Iran hunts down Kurdish Kulbars in Iraq borderlands

Al Majalla travels to the borderlands, where troops are shooting couriers without warning as a means of intimidating a community facing further displacement

Kurdish men in local dress in the Horaman Mountains, Iran.
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Kurdish men in local dress in the Horaman Mountains, Iran.

Iran hunts down Kurdish Kulbars in Iraq borderlands

The Iranian human rights group HRI published a grim statistic just as Iran was celebrating what it claimed as a “victory” over the Kurds, having imposed a “security agreement” on the Iraqi government.

According to HRI, the number of casualties among cross-border cargo carriers – known as Kulbars – reached 85 during the first half of the current Persian year, from 21 March to 21 September. All the victims were allegedly shot directly by Iranian border guards.

Under the security agreement, tens of thousands of Iranian Kurdish refugees are being deported away from the frontier lands, =their political parties dismantled, and their weapons confiscated.

They are just a fraction of the thousands who have been killed in regular violence, which has claimed lives almost daily for decades. There are thought to be around 60,000 Kulbars, according to unofficial statistics.

The goods they carry over the 30-kilometre challenging mountain terrain connecting Iraq and Iran are estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Army and security services personnel at border control points see them as illegal smugglers and are shooting the Kulbars dead without warning. Kurdish groups accuse Iran of using these assassinations as a means of intimidating the wider community.

Iranian Kurdish groups — alongside human rights organisations, civil activists, and Iranians in general, particularly Kurdish citizens — hold the Iranian authorities accountable for the ongoing atrocities against the Kulbars.

Human rights organisations correlate the increasing number of Kulbar victims with the rising forms of protest and demonstration against the ruling regime in the Kurdish areas of Iran, according to an Iranian Kurdish human rights activist interviewed by Al Majalla.

One victim among many

When Al Majalla was in the borderlands to meet Kulbars, local media and social platforms in the Iranian Kurdish city of Saqqez published a photograph of Hamid Faraj Pour, a man in his late thirties.

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A general view of the Kurdish Huraman Valley region in Iran.

The reports said the educated father of three was assassinated by Iranian border guards two days earlier in the Hanje Beizal area, in the Iranian section opposite the town of Said Sadiq in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The incident also left three other individuals wounded, all from the same group, with one still in critical condition.

In recent years, based on data from specialized human rights organisations, approximately 8% of the members of Kulbar groups have been either killed or wounded.

Al Majalla made multiple attempts to reach out to members of the Pour family, but they consistently declined to speak to any foreign media outlet, expressing concern about potential repercussions from the Iranian authorities.

A member of Faraj Pour's group, who asked to remain anonymous, gave details of the attack. The person said the group was transporting ordinary goods, predominantly women's cosmetics. While descending from the mountains, Border Police fired at them and then prevented the group from promptly transporting their wounded to the nearby town of Baneh. It took them more than two hours to get there after the incident.

Subsequent investigations by Al Majalla revealed that Faraj Pour had only worked as a Kulbar for a few years. He had been unable to secure a job or administrative position in the nearby cities of Saqez and Kermanshah. Drought and a struggling agricultural sector, with little support from the local authorities, meant there were no farm jobs. This also led him to the Kulbars.

No alternative

Al Majalla spoke to Kulbars in Iraqi Kurdistan and found that a significant majority possess educational qualifications, with quite a few having completed intermediate courses at vocational institutes or university colleges.

They come from rural Kurdish areas in western Iran or families displaced to major cities since the 1980s during the conflict between the Iranian regime and Kurdish groups.


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A side of the Kurdish Huraman Valley region in Iran.

Many of them faced challenges securing public sector or private employment in Iran due to discrimination against individuals from Kurdish areas.

They often come from families with social and economic positions hit hard by the decline in agricultural production and the wider economic slowdown caused partly by sanctions imposed on Iran.

A Kulbar typically remains unaware of the specific goods they transport on both sides of the border and often lacks knowledge of the true owners of the merchandise. Each group of Kulbars, ranging between 20 and 40 individuals, is assigned a distinct Weshesh (leader).

Serious danger

And the work Kulbars undertake is highly dangerous: data from specialised human rights organizations show that approximately 8% of the members of the groups have been either killed or wounded in recent years.

