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Between Iran and Iraq: Kolbars do not bend

By Monday 10 August 2020 No Comments

Written by Hataw and Loez
Translated from French by A group of students from Mariwan.

« Like the unfortunate madman who says he’ll climb down into Dovrefjell to blow up the whole world with a syllogism, what was needed was someone who could, to everyone’s knowledge, climb really deep down into the whole world of meditation, mediocrity, and spiritlessness to plant there, for all to see, the explosive either/or.»

                                                                                                 – Kierkegaard
HAMID NIKKHAH / حمید نیک‌خواه
Kurdish-Iranian Artist


We, a group of students, from Mariwan, decided to translate this article from French into English to shed a light on the condition of people called Kolbar (Persian: کولبر) or Kolber (Kurdish: کۆڵبەر) in Rojhelat (Iranian Kurdistan) following the tragic death of Farhad; a fourteen years old teenager Kolbar. Farhad was found dead after four days of searching in the mountainous region of Hewraman. He was trying to make some money for his family. Farhad died along with his seventeen-year old brother, Azad. Both of them are dead now. After the massive and violent repression of the last month in the region, his death shocked the people of Rojhelat.

The question that immediately comes to mind is, why would someone get involved in a dangerous job, if it could even be called “a job”, that earns so little? Why does a fourteen-year-old teenager have to work as a Kolbar instead of studying in school and spending his time understanding life? The tragic event of Farhad´s death is just one of the many in Kolbars’ daily lives, which is being highlighted due to his young age and his horrendous death in the light of recent events in the region. Everyone will probably forget this tragedy, like the ones before it, and goes back about his/her everyday life in a short while. It’s important however, that we know in the light of what has happened, nothing will be the same anymore. And that we must decide on how this event is going to affect our daily lives and how are we going to react to the injustice surrounding us? One may argue that a Kolbar is no more than a smuggler who crosses a country’s border illegally. Therefore, he/she may conclude, Kolbars are outlaws and what happens to them is a consequence of that. Or one may question the very decision one has to make to become a Kolbar, risk his/her life to earn a minimum amount of money. One may face the question to the regime for this new form of slavery and abuse. If European thinkers regard immigrants as people who are excluded from communities in Rojhelat, then they must also know that the majority of people of Rojhelt are excluded from the society there. They can be killed without due investigation, since they are regarded as either enemies or rebellions, separatists or terrorists and therefore excluded.

It is a permanent state of exception for the people of Rojhelat whom their existence has been ignored. To get a better understanding of the Kolbar issue, let’s have a deeper look inside this region called Rojhelat and its people. Iranian Kurdistan is one of the richest regions in Iran in terms of natural and human resources and one of the largest in geography, yet levels of injustice and inequality are higher than most of other regions. The Kurdish people have a low chance of getting proper jobs in other cities, for the very reason of being Kurds. This is also true for Balouch peoples in Balouchestan and people of Khouzestan province. However, compared to Kurdistan region of Iran, Khouzestan has enormous industrial units such as petrol companies dating back to more than 50 years ago. Therefore, in Rojhelat, the unemployment rate is very high and expenses are unaffordable and unsustainable due to high inflation. The border which separates Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria has been historically a symbol of inequality. Kurds are treated as enemies of the state, separatists, terrorists, and are extremely discriminated against. The geopolitics of Kurdistan is very violent. With no access to open space such as sea and access only to those suppressing states, the alternative is only the mountains for people in this region. And since the mountainous areas are difficult to surveil, the Iranian regime is destroying the ecological system of Rojhelat by burning down forests, and building military bases there. So instead of bread, a living, and jobs, which is what they conquer mountains for, Kurdish people get bullets and death from the regime.
HAMID NIKKHAH / حمید نیک‌خواه
Kurdish-Iranian Artist

Although the dominant opinion is to focus on inequality and injustice, we believe it is necessary that the economic structures and forms that have produced this state of inequality and injustice be studied and investigated as well. This idea seeks focusing on the problem roots on a larger scale since it believes mere study of inequality and injustice does not bring about public consciousness. We cannot work on theoretical works and system structures alienated to the misery and the pain of people without listening to the voice of forgotten people, listening to the non-existent part of society. This is the only way understand and analyze the situation. In the end, translation of this article is dedicated to Farhad, our little boy lost in the mountains of Hewraman, in the cold darkness with empty fisted hands…

