Where the Wind carries Bullets

Mohammadreza Soltani

2017 - Ongoing

Iran

Caught between Life and Death: Where this trail begins…

“Whenever we come for smuggling to the border, we are actually trading our lives to earn our bread for the next day“ 17-year-old Bahman told me when we were riding on smuggling donkeys in the mountains at the Iranian-Iraqi border. Both in front and behind us was a queue of donkeys in serpentines as far the eyes could reach before everything vanished in layers of mist and fog.

Three hours later, caught in a frightening darkness in the no-mans-land between the countries, I was thinking of my conversations on the path with the smugglers. Unfamiliar with the path, I had lost the group and sought shelter in a corner after the harrowing echoes of gun shots by Iranian border guards had dispersed group. Marx’ famous quote “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” was continuously coming up my mind. It is structural unemployment in the region that forces smugglers to risk their lives in order to earn enough for a couple of days of decent living.

Iran has a 1458km long common border with Iraq in the west. The area that is bordering Iraqi Kurdistan is mostly inhabited by a Kurdish Sunni population. an estimated 40.000 people from the towns and villages in the Iranian west earn their living from smuggling of goods such as garment, housewares, alcoholic beverages and cigarettes. Counting in their child-rich families, this results into nearly 400.000 people in the area being directly dependant on smuggling business.

The lack of jobs and structural unemployment is seen as the main issue nurturing the smuggling business. Because of strategic calculations, the Kurdish inhabited region has always been kept structurally weak by the central government. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, a possible Kurdish Sunni independence has been a risk in the eyes of the Shia government in Tehran. Hence structural repressions keeping the region low educated and economically weak draw a continuous line in the government’s plan. Facing institutional discrimination the Kurdish people in Iran perceive themselves as second class citizens and hence go into illegal smuggling with all the risks involved as it enables them to nurture their families.

Coolbar, a construction of two Farsi words “Back” and “Carrying” is the local term for the group of traditional smugglers who carry the goods on their back through borders. I met the 51-year-old Darwish Mohammad when he was weeping over his child. His 27-year-old son, Shafi’ has been disabled since he was shot by border guards in February 2017. Darwish, who has been a coolbar for 30 years and whose facial expressions let one guess his age twenty years more, told me with a sobbing voice: “I never wanted my children to become coolbars. But what else should they have done when we don’t have food to eat? This is not just! We defended these very borders 8 years long during the war [with Iraq] and bled on this soil. Now our children have no employment and the government has forgotten us”.

In March 2017 I started my project on traditional smuggling in the west of Iran. Now I am still photographing on the Iranian side, but am planning to continue this project on the Iraqi side - where this trail begins. To this end I want to cover the areas where coolbars take their goods for transport. I want to meet brokers who negotiate and deal with smugglers, but also deliver them the goods. As this is a story inevitably connected to the landscape, I furthermore aim to depict the rural lives of people in this area to show the relevance of smuggling for the people. And I want to accompany coolbars and other traditional smugglers on their hostile trails to depict the archaic nature of their work.

My goal is to produce an in-depth photo reportage along the smuggler’s path and to reach awareness for the situation of the Kurdish people that leads them into the business. A lethal business in which only last winter 16 men trying to earn a decent living were frozen to death, and in which tens of coolbars are shot dead by border guards on the trail every year.

{{ readMoreButton }}

  • With the evening approaching, groups of Kulbars arrive from the nearby villages and cities at the mountains and cross the border as a caravan. They include 13-14 years old children and 70-80 years old men. There are quite a few university graduates who have lost hope of finding employment.

    Buaran Village, border area Iran
    5 March 2017

  • The Kulbars have reached the village after many ups and downs. The owners immediately take delivery of their goods. They buy the goods over the telephone in Iraq and use the Kulbars to bring them to Iran. The goods must be quickly loaded on trucks and sent to the next destination. This stage is full of anxiety, because the whole cargo would be confiscated if the security forces arrived. Drivers use their trucks without registration number plates or with fake number plates. They drive along dirt roads to evade the police checkpoints, but they are occasionally ambushed by the police and their vehicle and cargo are confiscated.
    Uraman-Marivan Road, Iran
    1 March 2018

  • There are skilled guides among the Kulbars who are tasked to check the safety of the road with hunting binoculars and to report the conditions over the wireless telephone.

