History repeating: Yazidis find haven once more in Caucasus

History repeating: Yazidis find haven once more in Caucasus
In-depth: Georgia and Armenia have welcomed Yazidis who fled the genocidal campaign of the Islamic State group in northern Iraq, reports Killian Cogan.
5 min read
12 September, 2016
A peaceful life: Aknalich in Armenia offers Yazidis a respite from their war-torn homeland [K.Cogan]

Amid the squalor of crumbling Soviet-built apartment blocks, Tbilisi's shiny Yazidi Temple strikes an unlikely feature. Nestled in the outskirts of the Georgian capital, the Sultan Ezid Center is one of the world's three Yazidi Temples, erected in 2015 with government donations.

Previously practically unheard-of, the Yazidis have been in the spotlight since the Islamic State group began a gruesome campaign to eradicate them from their ancestral homeland in Northern Iraq.

For the past two years, this esoteric community whose syncretic beliefs blend elements of Zoroastrianism, Sufism and Christianity, has suffered horrific tragedies. Iraqi Yazidis have been subjected to mass executions, forced conversions and sexual slavery - in what the UN has officially called "genocide" in June 2016.

While most afflicted Yazidis have sought refuge in Europe, some have made their way to the Caucasus, where Georgia and Armenia have been hosting their own Yazidi minorities for more than a century.

Noori Ismail is a 30-year old who came to Tbilisi last year and started working for the Sultan Ezid Temple. Along with three other families, he fled the mountains of Sinjar, where IS slaughtered more than 4,000 Yazidi men in August 2014.

Despite the limited economic opportunities Georgia has to offer, Noori has received of support from both the state and the local Yazidi community.

"Though most people here are Christian Orthodox, the situation for Yazidis is very good," he told The New Arab. "People come to pray at the Temple every day with no fear of being threatened."

Melek Tawus, the peacock angel, is featured
in Tbilisi's Sultan Ezid temple [K.Cogan]

For the long-persecuted Yazidis, the Caucasus is one of the few places where they feel safe. The fate suffered by Yazidis under IS mirrors the plight they have endured for centuries in the Middle East.

The veneration of Melek Tawus, the peacock angel which Yazidis believe to have repented after having fallen from God's grace, is often likened to the Quranic Sheytan or "Satan" - earning them a misfound reputation as "devil-worshippers".

In Iraq, where the community historically hails from, Saddam Hussein's forced Arabisation policies targeted Yazidis for speaking Kurmanji, a dialect of Kurdish. Yet despite sharing a language with Kurds, they are regarded as a distinct ethnic group and are ostracised by the Iraqi Kurdish leadership.

With a trembling voice, Noori laments the lack of solidarity between the predominantly Muslim Kurds and Yazidis.

"Kurdish politicians have manipulated us for political gain. Barzani only helped Yazidis when they were useful to him, but now he has abandoned us," he says, referring to the president of the Kurdish Regional Government that controls Northern Iraq.

As IS launched its attempt to decimate the 500,000-strong community, Yazidis fell prey to a broader struggle between different Kurdish political factions. While the Peshmerga forces are widely blamed for having let down the Yazidis displaced in Sinjar, Noori contends it was the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that came to their rescue.

Fearing the PKK's advances in the region, the Barzani-led Kurdish Regional Government shunned the Yazidis, leaving them at the mercy of the IS jihadists.

Even in Europe, where dozens of Yazidis travelled, hoping to find some respite, incidents of inter-communal violence have been reported. In the past couple of months, the Germany-based news outlet Êzîdî Press has cited several attacks in which Yazidis were assaulted by fellow asylum seekers in German refugee shelters.

In the Caucasus, where they have enjoyed better conditions, Yazidis first settled as a result of Ottoman oppression in the second half of the 19th century. Originally inhabiting the eastern provinces of Anatolia, Yazidis became victims of ethnic cleansing efforts carried out by the late Sultan Abdul Hamid against non-Muslim minorities.

This monument in Aknalich draws a parallel between the
Armenian genocide in 1915 and the massacres
of the Yazidis in 2015 [K.Cogan]

Most migrated to Armenia where they now make up the country's largest minority, numbering around 30,000. Armenia's Yazidis are well integrated and maintain strong ties with their Christian neighbours.

Deeply scarred by their own genocide in 1915, Armenians see in Yazidis a shared history of hardship and persecution.

A potent symbol of Armenia's empathy for the beleaguered Yazidis is a memorial that was recently unveiled in central Yerevan, honouring those who perished at the hands of IS.

In Aknalich, a remote village west of the Armenian capital, the world's largest ever Yazidi Temple is under construction.

To be completed in 2017, and though plans to build it were made long before the rise of IS, it is a major source of pride at a time when Yazidis are going through one of the harshest periods in their history.

Igor, an Armenian Yazidi who came to Aknalich to pay a visit to the Temple with his family, is saddened by the recent events in Iraq. "The Yazidis in Sinjar are our brothers," he told The New Arab. "We are the same people."

With their singular conic roofs, the Temples of Georgia and Armenia were modelled on the Lalesh Temple in Iraq's Nineveh province, the Yazidis' holiest site, to which they are expected to make at least one pilgrimage in their lifetime.

A painting of the Lalesh Temple adorns the wall
of the Ziayarat Temple in Aknalich,
near Armenia's capital [K.Cogan]

Having lived apart from each other for more than a hundred years, Yazidis from Iraq and the Caucasus have nurtured a common identity.

Aziz Tamoyan, the leader of Armenia's Yazidi National Union, has led a vocal campaign to rally support against IS actions in Iraq, referring to Iraqi Yazidis as his "brethren".

In Georgia, home to fewer than 6,000 Yazidis, Noori says he has had no problem blending in with the local community.

"I have been learning Georgian to get by, but I speak Kurmanji with the Yazidis who come to the Temple, and we have no difficulty communicating. There is no difference between the Yazidis from Georgia, Armenia, Russia or Iraq. We are one people."

As it did a century ago, the Caucasus has become a haven for Yazidis under attack in their homeland. Armenia and Georgia have not only proved countries of exile, but have also been the safeguards of much-threatened identity.

Yet their hospitality will never replace the cradle of Yazidi culture. As our conversation came to an end, Noori stared wistfully at a painting of Lalesh that adorns the inside of Temple.

"If Georgia may serve as a temporary refuge, I long for the day I can return to the place Yazidis cherish the most," he said, "the sacred lands of Northern Iraq."

Killian Cogan is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.