Between Iran and Iraq: Kolbars Do Not Bend

In December 2019, while the Iranian theocratic power was violently suppressing the people who protested the previous month against not only the expensive life but the entire regime, a teenager was found dead, buried in the snow. His name was Farhad, a fourteen-year-old Kolbar. Kolbar? This is the name given to those who illegally cross regional borders to transport goods to survive. The majority of Kolbars live in Rojhelat, Iranian Kurdistan. Most of them are men plus a few women. They do not have any other source of income. Being a Kolbar compels them to do dangerous activities which are nothing but marginal activities. Nearly a hundred thousand people in Rojhelat are involved in this false job.
About eight to ten million of Kurds in Rojhelat are suffering from torturous living conditions. Their political protests and any claim linked to their Kurdish identity have been brutally repressed. The regime of Iran deliberately restricts the economic development of the region by depriving it of industry. Unemployment is an endemic dilemma of the region: although it is very difficult to access quantified data, the interviewed activists have put forward a range between 50 to 60% of unemployment. The official data shows the inhabitants of Rojhelat are between 10 to 13% of the Iranian population who contribute to only about 5% of the GDP. Therefore, in comparison to the official data, this unemployment rate is admissible.

The mountainous border that separates Kurdistan between Iraq and Iran gives rise to different types of circulations, either between families or politically or economically. Cross-border trade of goods is the only economic alternative for a large group of the inhabitants in Rojhelat. This activity was named based on what Kolbars do. Kolbar is a conflation of two Kurdish words Kol and Bar; Kol means back and Bar means goods on the back of Kolbars or their mules. They cross the mountain and carry goods at their own risk across the border of Iran and Iraq. There is a huge range of variety of goods, from baby diapers, household appliances, tea, clothes, blankets, car tires, cigarettes … to even the commodities banned in Iran such as satellite dishes, alcohol, etc. Until the November 2019 crisis in Iran, gasoline was very inexpensive in Iran. It was used to be smuggled to Iraq.

Kurdish Margin Maintained in Precariousness

The economic underdevelopment of the Kurdish region of Iran has caused a strong rural exodus, which has emptied the villages of their young people, who have left to work in industrialized regions, often Persian regions. “The number of Kurds working as workers in other regions of the country is much higher than the number of Kurdish Kolbars. “People who work as Kolbars have not been able to not find jobs in other regions of the country or emigrate because of the situation of their families,” said Cemîl, an environmental activist in the north of the country.

Like most of the men of the region, his father and he have been carrying out this activity. “When I think of Kolbars, the first thing that comes to my mind is grief. The anger with the current economic and political situation in the country which forces us to do this job. Kolbars emerged after the 1979 Revolution. Since alcoholic drinks have been banned in Iran, these products are welcomed in the country. It is a very profitable business.”

The geography of the border between the high windy mountains of the Zagros range makes it very difficult to monitor the border, and this facilitates smuggling. At the end of the Gulf War, with the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq from 1991 onwards, an intensification of trade in goods was started. “In the country,” continues Cemîl, “the demand for foreign goods was high because the Iranian goods were not of good quality. This market came into existence since 1991, but it evolved a lot between 1996-1997.

Back then, working as a Kolbar was easy. When the activity of Kolbars – “Kolbari” – was noticed by the government of Iran, it decided to restrict it to specific places so that it can supervise it. Consequently, between 17,000 to 20,000 electronic Kolbari cards were given to residents of border villages who had lived in that region for at least three years. Even with this so-called official Kolbari cards, the job was not constant and its income was not enough. Now the number of unemployed people is quite larger. This is why even if the Kolbari does not earn enough money, many people still do it. “

Hasan is in his thirties, with a full beard and broad shoulders. Passionate about cinema, he works today in a cultural café in a big Kurdish city. He had worked as a Kolbar due to his economic situation and curiosity. He tells us: “I started because I had debts and was under financial pressure. People often told me every night “you will make 500,000 Tomans, you are not weaker than others who are doing it. I had never ridden on a donkey, but I decided to go.”
Under his thick moustache, the face of Farouk, a thirty-four-year-old man, looked much older. Sinking into the snow on an icy mountain slope, under a sky laden with threatening grey clouds, eventually, he comes with his mules to look for goods in Tawela, a small village in Iraq, with his nostrils steam in the cold air. “We don’t have any other job, it’s not by choice, we are forced. I provide for five people with my job. If I was free to choose, I would like to have a store. Then, I could stay close to my family. But when there is no choice, you have to, right? ” Farouk said.

A structured Activity

In the Hewraman region on the Iranian side of the border, known for its terraced villages sprawling on the sides of high mountains; Kolbars’ crossing ways are open secrets. The teahouse on Mount Tahta welcomes dozens of families who come to spend some time in the mountains on weekends; during the week, only a few occasional travelers stop there to eat a kebab while admiring the view. Some men dressed in Kurdish attire walk around the house, chaining glasses of tea and focusing on their phones. One of them gets angry. Listening, we understand that this is a story of goods blocked on the Iraqi side. In front of us, a path sneaks its way through the rocky mountain. A car stops while pounding. Men come out in large traditional pants, canvas belts tied around their waist, sneakers on their feet, and small fabric or plastic bags on their back.

