Armenian News Network / Groong June 12, 1998 by Onnik Krikorian Amarik Sardarian is the Yezidi editor of the Kurdish newspaper, "Riya Taza". "Riya Taza" is one of the oldest Kurdish newspapers in the world and is based in Yerevan, Armenia. This interview was conducted by Onnik Krikorian during research undertaken in June for the Kurdish Human Rights Project investigating the situation of the Yezidi minority within the Republic of Armenia. As such, it forms part of a series of interviews with Yezidi, Kurdish and Armenian representatives. A report on the situation of minorities within the Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, with a focus on the Kurds, will be published this year by the Kurdish Human Rights Project. OK: Thank you for your finding the time to conduct this interview. Could you please introduce yourself. AS: Firstly, may I thank you for conducting research into the situation of national minorities within the Republic of Armenia. My name is Amarik Sardarian, and I am the chief editor of the newspaper, "Riya Taza", and at the same time the Chairman of the Board of the Kurdish Intelligentsia Council. I am also a member of the Union of Journalists and Writers, and I have a degree of Laureate and am a honourable member of the Union of Writers. I have been in journalism for 40 years, and started my career in radio in the Department of Kurdish Programmes. Since 1952 I have been working at "Riya Taza". I started my work here as a translator, then became a journalist, vice-chairman, chairman, vice-editor, and now I am chief editor. OK: Can you tell me a little about "Riya Taza"? It has been said that it was one of the first Kurdish newspapers, and I would also be interested in hearing what its circulation is, and whether that circulation has changed over time. AS: "Riya Taza" has been published since 1930, and it has been the longest surviving of all Kurdish newspapers. It was the third or the fourth Kurdish newspaper to come into existence in the world, but not the first. The first Kurdish newspaper was called "Kurdistan" and published in Cairo in 1898. After that some other newspapers and journals were published abroad, but "Riya Taza" was the first Kurdish newspaper to be published in the Soviet Union, and perhaps the only one. As for the circulation, before the collapse of the Soviet Union the circulation was more than 5,000, with readers in other Republics. After the collapse of the Soviet Union former ties with other Republics also collapsed, and circulation has now fallen to around 700. The newspaper used to be published twice a week during Soviet times, but now it is twice a month. It consists of four pages, so the size has decreased too. The newspaper is now only read within Armenia, and I would like to say why the number of readers within Armenia has also decreased. Firstly, the educational level in the community is not very high, and secondly, the community is mainly scattered in mountainous regions far from roads, and delivering the newspaper to those regions is very difficult. We do not sell the newspaper at newspaper stands. We only deliver the newspaper by subscription. This is a completely de-politicised newspaper that does not favour any political party, and the issues we address are mainly in the areas of culture, science, and language. At present the newspaper survives because of financial assistance from the Government of Armenia. This financial assistance is hardly enough for our survival. We have three members of staff, but nevertheless we are grateful to the Government for its financial assistance otherwise we would be closed. We are very much concerned by the attitude of rich Kurds - millionaires - living abroad, and we would like to know that our voice reaches them so that they know what a miserable situation our newspaper is in. This newspaper is a chronicle for this community so it is worth preserving it and taking care of it. Rich Kurds in the diaspora should be concerned for its survival. It is worth pointing out that we do not have a single computer, and that we are using an old method of publication - Linotype. We have no fax machine, and our correspondents have no way to hand in their articles but to visit the office. In order not to finish on this sad note I am certain that in the future we will prosper. We know that there are international organisations that try to promote the development of free media and I will be happy if they take us into consideration. OK: The first thing that I notice about "Riya Taza" is that it looks as though it is published in Russian. I presume it is Kurmanji written in cyrillic script, and that this was because Riya Taza was distributed outside of Armenia in other Soviet Republics. AS: Yes, and one of the misfortunes of our nation is that we are using three different scripts. Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic. In 1929, when an alphabet was chosen for the Kurds in Armenia, the Latin alphabet was chosen. From 1929-1937 everything was published in Latin. In 1937 Stalin issued a decree that all those nationalities that before the revolution did not have their own alphabet should transfer to the Russian alphabet. Armenians and Georgians had their own alphabets, but the Kurds transferred to Russian [Cyrillic]. In 1937 the newspaper was closed and was only re-opened in 1954 because of the persecution in the period of Stalin. After that, the newspaper was published in Russian. Changing the alphabet now from Russian [Cyrillic] to Latin creates great problems - financially and educationally. OK: Are you Yezidi or Kurd? AS: I am a Yezidi, but unlike those people that confuse the question of nationality with religion, I recognise the distinction. By religion I am Yezidi, but I consider myself to be Kurdish by nationality. the majority of Kurds in Armenia - perhaps 98% - are Yezidi Kurds, and the percentage of Moslem Kurds is very insignificant. During 1989-1990 the Moslem Kurds left Armenia. This issue very