One of them, Young Rafand, said: "If there were any other job, any work, we wouldn't be Kulbar." Rafand had recently experienced the loss of a colleague, Arslan Rasuli, who tragically lost his life while transporting goods in the northern mountain range.

Rafand gave a vivid account of borderland life in this dangerous profession.

"We usually bid farewell to our families when we leave home for the work site, and once we commence our journey from those sites, we begin bidding farewell to each other," he said.

The daily crossing earns about $20 to $30 for the round trip. The journey carrying weights of at least 40 kilogrammes over difficult ground. Alongside the weight, Kulbars shoulder the responsibility for both personal safety and the security of the transported goods.

In groups typically between 20 and 40 persons, Kulbars must deal with numerous security observation points and mobile military patrols equipped with the latest surveillance devices and snipers. The border guards are authorised to fire whenever they deem appropriate, without checks or accountability for their actions.

Twilight meeting

Kulbars are typically unaware of the specific goods they transport and often do not know the identity of the owners of the merchandise. Each group has a distinct Weshesh or leader.

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From a music festival organised by Kurds in Iran.

They assemble before sunset at a designated point on the Iranian border. They then receive instructions to cross to a point on the other side, along with a password and the name of an individual responsible for providing them with goods to bring back.

Information obtained from both Kulbar and local sources suggests that these cargo transport networks serve influential figures in Iran who enjoy political and security coverage at the highest levels. The networks involve complex partnerships with various entities in the central government.

The transported goods include a range of items officially prohibited by Iranian authorities or subject to substantial taxes in relation to their actual value. Among these are women's cosmetics, mobile phones, spirits, certain fabrics, special medical drugs, and shoes and clothes from international brands.

These illicit materials find a distinct market inside Iran, primarily catering to what has become known as the Nouveau Riche class. The market value of the transported goods is many times the average income of middle-class citizens in Iran.

Elite buyers

This intricate web of relationships from Iran's elite to the Kulbars sheds light on many aspects of public life in the country and its realities.

The Kulbars are themselves victimised by the state, having already suffered from the ruling authority's neglect of its economic responsibilities and legal obligations toward local communities. Young Kurds are left without the conditions for a "safe and dignified life," even at the most basic levels.

And so, they become entangled in the Kulbar networks, effectively caught in a vicious circle. They must serve the interests of influential members of the powerful class while also being chased down by the state.

International Kurdish/Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi depicted the challenges faced by the Kulbar in his acclaimed film "The Time of Drunken Horses," which earned the Camera d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Routine killings

What is most astonishing is the apparent indifference of the Iranian authorities. For many consecutive years, the killing of Kulbars has become a distressing, routine practice.

Despite numerous reports from human rights groups and calls from political parties and unions urging action, the Iranian authorities have continued with the daily killings.

Iranian workers in the workers' square in the centre Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan on October 5, 2022.

Reliable statistics indicate that the number of deaths in the past year alone exceeded 154, with dozens falling victim to accidents such as falls from heights, exposure to freezing conditions, attacks by mountain animals, or stumbling over war mines, incidents that have occurred on both sides of the border since the 1980s.

Kurdish civil activists and commentators have consistently appealed to Iranian officials to stop targeting Kulbars, who are the most vulnerable link in what the Iranian border authorities see as outlaw smuggling chains.

Instead, they are calling on the Kulbars to apprehend the leaders of the networks and the major traders behind them. They argue that such action is the only way to stop cross-border smuggling operations.

There are also calls for job opportunities to be created by promoting sustainable economic development in the borderlands to create alternative ways for the people there to earn a living.


Drunken horses

The internationally acclaimed Kurdish/Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi depicted the challenges faced by the Kulbars in his acclaimed film The Time of Drunken Horses, which earned the Caméra d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite its impact on the Kurdish community, the film did not galvanise the broader Iranian public to view the Kulbar issue as a national concern.

Certain Iranian parliamentarians of Kurdish descent – from provinces such as Kermanshah, Ilam, Kurdistan, and West Azerbaijan – have voiced criticisms of the Iranian authorities' treatment of Kulbars in recent years.

But these lawmakers faced security and political pressure, forcing them to refrain from further expressing such criticisms.

Throughout all the debate, without change, there will still be tens of thousands of people who have little alternative to earning a living on the dangerous and uneasy paths followed by the Kulbars.

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