Armenian Yazidis join fight against Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh

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A group of Armenian Yazidi reservists have formed a military unit that will join the frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh, as fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia continues in the disputed territory.

The group gathered on the premises of a Yazidi temple outside the Armenian capital of Yerevan, as reservists country-wide were mobilized after Armenia declared martial law the day the fighting began on 27 September.

The military unit is led by Rzgan Sarhangyan, a veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the 1990s, and is composed of 50 soldiers aged between 18-55, activists told Al Arabiya English.

Fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia began after Azerbaijan launched airstrikes over the disputed territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. The breakaway region is part of Azerbaijan, but it has been run by ethnic Armenians since 1994.

While the international community has called on both sides to end hostilities, these appear to be escalating daily. The city of Stepanakert - the capital of the Armenian-backed, self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh - was hit by shelling overnight, with over 29 civilians killed and thousands displaced since the clashes began.

A symbolic fight

Yazidis are Armenia’s largest minority, numbering between 35,000-40,000 according to a 2011 census. Most of them live in Yerevan, and in the western regions of the country.

“The right to live in peace has come under question,” said Sashik Sultanyan, of the Armenian NGO the Yezidi Centre for Human Rights, “Yesterday drones flew above Yerevan. Armenian Yazidis are fighting for their rights and their identity, it’s not just a war about land.”

But for many, the conflict has a symbolic significance, as Armenia accuses Turkey of supplying weapons and mercenaries to Azerbaijan.

Armenian Yazidis fled persecution from the Ottoman Empire, and share the country’s grievances with Turkey. Many view the fight against Azerbaijan as part of the resistance against Turkish aggression.

Azerbaijan has categorically denied reports that Turkish-backed mercenaries are now fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But these reports further add to the perception that Yazidis are fighting a historic battle to save their community. “They are fighting terrorists who also killed Yazidis in Syria,” added Sultanyan, reflecting a widely-held belief that these mercenaries were involved in IS attacks on Yazidis in Syria and Iraq.

Impact on the rural economy

As thousands sign up to join the frontline, the mobilizations could take their toll on Armenia’s Yazidi population. Many of Armenia’s Yazidi villages are plagued by mass migration caused by the country’s economic woes, with more people now leaving to fight.

A photo shared on social media, showed the mother of two Yazidi soldiers preparing to send her youngest son to the frontline, having lost an older son to previous conflicts.

“It is too early to say what the impact will be, we don’t know how long this war will last,” said Sultanyan.

The mass conscription has also fueled existing debates in Armenia about the militarization of society. In late August, the Ministry of Defense published a draft bill on the formation of a militia composed of up to 100,000 civilians, who would “participate in the armed defense of the Republic.”

Local authorities have said on social media posts that they will only contact reservists and volunteers on the basis of need.

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