Jul 28, 2020

Iranian Kurdistan: Two more Kolbars Have Died, Adding to Death Toll

Shamzin Ahmadi and Arsalan Ahmadi are two young kolbars who were both killed by Iranian border guards. Hundreds of other kolbars have been killed by Iranian forces. Transporting products across borders in Iran is a dangerous job, but it is one of the few opportunities available to kolbars. The Iranian government has strong armed families like the Ahmadis to not sue over their loved ones’ deaths.


Below is an article published by RUDAW

Shamzin Ahmadi’s wedding date was coming up, and he’d worked hard to make sure his plans would be paid for. He woke up soon after dawn to make what he swore would be one last trip carrying heavy loads of goods across the Iran-Turkey border. His mother, Jawahir, was already in mourning for her older son, killed six weeks earlier while making that same hazardous journey. She begged Shamzin to take good care of himself as he set off for the merciless mountains. 

At 5 am on July 1, Shamzin hoisted a load of cigarettes destined for the neighboring Kurdish region of Turkey onto his back and began his perilous trek. Shot at and injured by Iranian border guards, Shamzin somehow managed to push into Turkey, where he was taken to a hospital in the Kurdish city of Van by Turkish border forces. He died from his injuries eight days later, on July 9. It was Turkish border forces that shot and killed older brother Arsalan Ahmad on May 24. 

Kolbars are porters who transport untaxed goods on their backs over the mountainous Kurdistan Region-Iran and Iran-Turkey borders, through treacherous terrain, unforgiving weather, and armed, expectant border guards. Many are pushed into the profession by poverty and a lack of alternative employment, particularly in Iran's Kurdish provinces. Monitors estimate around 70,000 people, mostly Iranian Kurds, make a living as kolbars.

News of kolbar deaths and injuries without relent. An estimated 237 kolbars were killed or injured in 2019, most by direct fire from Iranian border guards according to Hengaw, a human rights monitor based outside of the country. 

To hear the story of the tragic deaths of two kolbars from the same family, I travel from Sanandaj, to Urmia, a journey signposted as being over 450 kilometers long. From Urmia, I struggle to find a driver willing to take me north, all the way to the border between Iran and Turkey, to the village of Kuran.

I eventually manage to find a driver willing to take me to my destination, via a myriad of checkpoints manned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Ten kilometers before the village, we turn off the asphalt road and encounter a charming view of lush green orchards. Then, rugged mountains start to frame our route, and plumes of infertile, fine dust begin to tail us.

"As you can see, there is no other source of income for villagers in this area than working as a kolbar,” the driver from Urmia says as we near the village.

Kuran, home to around 200 families, is surrounded on three sides by mountains, a small river dissecting it into two. In the near distance stand both Iranian and Turkish border observation posts.
 We arrive at the front courtyard of a house, where harrowed family members sit dressed in mourner black. Among them is Hakem Ahmad, a 52-year-old father grieving the loss of two sons at once.
 "The death of two of my sons has shocked me and my family to the extent that we believe our lives will never be normal again,”  the distraught father told Rudaw English.

Looking over to the mountains his sons had so recently climbed, Hakem recalls his own past as a kolbar. The motivations may have been the same, but conditions were less deadly, Hakem says.
 "I worked as a kolbar for 15 years, but the border guards were not as merciless as they are these days. They used to confiscate our loads, but in the past few years they haven’t hesitated to fire on the kolbars.”
 Fire at the kolbars has become so frequent that border guards have killed six young men from Kuran alone since 2016, Hakem says.
 “Yet people don’t give this job up, because there are no other jobs to do."
 He stops to light a cigarette before talking about his lost sons. 
 "My eldest son, Arsalan, was 28, and got married six years ago. He is survived by two sons, and his wife is pregnant with the third child," he says with a sigh. "Arsalan was very smart. He had a house, and sometimes he would even help me [financially]."
 He recalls the night that he had gone to see Arsalan's body.
 "The night before Eid al-Fitr, I called Arsalan and asked him to come round the next day. He said “alright, tonight I’m going to work, and we’ll spend Eid day together.”
 “Hours later, just as I had fallen asleep, I received a phone call from one of his friends, who said Turkish border forces had shot Arsalan and that he was injured. I immediately rushed to the scene," Hakim says, before bursting into tears. 
 "He was not injured. Bullets crashed into his chest, and he was dead."

Jawahir Ahmadi, 50, is the mother of the two slain kolbars. She is gripped by grief, and struggles to keep her composure as she tells me Shamzin’s story.

"After Arsalan was killed, I panicked a lot. I constantly begged Shamzin to give this work up.. But he insisted that he needed to make some money for his planned wedding. He kept saying, “I’ll stop once I get married”.

"The night before he left, he slept early. He said, “Mom, please wake me up at 5 am.” I was very worried and twice decided not to wake him up. But I eventually woke him up.”

That morning, Jawahir watched her son walk towards his ill fate in the mountains with two of his friends. 

“I kept praying for him to come back safely," she recounts through sobs.

"Night fell and it was very late, but he had not come back. I eventually realised something had gone wrong. Then, one of his friends called us and said that Shamzin and two of his friends had been wounded and were rushed to a hospital in Van [in Turkey]."

"I kept praying for Shamzin to recover and come back to us. But, after eight days, his father was called and told that our son had died," she says while wiping away her tears. 

Jawahir alleges that she was forced by Iranian border guards to pledge not to file any lawsuit against the Iranian government. “We received the body on the border, and it was taken to the forensic department." 

"What has really crushed me is that Shamzin did not manage to fulfil his dream of holding his wedding…he would talk about the planned wedding saying they must hurry up and organize it. But he took the dream with him to his grave. Whenever I remember these moments, my whole body starts to hurt." 

Ozal Ahmadi, 18, survives his two brothers. We visit the side-by-side graves of Arsalan and Shamzin at the cemetery behind the village, and he walks me to where four other kolbars are buried - two of them his cousins.

Describing his family’s situation as “destitute”, Ozal says he dropped out of school in the tenth grade - going further in education than most local children. 

"The majority of children in our village drop out as soon as they finish elementary school, because it is difficult and they cannot afford to pay the tuition fees needed to study in Urmia," Ozal says.

With few other job prospects available, Ozal followed in the footsteps of his older brothers and became a kolbar too. “But after I lost the two of them, I decided to give up."