often becomes politicised and a foundation for political debate. Some people claim that Moslem Kurds were persecuted, and because of that they left Armenia. The reality is that Moslem Kurds lived in the villages with Azerbaijanis. Their children attended the same schools as the Azerbaini children, and they were linked to the Azerbaijanis through mixed marriages. When the Azerbaijanis left Armenia as a result of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabagh, Moslem Kurds left too. There was no persecution of the Moslem Kurds by Armenians. There are still Moslem Kurds in Armenia, but their numbers are very insignificant. They live in the regions of Sevan and Dilijan and they live very well. Not in terms of economy, a problem facing Armenians as well, but in terms of human relations. There is no discrimination, but there are some interest groups - our enemies - that play on this issue. OK: The debate between Yezidi and Yezidi-Kurd is very interesting, and it has been suggested that more money has been made available to those groups that encourage a separate Yezidi national identity. I think that "Riya Taza" was closed for six months in recent years whilst separate Yezidi newspapers seemed to flourish. AS: I want to apologise for repeating what I have already said. the money that comes to "Riya Taza" comes only from the Government. As for the "Voice of Yezidi" it is only published once or twice a year, and this money too comes from the Government. I am on very bad terms with Aziz Tamoyan, the National Chairman of the Union of Yezidi, I do not have a very high opinion of him as a human being, but I can not go against my conscience. They are in a very bad financial situation as well. I do however, want to express my gratitude towards the Soros Foundation for the publication of a book, "Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History" by Susan Meiselas. OK: In that book, the map of Kurdistan goes into Armenia and up to Etchmiadzin. AS: Unfortunately, I know those maps, but in the book the map just illustrates the distribution of the Kurds - where the Kurds live. Many regions were also included, including Aragatz, and Western Armenia [Eastern Turkey]. We do not mean to say that Western Armenia and these other regions are Kurdistan, but that they are the areas where the Kurds live. Recently a lecture was held in the American University of Armenia by an Armenian academic from the United States, Astarjian, who is the head of the Centre of Armenian and Kurdish Friendship. The topic was "Kurdish Revolution and the Armenian Cause". In his lecture he mentioned that he had meetings with Kurdish Parliament members and leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and that certain agreements were be taken into consideration. Armenia was to be a separate country, and Kurdistan was to be a separate country. According to these agreements the boundaries of Armenia were set, and there was no overlap. Kurdistan started from Lake Van. So, I do not exclude that there are people who have big dreams, and that may even claim that Kurdistan even extends up until the Urals. However, it is not real. OK: Can you give me more detailed overview of the content of "Riya Taza"? For example, does it just deal with issues indigenous to Armenia, or does it deal with Kurdish issues in Turkey, Iran and Iraq? AS: Because "Riya Taza" is a newspaper sponsored by the Armenian Government, we feel responsible for illustrating life in Armenia in general, and not specifically the life of the Kurdish community here. In the history of our culture, folklore plays a key role, and we always deal with such issues in our newspaper. How it is of great importance to Kurdish culture, and also because the main bearers of Kurdish folklore are elderly people whose time on this earth is very limited we hope to preserve that folklore through our newspaper for future generations. At the same time we pay great attention to the development of our literature, and developing a tradition of Kurdish literary language. We also illustrate the life of the Kurds in Armenia in our newspaper. It would be illogical if the newspaper stayed neutral to what is happening in Turkey but unfortunately we have no correspondents abroad. We mainly use the news that appears in the Armenian and Russian media. The interest of the Kurdish community in Armenia is very strong with regards to the [global Kurdish] movement, and articles on the situation in Turkey are demanded even. The ideology of the movement is not vital, we are more interested in the national trends of this movement in terms of the fact that it is directed against Turkey and against the violation of human rights. And also in terms of the fact that the Kurds have taken up arms to defend their families, and their wives and children. According to some sources the total Kurdish population within Turkey is 20 million. However, the Turkish Government does not even want to accept the existence of Kurds in Turkey. According to the last census in Armenia in 1989 the number of Yezidi and Moslem Kurds was sixty thousand, and in Armenia the Government has created the best environment for the development of our culture, our schools, our culture and our language. However, we only see persecution and massacre in Turkey. OK: When Armen Sarkissian was Ambassador to London, and at the time of the reports of the clearance of Kurds from Kelbajar and Lachin during the Karabagh conflict, he stated that there were no Kurds in Armenia, only Yezidi. If you can see a political motivation in the definition of Kurds in Turkey as "Mountain Turks", is there a similar political motivation in defining the Kurds in Armenia as Yezidi? AS: We are greatly concerned by this issue. Both Yezidi Kurd and Moslem Kurd are two branches of the same nation. Apart from a religious distinction, there is no other distinction between these two sections. Yezidis worship the sun; Moslem Kurds, Mohammed and the Koran. In the southern part of