywhere alone. Now, we have some freedoms — I can work in my shop, go to the bazaar. I need this kind of life. I’m more like a man than a woman!”

We sat around the table in the small kitchen as Lena plied us with delicious, home-cooked food, and a shot of vodka: “I don’t normally drink, but if you will, then I will join you.” The food and drink warmed our insides and the evening passed comfortably in conversation as Azeroo quizzed us about our lives of travel and freedom. “How can your family let you go out of the house at such a young age?”

Her family may be spread across different countries, but Lena is no less a devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt. While we sat talking with Azeroo, Lena sat speaking to various family members over Skype. “She does this every evening,” Azeroo told us. Migration is becoming an increasingly present part of the Yazidi community’s experience as the lack of proper infrastructure, schooling, and job opportunities mean that many families rely on the support of their children working abroad. Skype and other forms of electronic communication are one of the only ways to keep family ties strong.

The next morning, we were woken by Azeroo poking her head around the door and sleepily asking us when we were planning to leave. Surprised by this sudden change in demeanor after the warmth and welcome of yesterday evening, we gently inquired as to what the problem was.

“The other villagers are all scared because you are here. It is better if you move to the next village today.”

Slightly shocked, and curious, we asked why the villagers would be scared of us.

“They are scared of terrorism, Islamic terrorism. There have been attacks in villages around here and people are scared.”

This fear of outsiders stems from the fact that Yazidis have been suffering persecution at the hands of outsiders for generations. While many have found a safe home in Armenia and Georgia, they still live in fear as news filters through of Daesh’s murderous onslaught in Iraq, a 21st century genocide.

The Yazidis are consciously aware of the threats posed to their ancient culture and religion and the increasing need to safeguard these traditions. In the temple, Vazir told us, “I don’t know what the future holds for Yazidis, in Georgia or the whole world — there are problems for Yazidis everywhere. But this temple is a center of Yazidi identity. It’s here to combat these attempts to assimilate us into the Georgian social and religious mainstream. We need to protect our culture and identity.”

While culture is fluid and ever-changing, there is a difference between organic change and the direct attempts to eradicate Yazidi culture. The systematic erasure of Yazidis throughout the generations have taken various forms; the violent, murderous persecution at the hands of the Ottoman Empire still echoes from the annals of the past, and today, Daesh remains an obvious and immediate threat. Meanwhile, migration and assimilation contribute to the palpable dilution of their culture as well.

In the face of ongoing adversity, dwindling numbers, and eradication, it becomes more important every day to celebrate the Yazidi culture and religion.

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