They rush on the way racing the pace and go down to the road heading to Iraq. Suddenly, we hear a radio spitting. A border guard in helmet and sand-colored outfit appears on the rocky ridge, weapon in hand. He was late though. Kolbars are already far away. They will not return until after dark, laden with goods.

Kolbari is done in groups. The process of Kolbari is carefully organized and prioritized. “We have different positions as Kolbars, muleteers, guards, drivers. All of these positions are dangerous. They all fight death. There are also warehouses. I have gone through all the positions. Now, I’m in charge of organizing the transfer of the goods. They are brought across the border to where we send Kolbars or mules. The work of a Kolbar is barely enough to survive” said, Baran. Hasan assures us: ” Kolbar is a person who experiences harsh difficulties, fatigue, and danger to earn just enough to afford food. They have to do that every day. In fact, Kolbari is not a job to earn money, Kolbars could hardly afford food. Today, 90% of our population work as Kolbars. A Kolbar earns 200,000 Tomans [just over 4 Euros-net] on each trip. 10,000 Tomans of this money is spent on the way; notably to buy food. 30,000 Tomans is spent to get to work by a car.”
On the Iraqi side, in Tawela, Sarmand organizes the loading of mules bound for Iran, not far from a small warehouse a concrete cube closed by an iron curtain. Sarmand says if weather permits kolbars to work, he sees more than 2,000 people crossing the border every day. However, sometimes rain and snow prevent climbing. Some people make up to five round trips a day and others three or less. Hasan remembers: “If you look at Tahta from here, Kolbars were like little insects. There were sometimes more than a thousand people of all age groups on the way. There was a father with his two sons with us: he was a Kolbar and his sons were mule drivers. Last year, the border was more or less open, we could see up to 150 animals in line. We had to move quickly.” “Everyone knows about the existence of Kolbars. Everyone, frankly, has been a Kolbar in a timespan. ” This morning I had a 67-year-old Kolbar. His beard was white. He made two trips since he wanted to earn 400,000 Tomans instead of 200,000. Because he is unemployed and has children. He needs money to buy them food. ” says Baran.

Jiyan is approaching sixty. She lives with her daughters in a district of a Kurdish town in Rojhelat.
Graffiti on the walls shows opposition to the regime. She started Kolbari in the mid of the 1990s after her husband who was a PDKI militant was killed by the security forces. She is worried about testifying reprisals. “I worked for six years,” she says after a long time of hesitation. “Sometimes, I would take my children with me so the agents would have mercy on them and would allow us to pass. We were around 10 to 15 women. They also took their children with them. I passed the border three times a day. I had to do the Kolbari. I suffered a lot.” Jiyan reports extremely difficult working conditions. In particular, she remembers one evening that she fell down while carrying an imposing television on her back. If other Kolbars had not rescued her, she would have suffocated. “In the beginning, I took my sons with me and I gave them each five kilograms of dry tea. They were 11 and 12 years old. What should I say? All my memories are full of sorrow and misery. […] I did it for my children so that we could live without having to beg others.” She says.

Capitalist profits

Due to the tightening of the United States sanctions by Trump administration, neither the Iranian government nor the traders (sometimes Kurds) who have accumulated their wealth on the back of the Kolbars have no interest in seeing this activity disappeared. This false job is a key element of importing commodities destined for the consumer society. As Cemîl explains to us: “The customs taxes that the Iranian government imposes are very high. It is more economically efficient for both businessmen and buyers that goods being imported directly by Kolbars. A package of Prima diapers cost 19,000 Tomans three years ago. When the sanctions were reintroduced and the borders were closed, the price climbed to 60,000 Tomans or even 150,000 Tomans with the dollar value rising. The quality of the products is another important aspect, for example, most diapers made in Iran are not of good quality, and some babies are allergic to them which is why we do not buy them very much.”

“This is one of the central points of the activity of the Kolbars. People come from all around Iran to buy goods that Kolbars have brought to their modern bazaar.”

