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Kolbars: Quest for a livelihood on the Iran-Iraq border ends in tragedy

The tragedy of the Kolbars, those who transport smuggled goods on their back between Iran and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is bleak. In 2020 alone, 56 Kolbars died and 167 were injured, according to data provided by Iran-based human rights organisations.

The illegal transportation of goods on the Iran-KRG border - "kolberi" in Persian - has become a source of income for thousands of people. Kolbars carry goods weighing between 25 and 120kg on their backs, through dangerous mountainous and mined border terrains.

In the KRG, Kolbars buy electronic products, cigarettes and drapery in Erbil and various other places before delivering the goods to merchants at collection points in Iran.  

In the winter months, Kolbars trying to cross mountainous paths lined with up to a metre of snow, risking death or life-changing inury. Aged anywhere between 15 and 75, a significant portion of Kolbars are university graduates. Economic hardship and unemployment lead them to this challenging path. There are also unemployed doctors and engineers among the Kolbars.

Arsalan Yarahmadi, Chairman of HENGAW organisation for Human Rights, says they are reporting the death or injury of a Kolbar on the Iran-KRG border on a weekly basis. Yarahmadi stated that 56 Kolbars in total lost their lives on the border during the last 12 months, with 45 dying because of border guards opening fire, four from car accidents and seven due to cold weather.

Another almost 170 were injured, says Yarahmadi.

KHRN Coordinator Leyla Hasanpour argues that being a Kolbar is an economic, political and security problem. "We observe and keep track of the region through our activists. There is a serious economic crisis there. There is no industrialisation, no agriculture and no tourism in these towns where Kolbars work. 

"People from the region must either move to developed cities in Iran or work as Kolbars. As long as Iran considers this a security issue, Kolbars will continue dying on the road. If steps are taken to fix this problem, if economic welfare of people in the region improves, the Kolbars will disappear,” Hasanpour said.

Speaking to Independent Turkish, Iranian sociologist Hamid Rezapour, 41, says that Kolbars have emerged due to the economic crisis in Iran's Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan and Kermanshah provinces. "There are no factories in the area for people to work in. There are unemployed teachers, doctors and engineers working as Kolbars, as well as children under 18 and people over 70. Being a Kolbar is deemed an occupation but unfortunately it is not, it is a sociological problem and the Iranian Parliament also accepts this fact now." Rezapour said.

Nadir Mohammedi, 33, started working as a Kolbar when he was a child. He said that he was shot in his back by border guards at the Sardasht border while working as a Kolbar in 2013 and that he has been receiving treatment for seven years. "There is no alternative to working as a Kolbar. It is a necessity for us. I was guiding Kolbars on horseback when I got injured in our region, Sardasht. Iranian border guards opened fire. I was hit by two bullets in the back. My treatment continues. I had three surgeries and my brothers are covering my expenses. I will go back to working as a Kolbar if my treatment ends. There are no other sources of income in the region for us to earn our livelihood," Mohammedi said.

Many Kolbars are left paralysed because of attacks from border guards and many are confined to wheelchairs, he added.

"I am lucky. I did not die and survived after a few surgeries. I will perhaps join the convoy of Kolbars again. Many Kolbars die as a result of soldiers firing. Some of them survive but are left paralysed or continue to live with wheelchairs. I have hundreds of friends who were injured on the road and cannot use their feet anymore. I was also confined to a wheelchair for a long time. This hazardous journey takes 10-12 hours, and you make a maximum of $10."

Şahewan Merivani, 37, from Marivan says that he has been working as a Kolbar in Marivan, Avroman, Newsud and the Piranshahr region for seven years. The chance of a Kolbar returning safely home is 30 percent because of the mines, border guards and challenging terrains that await them, Merivani said.

"Sometimes we move in convoys of at least a thousand people and sometimes of 300-400. We face the danger of freezing, or getting struck by avalanches in the mountainous terrains in winter. I have experienced this many times. I will tell you about the most painful, most challenging night of my life as a Kolbar. 

Last year two brothers, Azad and Ferhad, who are both under the age of 18 were working as Kolbars in our convoy. It was a very long night. The weather was extremely cold, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. It was pitch black. We were in groups of 30 or 40 people. We were the experienced ones. We were well dressed with winter clothes and wrapped our hands and feet. Only our eyes were exposed. Azad and Ferhad did not have the means to buy firm winter clothes, gloves, and socks. They were in our caravan but disappeared. We looked but could not find them. They were buried under the avalanche. We stayed on the mountain for 10-12 hours. They could not withstand that; they were very young. It was the longest and most painful night of my life as a Kolbar."

Translated by Ata Türkoglu; Proofread by Merve Arkan & Meric Senyuz

Edited by Esra Turk, Tooba Ali & Celine Assaf

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