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Shoot first

Smuggling is necessary but dangerous work for these Kurdish boys. Many are killed every year by Iranian border patrols. Rahman Hassani/Alamy
Smuggling is necessary but dangerous work for these Kurdish boys.
Many are killed every year by Iranian border patrols. Rahman Hassani/Alamy

Unarmed Kurdish boys and men who work as porters, crossing perilous mountain passes, continue to be shot and killed by Iranian border guards.

Hundreds have been killed or seriously injured in recent years, moving between Iran and Iraq. Some 231 deaths were recorded in 2018 by Hengaw, an Independent Human Rights Organization reporting on violations in the Kurdish areas in the west of Iran. Between March 2019 and March 2020, a further 237 were killed or injured, most also as the result of direct firing by border guards. At least four more were shot and killed in May 2020, and a fifth froze to death.

Known as kulbars – from the Kurdish for ‘shoulder’ and ‘carry’ – the porters are viewed as smugglers by the Iranian authorities, and are shot on sight, even though this goes against Iranian constitutional law.

But the porters persist because there are few other opportunities in the economically deprived area of Iranian Kurdistan (or Rojhilat) in which they live. By carrying the heavy loads of goods such as tobacco, tea, clothes, household items and even alcohol, they can make $10-$30 a day.

Mohammed had been a kulbar for 30 years when his 27-year-old son Shafi was shot and paralysed. He told photojournalist Mamrez Soltani: ‘I didn’t want my children to become kulbars. But what choice is there when we don’t have any bread to eat? We do not deserve this. We defended these borders for eight long years during the Iran-Iraq war. We gave blood. Now, our children have to carry loads on their backs like animals for a bite and finally lose their lives on the job. They hunt us like animals.’2

Protests against the shooting of kulbars are violently supressed by security forces – as is most protest in Iran today. The government has closed down Kurdish and Persian language newspapers, banned books, and punished publishers, journalists and writers.

Kurdish demands for independence have been more muted in Iran than in Turkey, Iraq or Syria, perhaps partly because of closer Kurdish-Persian cultural and linguistic connections. Nonetheless, Iran’s eight million or so Kurds are barred from the higher ranks of power. The mainly Sunni Muslim Kurds also experience religious prejudice at the hands of Iran’s fundamentalist Shi’a regime.

But it’s in the justice system that the inequality is most obvious. Kurds are disproportionately represented in the prison population, especially as political prisoners. Some 3,000 were detained in the past year, many for protesting against rising fuel prices and the Turkish army’s attack on Syrian Kurdistan. Kurds are also more likely to be executed – 13 in the month of April 2020 alone.

Iranian Kurdish political parties and movements, such as the PJAK, KDPI and Komala, are banned and operate in exile. But there are signs of armed groups operating within the country too. In May three members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were killed in the Kurdish-majority western Iran, during what the state-run Press TV described as an ‘operation against terrorists’.

Kurdish resistance in Iran may not hit the headlines, either nationally or internationally, but that does not mean it isn’t brewing.

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