“It’s a chain,” Baran said. ” businessmen come from Tehran, Shiraz or Isfahan: they buy goods on The Internet in large quantities from Oman, China, Dubai, or somewhere else, then convey them to the border and we take care of them. goods are brought to Mariwan and from there they are distributed in major cities. Businessmen and rich people are the ones who take advantage and make a profit, and all Kolbars work for this system.” A system that crushes Kolbars who continue working to make just enough money to survive based on transported goods. As Jiyan tells us:” We are being paid according to the value of the goods we carry. If the government arrested us and took over, we would lose everything and the owner would keep our money for himself. “

A two-hour drive away from the north of Hewraman, the city of Baneh is located with its concrete buildings and its recent buildings. This city is one of the central locations of the activity of Kolbars. People come from all around Iran to buy goods that Kolbars brought to their modern bazaar. Goods are spread out in the windows sill and on the sidewalks. The city is rich with the presence of businessmen who organize border trades. We can see them driving foreign impressive new 4x4s, which are comparable with old Peugeot or Saipan of the rest of the population. Zanyar is one of them. After studying English, he spent several years in China to create a “network of contacts”. Now he is back in Rojhelat, he has set up a company to import products from China. Without heartache, he tells us he wants to wait to accumulate enough money to be able to leave Iran. He estimates his monthly income between $3,000 and $4,000 which is a fortune where most residents’ wages are less than $200. He orders his goods from China through his local contacts, the goods are transported by sea to the ports of southern Iraq. they are sent by truck to the autonomous Kurdish region. Then, he hires Kolbars to bring his cargo into Iran. Shamelessly, he assumes to pay bribes to officers and certain officials to guarantee the passage of the goods. Sometimes, complex financial arrangements that are played out in Iraq, (where the dollars needed for the transactions come from) make it possible to escape American sanctions.

State of exception

There are many dangers along with the journey. Starting with the long and arduous walks in the freezing weather in winter, in the mud in spring and autumn, or under a blazing sun in summer. Apo is in his fifties. He lives in a village near Baneh. He is slender in his traditional costume, his keenness can be seen in his eyes behind his round glasses, he says: “In the past, there were even more Kolbars. In some places, the road is very narrow, steep and dangerous. We should pass one by one there. Sometimes Kolbars fall one after another, breaking their heads, legs or hands. Some are now disabled. During spring rains, water from the river often reaches the waist. Sometimes, Kolbars cross the water with a load of 100 kilograms on their shoulders.”

The risks are not limited to natural elements: the border and the encompassing territories are highly militarized. On the Iranian side, watchtowers stand on the crests of the mountains at regular intervals; roads drawn with a line allow the rapid intervention of border guards. Hasan exclaims: “The regime of the Islamic Republic has deprived the mountain of its trees. They have built watchtowers that allow them to see even insects. Several kilometres upstream, there are checkpoints resembling medieval towers that control the roads leading to them. Border guards inspect cars for goods or political activists. But it is a game of dupes: the powerful pick-ups carrying the load of Kolbars pass by dirt roads through the mountain, bypassing the checkpoints. Once the main road has been reached, the drivers head for the big cities and then unload their cargo in the bazaar district.

The activity of the Kolbars does not of course have the same meaning depending on whether one takes their point of view or that of the State. Based on international law, crossing the border is considered as international migration, therefore, the people who have crossed the border are subject to regulation and laws. Kolbars cross the border illegally and are at the risk of prosecution. Iranian law has even determined regulations based on the value of the goods transported by Kolbars: terms ranging from a few months to five years’ imprisonment. In reality, these penalties are rarely applied. Almost every week, Kolbars are killed by the bullets of border guards who do not hesitate to open fire.
From March to September 2019, activists from Kolbar news platform reported 37 Kolbars were killed across the Rojhelat border: 29 by gunshot, 2 from falling, 4 from hypothermia and 2 from car accidents. There were also 82 injured Kolbars, 76 were shot, 3 from falling, 2 from mine explosion and 1 from a car accident.

Iranian government spokesperson, Saeed Montazer Elmahdi, said in 2016 that reports of violence against Kurdish workers were “only lies”. He condemned the foreign media and said: “Kolbars have tried to weaken Iranian borders, promote the illegal economy and endanger Iranian security by bringing weapons and drugs into Iranian territory.” The government’s attempt to regulate permission has remarkably made it possible to define a threshold beyond which Kolbars are considered to be outlaws, to justify the brutal repression against them. Cemîl explains: “The government has given 17,000 job cards, but the number of Kolbars can go up to more than 100,000. Those who transport goods without authorization are criminals who can be killed. When the government says they don’t kill Kolbars, it means they don’t kill official Kolbars. Soldiers are never worried about these murders. As Apo reminds us: “A month ago, there was a little argument between a load owner and a sergeant, the sergeant shot him in his head and killed him. In these cases, soldiers are not arrested, they are only transferred from one region to another.”

