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High unemployment forces Iranian Kurds into smuggling, with deadly consequences

A new wave of deadly violence targeting Iranian Kurdish smugglers in the country's mountainous border region has renewed focus on decades-long state neglect of the minority group.

The plight of Iran’s mountain couriers is once again under the spotlight after the Islamic Republic’s border guards shot dead at least 15 of them this summer, local officials said.

In Iranian Kurdistan, mountain couriers are relied on to carry commodities across the Iraqi border. They are locally known as a “kolbar,” a Kurdish word meaning someone carrying heavy loads over their shoulders. In recent years, the term has come to be used for young Kurds who cross the rugged mountains with essential goods in a region battered by unemployment, poverty and a host of other maladies.

Under Iranian law, the activity is considered smuggling and tantamount to border trespassing, an argument Iranian authorities use to justify shootings that target the couriers. The deadly practice has been in place over the past several years despite calls from human rights groups who see the killings as part of the Islamic Republic’s overall systematic violation of the rights of the Kurdish minority.

Tough economic conditions in the rocky border area have only been hardened by skyrocketing unemployment and perceived injustice in the distribution of opportunities, increasingly pushing young Kurds toward the treacherous journey.

In a fiery address to the Iranian parliament earlier this month, Kamal Hosseinpour, a lawmaker representing the border town of Sardasht, unleashed a barrage of criticism against the Iranian government’s treatment of kolbars after four were shot dead by border guards Aug. 31.

A commander who referred to the victims as “border aggressors” intensified the rage among members of the Kurdish public, including the legislator who slammed the government for treating the victims like Islamic State terrorists. “Those four men were simply mountain couriers and were forced into that job to earn a living for their families,” Hosseinpour said.

The four deaths followed social media campaigns that had trended only days before with the aim of building pressure on the authorities to “stop killing kolbars.”

In recent months, even some women in apparent dire economic circumstances have become kolbars. Halaleh Amini, a council member in the city of Mariwan, lamented the suffering of those women in an emotional speech. “Look at the hands of those women, mostly single mothers, and you will find that the delicate texture of femininity has evaporated,” she said.

The deaths of young kolbars have every now and then been associated with dramatic stories, moving the Iranian public to its very core. In December, two teenage brothers, Azad and Farhad, who were carrying bags of shoes, were stranded in harsh snowy weather before freezing to death. After covering Azad with his coat, the younger brother, Farhad, apparently made an effort to head back toward their village of Ney, about 6 kilometers (3½ miles) from Mariwan. The bodies of the two were recovered four days later in separate spots. During a funeral procession between Mariwan and Ney, people held up loaves of bread in a symbolic gesture to mark the two brothers’ “martyrdom for bread” as they chanted, “Death to the dictator.”

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and the ensuing public fury, the government of President Hassan Rouhani was quick to pledge to tackle the problem of kolbars — although that promise has yet to be put into action. The Iranian parliament has also refused twice to pass a bill that would prohibit firing on kolbars. According to an advocacy group monitoring the status of kolbars, in 2018 at least 86 of them, mostly in their 20s, were killed in shootings or died of other causes, such as land mine explosions, avalanches or cliff collapses.

Then there is the recent case of Maani Hashemi, a 14-year-old from the town of Paveh. The “talented” teenage student, according to his mother, decided to join other kolbars to save up for a smartphone for himself and his sister, which they needed for their education as classes became virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“All his concern was about missing those online courses,” his single mother, Ronak Hashemi, a 38-year-old kolbar, told Iranian media. While carrying bags of 150 kilos (330 pounds) of beans Sept. 4, the two were chased by border guards. Maani fell off a cliff, smacking his face right against a rock, severely damaging his nose and eyes. Ronak managed to place her bleeding son over her shoulders and claw their way to the nearest village. The teenage boy was hospitalized at a local underequipped medical center, where he was told that proper treatment is available only in the capital, Tehran.

Unable to afford the transfer and medical costs in Tehran, Maani was stuck for several days until — in the absence of government support — public donations were collected through social media and ultimately paved his way to the capital, where he began receiving treatment.

“Tell everyone this is not a job. Being a kolbar is but pain, suffering and misery,” Maani’s mother told Iran’s Shahrvand daily.

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