Navanti analyst Khalid Fatah writes about the kolbers, Kurdish porters who carry 150lb packs of smuggled goods across the Zagros Mountains. Kolbers are routinely killed by Iranian border guards, landmines, and harsh weather conditions.

Iranian Kurdish men have turned to smuggling in order to make a living amidst rampant unemployment along sections of the 1,450 km Iraq-Iran border. But these kolbers, as the porters are known, face grave danger with every trip they take, and often end up wounded or dead over the course of their careers.  

Kolbers mainly smuggle tobacco products, auto parts, and home appliances. In Kurdish, ‘kol’ means back and ‘ber’ means bearer—though it is a simple word, it has come to represent the adversity and tragedy facing Kurdish families in northwest Iran. These people inhabit border villages and towns in Kurdish-majority districts that have been forgotten or marginalized by Iranian authorities. Residents are left with the dangerous kolber job as their only option to make money, walking long distances in mountainous terrain through extreme weather conditions. 

Kolbers trudge through the snow. Source: Kurdistan Human Rights Network

Long-term poverty draws men to this high-risk profession

The Iranian unemployment and poverty statistics, published under the name “Shakhisy Falakat” (“Misery Index”), indicate that there is no significant difference in unemployment rates in ethnic minority areas compared to Persian-majority areas. For example, 2018 data shows that unemployment in the western and southern regions of Iran (Kurdish-Arab regions) sat at an average of 13%, which was found to be the same in Yazd province, where there is a Persian majority; however, this data is incorrect, according to Iranian Kurdish journalist Shahid Alawi. The Iranian government “registers daily laborers, or those who only work one day of the week as unemployed in Persian majority areas, but those same [part-time laborers] in the minority areas are considered as employed,” thus artificially reducing the unemployment rate in Kurdish areas.

A member of parliament in the Islamic Consultative Assembly representing Mariwan and Sarvabad said in December 2017, in a meeting with the Minister of Labor, that actual unemployment in Kurdish areas is 48 percent and that the area needed investment activity to combat unemployment and poor economic prospects. 

Approximate routes taken by Kolbers. Source: Navanti

Border security and shooting to kill

Iranian law stipulates various penalties for smugglers depending on the value of the smuggled goods. E.g., for cargo up to 10,000,000 IRR ($238), the smuggler is jailed from 90 days to 6 months and fined up to 3 times the value of the goods. 

This is how the law works on paper. But in practice, kolbers often face one penalty—execution—regardless of their cargo.

The Kurdistan Human Rights Network has accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and border patrols of indiscriminately shooting at kolbers. “They killed kolbers without warning, most of the victims were killed in daytime when they [IRGC or border guards] can see clearly,” said the Human Rights Network’s Rebin Rahmani. “The routes taken by smugglers are known to the border patrols and people. Moreover, they [kolbers] have been killed at a short distance. They have been killed near the southern city of Ahwaz and northwest of Mariwan city, which is about 15 kilometers from the Iraqi border…no investigation or prosecutions of any Iranian security element are being carried out,” said Rahmani.

The Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, which records violations committed against Kurds in Iran, told Navanti that from the beginning of 2019 until August, the IRGC killed 51 kolbers, including 4 people under the age of 17. In the same period, Iranian authorities injured 119 kolbers.

Kolbers cross a river. Source: Kurdistan Human Rights Network

Paying for the landmine that severed his leg

L.W. is a kolber who spoke under the condition of anonymity to Navanti. He lost an eye and a leg on one of his journeys after a landmine exploded under his feet. He had been working as a kolber for 24 years, after he stopped going to school in sixth grade in order to help support his family. Now he is in his thirties, married with two children, and lives in Shinay village northwest of the city of Piranshahr. 

Iran forbids the use of government health programs to treat anyone who is injured in an “unlawful” act, and in fact fines kolbers for damaging government property when they detonate landmines.

 “I am not able to provide 4 million Rials ($95) for rent. A few days ago, I received a warning from the court, fining me 11 millions Rials ($261 USD) for the damage caused by the detonation of the government’s landmine that cut off my leg,” L.W. told Navanti.

To read more about the kolber phenomenon on Navanti's website, click here.

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