” This allows the government to fight against Kurdish resistance, through civil or military, even in peoples’ minds. Then, makes it an example for the rest of the country.”
When Kolbars are not shot, they are beaten and humiliated by soldiers. Apo testifies: “soldiers and sergeants beat them with sticks, they kick them, punch them. Jiyan’s daughter accompanied her mother as a child; she would never forget the moment a soldier pointed his gun at them and threatened to fire. “Sometimes soldiers fire at us,” says Jiyan. “We could feel the dust from the shots in our eyes. Besides, border guards routinely massacre dozens of animals transporting goods, depriving their owners of valuable support. Mines are also a permanent, invisible, and moving danger as seasonal landslides change their position. “There are mines everywhere. Kolbars have lost their legs, their hands, their arms. Over the entire length of a journey, there were not even 500 meters of mine free passage”, reports Hassan. In September 2019, a Kolbar told the Navanti media that he had received an invoice asking him to reimburse the mine which tore off his leg.

Faced with this repression, Kolbars have no recourses. The courts do not deal with rare complaints lodged by the families of the victims since they do not want to put following pressure on the police. Fight against “smuggling” provides the regime with an excuse to maintain a state of emergency in the Kurdish regions. The rules in the border zones, implicit and mobile, are fixed by the agents of the State who exercise their sovereignty there; They alone determine the threshold to which Kolbars are repressed or not. But the latter often takes an extrajudicial form, so that its doer is not exposed to any juridical consequences. Borders then become lawless areas where Kolbars can be killed without criminal consequences for the killers. This allows the government to fight against Kurdish resistance, through civil or military, even in peoples’ minds. Then make it an example for the rest of the country.

For the military, Kolbars are also an important source of profit. “Officers are the kings of the region. They search the warehouse by warehouse claiming it is an order from the Supreme Leader, but they are lying. They are looking for gasoline. If they find gasoline, they take it and sell it themselves. Other officers turn a blind eye to the passage that Kolbars pass in exchange for bribes. Sometimes, the competition between the bosses pushes them to denounce themselves to the authorities, hoping to increase their profit. But it is the Kolbars who pay the consequences.” Hasan enragedly expressed. Hasan is adamant: “There are owners of goods who show soldiers the way to harm other bosses. For example, I saw a boss inviting army officers to a religious holiday. It’s a lawless region. Even Kolbars cannot take care of each other. Humanity has crushed here. “

A symbol of resistance?

“On Mount Tahta, a Kolbar descends a steep slope. Pebbles roll under his shoes.”

The government plays with the image of Kolbars and its transmission in the collective imagination to try to change the representations of the Kurds in the mountains. ” In the eyes of the people, Kolbars are the symbol of misery,” Cemîl tells us. He quotes an interview with journalist Hassan Ghazi, conducted by writer Mansour Teifouri: “In the past, Peshmerga and Kurdish guerillas roamed these mountains to say that they had not failed and they were not bowing to the Iranian government. But now, Kolbars are on the same mountains, but Kolbars bend to take goods and earn some bread.” According to Cemîl, Kolbars can thus be considered as a symbol of the failure of Kurds. But, despite all the efforts of the government, they have failed to break the spirit of resistance in Kurds. unlike Cemîl, Baran believes that ” Kolbar has become a symbol, like Marianne in France. A symbol of resistance. Previously, we talked about Palestine but now we talk about Kolbars. Everyone who sees them feels for them. ” In the eyes of a Kolbar, the border has no meaning except the military establishment of the Iranian government and economic activity: the trips take place in certain zones belonging to one homogenous ethnic culturally and linguistically. Farouk summarized it in this way: “For me, the border means distance, a feeling of unease. There are countries that no longer have borders between them: we would like to have no border here too. Because both sides are the homeland of Kurds. We would like to be together with no border which causes chaos between us.”

An expression in Kurdish Sorani exists to indicate crossing the border by Kolbars. “Snour Bazandn”. “Snour” means border and “Bazandn” means to conquer. “As the border is a symbol of our separation, when we cross the border we manage to overcome it, “says Cemîl. Although they are sometimes seen as the “slaves” of the government managing the Kurdish margin in a colonial manner, a certain number of Kolbars see themselves as resistance fighters by questioning the sovereignty of the border. They claim the fight against the government and evoke perpetuation of the mentality of combat in one of its historic sanctuaries.
On Mount Tahta, a Kolbar descends a steep slope. Pebbles roll under his shoes. He stops briefly before the strangers who greet him and smiles. He raises his fingers in a sign of victory while his head is up.

Written by Hataw and Loez

Loez: A French freelance journalist, Loez has been interested in the consequences of the Nation states on the Kurdish people, and in their resistance for several years.

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