Washington Kurdish Institute
September 11, 2017
After the killing of two Kurdish kolbars (border porters) by Iranian border patrol guards, Kurds in the city of Baneh took to the streets in protest of the murders. The two kolbars were reportedly simply crossing the border and not smuggling or carrying any goods. The Kurdish victims were identified as Heydar Faraji, 22, and Qader Bahrami, 41, (father of four children).
These killings were not an isolated instance, however. The systematic killing of kolbars by the Iranian regime has been an ongoing issue.
Protests over the killing began the day of the incident, with angry protesters gathering in front of the mayor’s office and chanting “justice.” Later clashes broke out between security forces and protesters. On the second day of the protest, Sept. 5, the Iranian government deployed hundreds of security forces in an attempt to disrupt the protests. By this time the number of protesters on the streets had grown substantially. In addition, a number of business owners close their stores in solidarity with the protest.
Iranian regime forces (e.g. secret police) soon launched a campaign of arrests of activists involved in the protest. For example, in Saqqez city (60 km northwest of Baneh) police arrested a group of Kurdish activists who were planning to take to the streets in solidarity with their fellow Kurds in Baneh. Similar arrests occurred in Marivan city, another Kurdish town with a history of resistance against the Iranian regime.
Iran’s Kurdish parties denounced the attacks and voiced support for the protests.
“The Iranian Islamist regime deployed its terrorist Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to crush the peaceful demonstration, and several Kurdish demonstrators were shot and severely injured, and an unknown number of people were arrested,” read a statement by the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.
The Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan (Komala) expressed their support to the peaceful protesters and called upon the people to support their demands. The East Kurdistan Democratic and Free Society (KODAR) also expressed their support for the protests, saying “the demands of the people of Baneh are legitimate.”
On September 7, more protests broke out in Sanandaj (Sine), the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan Province. The protesters were soon surrounded by the Iranian regime’s forces. After regime forces broke up the protests, many protesters were detained and moved to unknown locations.
The plight of the kolbars is another instance of political repression in Iran. In 2016 alone, 42 kolbars were shot and killed by Iranian security forces — so far in 2017, 30 kolbars have been killed or injured in shootings by Iranian security forces. The irony is that the Iranian regime often issues permits to these workers; however they are still not protected from the violence of the border guards. Regime forces also often times shoot and kill kolbar horses.
In February 2017 one older kolbar spoke to the BBC about their experience on the job and the back-breaking work involved. A few days after speaking with the BBC, the Iranian intelligence bureau called the older kolbar and told him “you have humiliated our country,” despite the fact that the filming took place in Iraqi Kurdistan, not Iran.
The Kurdish struggle over basic rights in Iran is not much different than the struggle in Turkey. In Iran, the Kurds do not have political representation. In fact, all the Kurdish opposition parties are based outside of the country. The majority of these Kurdish parties call for a democratic federal Iran drastically different in nature than the current theocratic regime that took control of the country in 1979.
What is a Kolbar?
Kolbars are porters who work for daily wages on the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran. These porters transfer goods across the border illegally. Kolbar is the Kurdish word for “porter.” A kolbar’s daily wage generally doesn’t exceed ten dollars. The vast majority of kolbars are Kurds who live in the towns and villages along the Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan border. These kolbars are often times current students and recent graduates trying to support themselves financially; because of the lack of work opportunities for young Kurds in this region, this porter work is one of the few substantial means of steady income.
Who owns the goods?
The majority of goods being smuggled belong to businessmen based in Tehran, the capital of Iran. These businessmen use the kolbars to illegally transfer goods into Iran without having to pay taxes on them. These goods are often also banned in Iran as well. Goods often include cigarettes, alcohol, clothes, tire, and electronics (e.g. Ipads, televisions, and smartphones). A good number of these businessmen are shielded from exposure and prosecution because of their strong relationships with figures within the Iranian government. A small part of this transfer of goods dates back hundreds of years to old trading routes and practices between Kurdish villages and towns before the Kurdish region was divided between the modern day countries of Iran and Iraq. This transfer of goods by kolbars also takes place across the Iran-Turkey border.
Why are the majority of Kolbars Kurds?
Other than the fact that a good portion of the smuggling orchestrated by Iranian businessmen occurs between the respective Kurdish regions in Iran and Iraq, there are a number of other factors as to why most of these border porters are Kurdish. One prominent reason that most kolbars are Kurds can be traced to the high unemployment rate among the Kurdish population in Iran. Not only are job opportunities in these areas long, but the Kurdish areas of Iran also suffer from a lack of basic services. A Kurdish member of the Iranian parliament recently admitted that in the most prominent Kurdish province, the unemployment reached as high as 60 percent. Many kolbars reside in these areas, such Sardasht, Kermashan, Marivan, Baneh, Saqqez, Piranshahr, Hawraman region, and other places.
— PDKI (@PDKIenglish) September 5, 2017
— Komala (@Komala_english) September 7, 2017
— PDKI (@PDKIenglish) September 5, 2017