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Border smuggling rises in Iranian Kurdistan

Border smuggling rises in Iranian Kurdistan

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq: Mohammad Karimi was driving his car between two towns in the mountainous region of western Iran on an evening in early October. The vehicle was laden with satellite dishes, illegal under Iranian law, while his wife and two young children awaited his return. As he drove in that fateful night, a single bullet pierced his windscreen and struck him in the head. He died instantly.

Mohammad was the latest kulbar – border couriers who carry untaxed goods coming from Iraq or Turkey for a small fee – to be killed by Iranian border police. The police have killed close to 100 of these petty smugglers over the last two years, treating them like dangerous criminals.

While the official unemployment rate among the youth in Iran is 26%, the figure in the Kurdish areas in the west and northwest of the country is much higher, forcing people like Karimi to resort to the perilous profession of smuggling goods across international borders.

In his recent report to the UN General Assembly, UN Special Rapporteur on Iran Ahmed Shaheed highlighted the “indiscriminate killings of kulbaran in violation of the domestic laws and international obligations of Iran.”

Karimi’s mother, Hajya Malek Khedryan, speaking to Al-Monitor via telephone from Iran, said that her son was only trying to make a living for his young family. She said, “There were no warning shots; they just fired at his car and a bullet hit him in the head and killed him instantly.”

But it is not only the authorities that fill these border couriers with fear. Last May, Wali Khodabakhshian, a friend of the author, loaded his pickup truck with fuel to smuggle across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. He crashed the car in the mountainous roads, igniting the fuel, and was burned alive. Many others who do this dangerous job either die stepping on land mines left over from the Iraq-Iran war or freeze to death in the harsh winter of the Kurdistan mountains. Others are caught by the authorities, who seize their goods and hand them hefty fines that leave them with few options but to continue smuggling to pay them off. This creates a vicious cycle that eventually results in death for many of these petty smugglers.

This hard life for thousands of Kurds owes in part to lack of investment by the government in the Kurdish areas, which some argue is politically motivated.