- Middle East
NO FRIENDS BUT THE MOUNTAINS
Hundreds of porters, locally known as ‘kolbars’ cross the mountainous border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan carrying heavy loads on their back all year-round. In the light of the deepening economic crisis in Iran, more locals of all ages inhabiting Kurdistan province, where the unemployment level is among the highest in the country, are choosing this poorly paid and extremely dangerous job as the only way to make living and provide for their families. The goods that are being smuggled from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran like this are ranging from consumer electronics and clothes to cigarettes and alcoholic drinks, which are illegal in Iran. This market came into existence with the creation of Kurdistan Region in neighboring Iraq in 1992 due to the demand for Iranian goods and flourished in late 1990s. Due to the poverty and high unemployment rate reaching up to 50% in the Kurdish inhabited provinces of Iran, men of all ages ranging from 13 to 80 years are forced to do this job as the only way to survive. Moreover, Exposure to the mercy of the elements not the only risk for kolbars who are being regularly watched and frequently shot by the Iranian border patrol officers.
It is estimated that several thousands of men inhabiting the border areas of Rojhelat provide for their families working as kolbars. Having in mind that the number of family members in this part of Iran is large, it means that several hundred thousands of people are depending on this type of cross-border labor while many more are involved in distributing smuggled goods to other parts of Iran.
Kolbars cross the rugged mountains covered in snow dressed in their usual clothes, the only they can afford. As a consequence of the long-running economic crisis and US economic sanctions the number of people who are forced to work as porters is on the rise.
Improvised crampons attached to the shoes with a rope are being used as the only available piece of equipment that helps crossing the mountains during the winter.
One man in his twenties from a nearby village recently decided to work as a porter. Although he holds a master’s degree from the local university, he has been unable to find a job. Currently, working as a kolbar is his only option.
Column of exhausted porters is approaching the local road where they will deliver the goods.
Kolbars loaded with large LED TVs on their backs are making the final steps of their long and exhaustive journey.
Upon reaching the local road between Marivan and Hawraman Takht, kolbars will entrust their loads in exchange for money. Depending on the weight of their load, they can earn only between 20 and 40 USD.
View of the nearby Hawraman Takht, a historic village featuring the traditional terraced stone houses. Due to its distinctive architecture and landscape, this ancient village was inscribed last year on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Besides the exceptional potential for tourism, smuggling is still the only way to survive for many inhabitants of this impoverished region.
The kolbar route is clearly visible in the snow-covered slope of Kuh-e Takht mountain from the road connecting the border town Marivan and Hawraman Takht, a nearby village whose male inhabitants often choose this perilous job. However, there are many other similar smuggling routes along the Kurdish-populated portion of Iran’s 1500km long border with Iraq
After crossing the winding mountain trails and high mountain passes in subzero temperatures, a group of kolbars descend carrying their loads through the snow down the steep mountain slope. The trip across the border takes between 8 and 12 hours and is especially difficult during the winter months when most of the incidents happen as a result of harsh mountain conditions.
Depending on the type of goods and the physical condition of the porter, a typical load varies between 40 and 90 kg. Kolbars, meaning porters in Kurdish are a form of cross-border labor that is unique to Iranian Kurdistan province.
When the loads reach the bottom of the mountain slope, it is the time to carry it again on the shoulders. Usually the load is so heavy that kolbars need help to put it back on their back.
After the short break with a cigarette, a fully loaded porter continues the final leg of the journey.
A line of fully loaded kolbars breaks through the snow in slowly walks towards their final destination. According to the statistics, among several hundred porters that die each year, while more than 70% percent are being shot dead by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that is watching the border with Iraq. Moreover, the violence against them is on the rise in recent years.