    Duleh-Bid Village, city of Sardasht, Iran
    7 March 2017

  • Shafi, 27 years old, was targeted by the Border Regiment in February 2017. The bullet hit his right breast and threw him from the horse on the rocks. He suffered a spinal cord lesion when the back of his head crashed on the rocks. He is fully paralysed. I met his father Mohammed in hospital. Muhammad worked as a Kulbar for 30 years and has seven children. With eyes full of tears, he said: "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.”
    Sardasht, Iran
    6 March 2017

  • Nav Village is located a few hundred metres from Dariyan dam. They were horticulturalists in their orchards until four years ago. Their lands went under water when the dam was built. Now, most residents of this village earn their living by working as Kulbars. Some others have procured boats and transport cargo to other villages.
    Nav Village, Iran
    23 June 2017

  • Faramarz comes to this border from Marivan, about 130 kilometres away, twice a week. The path is almost impassable and one can only travel it on horses and mules. Alcoholic drinks are usually imported through this border. It is one of the most dangerous borders for smuggling as far as crossing and shooting of security forces are concerned. The caravan stops here and waits for darkness to fall and to receive safety report through wireless telephone.
    Two friends of Faramarz were shot dead by security forces in this area last week.
    Border zero point, Sardasht, Iran
    3 March 2017

  • Wireless telephone is an important and valuable equipment for smugglers. They can find information about the safety of the route by means of wireless telephone. There are skilled guides among the Kulbars who are tasked to check the safety of the road with hunting binoculars and to report it over the wireless telephone.
    Darmanabad Village, 5 March 2017

  • The mountain skirt is fully covered with snow and one cannot walk on it. The Kulbars slide down their loads on snow. Then they load it on their shoulder at the bottom and move ahead. Depending on the goods, their load weighs between 40 to 100 kilograms. Sometimes they cannot load it on their shoulders on their own.
    Tateh Border Pass, Iran
    1 March 2018

  • The path through which the Coolbars are going to Iraq.

  • “We do not remain indifferent when they kill our brothers and comrades. We take revenge
    for the blood they shed. They shoot us in the head. They slaughter us, without warning, without
    firing in the air. This is cruel. What crime have we committed? This is a small region. We hear
    who has shot at night. We find them and take revenge.”
    They showed me this picture on their mobile phone and explained that he was an agent who
    had shot dead a Kulbar at the border. His brothers had found that agent later and had violently
    killed him.
    The smugglers I got to know at the border provided me with these explanations. I was their
    guest at dinner the following night.
    4 March 2017

  • Two Kulbars are descending the mountains. They have crossed the border at midnight. Depending on the goods, their load weighs between 40 to 100 kilograms. They travel on foot and it takes them about 8 hours. They receive between 100,000 to 200,000 tomans, i.e between 20 to $40.
    Border mountains, city of Paveh, Iran
    1 March 2018 

  • When security forces started shooting at the border last night, everybody scattered across
    the mountains. This forced the smugglers to use the routes farther away to cross the border
    and not be able to return to Iran before sunrise. They were on the way the whole day. They had
    lost one of their mules and its load in mountain storms and had been forced to cross the border
    in daylight.
    Duleh-Bid Village, 4 March 2017

  • The border urban and rural thoroughfares are always full of men sitting idle. They get together, chat, and speak about their problems and sufferings, and play. “I saw Mohammad hanging on a mule with blood all over. His friends had brought him down from the mountain. My son appeared as though he had been sleeping for years. There was no life in his body. They said they had done all they could to save him, but they had been unable to bring him alive to the village. We had organised his engagement a month before his death. Mohammad had done his military service; he had studied in the university and obtained a bachelor’s degree. He had looked for a job in the city but been unable find any. His mother and I took care of him for 25 years. Lives of our children are not worth anything here. What crime had Mohammad committed that they killed him? Not even a single government official came to console us here.”
    Ali, 55, Mohammad’s father
    Sardasht, Iran
    7 March 2017

  • Shafi, 27 years old, was targeted by the Border Regiment in February 2017, when he was crossing the border on a horse. The bullet hit his right breast and threw him from the horse on the rocks. He suffered a spinal cord lesion when the back of his head crashed on the rocks. He is now paralysed.
    His parents take him to a clinic for physiotherapy every day. Owing to their poor financial conditions, they transport Shafi on a door.
    Sardasht, Iran
    6 March 2017

  • “I raised my head and saw the officer of the Border Regiment standing above me. There was a soldier with him. Without uttering a word, he shot at my left knee from a distance of two or three metres. I fell on the ground and said: why are you shooting? This time, he shot at my right leg and they then went away. They shot at me in 2017 and I couldn‘t walk for a year. I have had more than five operations on my leg and I still can’t walk. My right leg is shorter now. I have been living in my brother’s home for a year and my sister-in-law looks after me. He can’t afford to pay for my medications and treatment. He is also unemployed.”
    Farhad, Kulbar (Kullbar, a construction of two Farsi words “Back” and “Carrying” is the local term for the group of traditional smugglers who carry the goods on their back through borders)
    Marivan, 28 February 2018


Newsletter