Kurdistan, Kurds speak Sorani, and in all other parts Kurmanji. Yezidi speak Kurmanji too. There is absolutely no difference between the language spoken by Moslem Kurds speaking Kurmanji, and Yezidi Kurds. Spiritual, cultural is absolutely the same, and in scientific circles everyone agrees that Yezidi Kurds and Moslem Kurds are the same, but because of religious differences they call themselves Yezidi in the same way that amongst Russians there is a section different from Orthodox Russians that call themselves "Molokans". It is the same amongst us with just a few subtle differences. Because of the delicate issue of human rights, if someone calls himself a Yezidi then Armenian officials say that if this person wishes to be called a Yezidi I have no moral right to call him a Kurd. This has historical roots of course. the Yezidi were periodically massacred by Moslem Kurds because of their different religion. This conflict between two segments of the Kurdish nation was mainly on this religious basis. We have a special saying in Kurdish - Dooshmar - which means "enemy by religion". I have a great respect for Armen Sarkissian, and when he stated that there were no Kurds in Armenia he based his assumption in the census of 1989 where Yezidi were identified as a separate national identity, and the source of these statistics was the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In those days during censuses they would use a special list where minorities were listed, and in that list there were the words "Kurd" and in parenthesis "including Yezidi". The Chairman of the Ideological Department in the Central Committee of the Communist Party sent a written order to the administrator of statistics in Armenia requesting them to consider the Yezidi as a separate nationality, and the snowball started to roll after that. This is why Armen Sarkissian and other officials declared that there were no Kurds in Armenia, only Yezidi. In Armenia we have twenty-one purely Yezidi villages, eleven in the region of Alagyaz, eight in Talin, one in Ashterak, and one in Etchmiadzin. If the head of this Yezidi movement goes to any of these villages I am sure they will be beaten, perhaps even killed. The whole population of these villages are unanimous in ascerting that they are Kurds, and that their worship is Yezidi. OK: How do you feel about individuals such as Garnik Asatrian who are energetic in their attempts to deny any links between the Yezidi and the Kurds. AS: I have a great respect for Garnik Asatrian as a scientist, but I do not share his opinions. Garnik Asatrian proves that Yezidi are not Kurds, but all the members of the Yezidi communty say that they are Kurds. Garnik Asatrian, being an Armenian, states that Yezidi are not Kurds. this is very strange. There may be some reason for trying to do this but I am not aware of what that might be. However, Some years ago there was a scientist who put into circulation the term "pan-Kurdish". Poor Kurds! They are scattered in three or four countries, and they are all severely persecuted there, and this scientist uses the term "pan-Kurdish". In our dispute with Garnik Asatrian I tell him that if he is ascerting that the Yezidi are not Kurds then please tell us what differences we have in our language. If there is a historical nation called the Yezidi then it has had to come from somewhere. Where did it come from? So, the language is the same, but our religious centre is in Lalish in Iraqi Kurdistan. Recently another absurdity has been introduced - that Yezidi originate from northern India, and that there are Yezidi tribes living in northern India today. This is perhaps one of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century! I completely disagree with Garnik Asatrian, and Garnik Asatrian changes his opinions depending on the direction the wind blows. Ten years ago he stated that Yezidi were Kurds living in Armenia, and now he is ascerting that Yezidi are not Kurds. OK: Garnik Asatrian also states that there are external forces trying to promote the Yezidi as Kurds in the interest of involving the Yezidi in the Kurdish struggle. If the Yezidi can be defined as Kurds then it substantiates the accusations coming from Turkey that Armenia is supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and that it is providing bases for the PKK, and giving help in the form of financial and military assistance. At a Yezidi village yesterday I was not expecting to meet an official representative from the PKK itself, or to see so many ERNK and PKK flags displayed. This is a very sensitive issue for the Armenian Government. AS: Putting the question this way is not valid. When I received my passport in 1954 there was a line for nationality. On that line my nationality was shown as Kurd. In those days, Aziz Tamoyan, Garnik Asatrian and the PKK did not exist. The village where I was born and grew up was called "Kurdi Pump" but Yezidi lived there. Next to that village was another village where Armenians lived called "Hyegagan [Armenian] Pump" . In those days everyone understood that Yezidi were Kurds, and to differentiate the two villages they were called "Kurdi" and "Hyegagan". As for PKK representatives visiting us, we do not make a secret of this, but I can not agree that becaise of the existence of Kurds in Armenia and the PKK in Turkey there will be a problem between Yezidi and the Armenian Government. Yezidi Kurds do not go to Turkey, and do not fight against the Turks, but we morally support the Kurds in Turkey. the existence of the Kurdish question and the PKK in Turkey has had no influence on the relationship between Yezidi and Armenians. We know the Turkish ideology that accuses all of its neighbours of supporting the PKK. It accuses Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Cyprus and Greece. They accuse everybody because they are unable to supress the movement. They even say that Abdullah Ocalan is Armenian, and that the majority of the guerillas are Armenian. They even go so far as to study the genitals of their victims in order to see if they are circumsided in order to prove that they are Armenians. Some try to prove that because of the Yezidi in Armenia, relations between Armenia and Turkey will become very tense. Turkey is making it tense already with its ideology. Our moral support has nothing to do with the relations between Turkey and Armenia. From the information that we have, through the Azerbaijani territory of Nakhichevan, weapons have been transferred to the Kurdish guerillas in Turkey, but not one gun has passed through Armenia. Being citizens of the Republic of Armenia we are very loyal to this country, and I am speaking on behalf of the whole Kurdish community. It is not in our interest to do anything that might damage our relationship with the country in which we live. OK: In the village I visited yesterday, I held my interview with the representative of the PKK in a house that had on a wall a large picture of a young teenager, perhaps about eighteen years old. It had been his house and he was killed fighting with the PKK in south east Turkey. I was also told that another from the region had been killed with the PKK, and when I asked how many had joined the movement the villagers would not say. So, this is a very sensitive issue, and I certainly believe that it is very sensitive for the Armenian Government. AS: Which village? OK: Near Jarjaris in the Aragatsotn region, and even Karlene Chachani has even admitted that Yezidi have left to fight with the PKK. AS: Maybe some individuals have gone, but on their own initiative. It's not organised, and they go through other countries rather than straight from Armenia. There were rumours that someone from Yerevan had gone there, driven by their heart, and if I had the wish to go I would fight too, It is very obvious that people driven by their patriotic feelings go, and maybe they are killed there, but it is beyond our control. As for a PKK representative visiting Armenia, he has come here to spread the ideology of the movement among the Kurdish people, and to clarify the nature of this movement, its objectives and its goals. They go to the villages, they speak to the people, and they try to raise their awareness of these national issues. It is all just of an informative nature, informing people as to what is occurring within the PKK. Unfortunately, there is no official information. Only through the official Russian NTV Channel, and not everyone has a television set at home. So, there is no information and these PKK visits represent a first hand information source for them. There are three or four satellite antennae in the Aragatsotn region to allow people to watch MED-TV [Kurdish Satellite Television broadcast from Belgium] and people are interested in getting information about the PKK. OK: How useful is MED-TV for helping the Yezidi in Armenia with regards to culture, language and education. AS: I am an atheist, but I highly appreciate the programmes on Yezidi religion broadcast on MED-TV. On these programmes, Yezidi Sheiks speak and explain the Yezidi religion. It is very useful. There are also numerous programmes on Armenian Yezidi, and MED-TV has interviewed me on many occasions. OK: Given that Kocharian has stressed the importance of Armenia's national minorities are there signs that the situation of minorities within Armenia will improve still further. AS: With regards to the situation of "Riya Taza" there have been no signs yet, but I can see some positive tendencies. Recently I was invited by Vahan Hovanissian, a consultant to the President. He wanted to know what unsolved problems and difficulties the community faced. We spoke about our concerns, and not least our desire to have representation in Parliament. During the first Republic, the Kurds had such representation, and until 1990. At present we have no representative in Parliament. Kurdish language is taught in Kurdish schools twice a week, but no text book has been published for ten years. Whatever was published has been worn out, the books are old, and it is impossible to use them now. Whatever exists is outdated and do not correspond to the demands of the present time. A lot of what remains is Communist ideology, so we spoke to the government about our concerns. The next issue of concern is the training of Kurdish teachers for working in Kurdish schools. We raised the issue of accepting two or three representatives a year from the Kurdish community in teacher training schools, but on a non-competitive basis and even though Armenian students are accepted on a competive one. Eight or nine Kurdish villages are in the earthquake disaster regions. School buildings, especially in the mountainous regions, are in a very bad way. In the winter there is no way to heat the classrooms, and so Kurdish Community representatives spoke on this issue in the presence of government officials. Three villages in Talin region, and one village in Aragatsotn region, have no drinking water. These are the problems we raised, and the government has promised to solve them shortly. We understand that this is due to the economic crisis in the country and leaving problems unsolved is not typical for the Armenian nation. Armenia has always been very sensitive towards the Kurds and has always attempted to create a stable environment for the Kurds to live in. © Copyright Onnik Krikorian. All rights reserved. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited. -- Onnik Krikorian is a photojournalist, journalist and communications consultant in London. He has travelled to Turkey to cover stories on media censorship and human rights abuses for 'The Scotsman on Saturday', "New Internationalist', and 'The Journalist' magazines. He may be contacted at email@example.com. His Photographs of the Kurds and Yezidi in Turkey and Armenia are available directly, or through the London-based Panos Pictures photo agency.
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