Rojhilat’s Kolbers: Symbols of Economic Injustice
By Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi
“The smuggling has its roots in the clumsiness of rulers who for hundreds of years have taken the thousand-mile Zagros range as the boundary between Arabia and Persia, but ignored how Kurds live on both sides.”
— Alex Perry, Outside Magazine
Kolber is a Kurdish compound word composed of two words: “kol + ber,” which means “one who carries loads on their back.” It refers to as a group of people who carry and trade various types of products, such as food, electronic appliances, clothes, fabrics, medicine, and so on, on their backs between the mountainous borders of modern Iran, Iraq, and Turkey (three of the four occupied regions of Greater Kurdistan).
Although Kolbers exist throughout Kurdistan, the phenomenon is most visible in Eastern Kurdistan / Rojhilat (northwest Iran), where the United Nations estimates a population of over 70,000, but local organizations and experts estimate a higher fluctuating population of around 150,000 – 300,000, which includes men, women, children. The Kolbers often include people with university degrees ranging from bachelor’s degrees to PhDs.
The Kolbers are not officially recognized as a labor force by the Iranian regime or insurance companies; instead, they are labelled as “smugglers”, and their work is considered illegal. As a result, they face a slew of economic and political hardships, and their safety is often as risk. Kurdish kolbers in Iran receive about $20-$25 per load, with the Iranian parliament putting the value of all the trafficking at $25 billion, roughly the same as the neighboring Kurdish Regional Government’s GDP, or the annual trade passing through the Port of Seattle. When you realize that this massive amount of material is carried on human backs, rather than large cargo ships, the scale of the phenomena becomes hard to fathom. On the individual level, it is estimated that each load weighs between 30 and 80 kg (66–176 lb), and the routes the kolbers travel range from 5 to 15 km (3–9 mi).
Because Kolbers are active in border areas along the Zagros Mountains (with 14,000 foot peaks), they must cross very high and steep paths and deal with extremely cold weather, snow, rain, avalanches, wild animals, and, worst of all, bullets from Iranian, Turkish, and Iraqi border guards. They are frequently targeted by these forces, and hundreds of Kolbers are killed, injured, and amputated each year by direct fire from these forces or even bombed by jets. The Roboski massacre, in Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) is a tragic example of the extreme level of violence Kolbers face. These military forces also confiscate horses and goods belonging to Kolbers, and sell them back at higher prices. In some cases, they also machine-gun the horses or other livestock as a form of punishment and act of terror to deter the Kolbers.
According to Hangaw, a Kurdish Human Rights organization in Rojhilat, in 2022, at least 290 Kurdish Kolbers and traders were killed or injured, with 46 killed and 244 injured. This figure has increased by at least 75 cases, or 35%, since 2021. These numbers naturally include a high rate of minors who have been forced into this highly dangerous form of trade by the deliberate and systemic economic impoverishment of the Kurds by Tehran’s regime.
The penalties if caught in Iran can also be severe. As Iranian law stipulates penalties for kolbers depending on the value of the goods they are carrying. For cargo up to $238, the smuggler is jailed from 90 days to 6 months and fined up to 3 times the value of the goods. The highest penalty, reserved for loads worth more than $23,750, includes up to 5 years in prison and a fine up to 10 times the goods’ value. However, the penalty is often the death penalty—execution—regardless of their cargo.
Nearly 1,800 Kolbers have been killed, injured, or had limbs amputated in Eastern Kurdistan in the last ten years, with nearly 550 killed and approximately 1,250 injured. The majority of them were killed or injured as a result of direct fire from Iranian armed forces, while a small number were killed or injured as a result of natural disasters and car accidents.
However, the plight of the kolbers is largely unknown outside of Kurdistan, with a May 2022 article in Political Geography observing how:
“Remarkably, the plight of the kolbers is largely invisible outside the border region where they live, work, and try to survive… the kolbers have been largely ignored by scholars and the media alike. This obscurity is puzzling given the significance of the kolberi trade, the immense challenges faced by those participating in it, and the insights it can provide into the geopolitical and political-economic dynamics shaping the lives of marginalized peoples.”
Tehran Creates the Conditions
The question must be posed: Why is Kolberi a job in Kurdistan? And how are the states controlling Kurdistan, particularly Iran, to blame? Kurdistan is an extremely prosperous region with abundant water, oil, minerals, and metal resources; fertile land; livable weather; and a strategic location in the heart of the Middle East. Nonetheless, as a result of these states’ colonization of Kurdistan and oppression and marginalization of Kurdish people, Kurds in all parts of Kurdistan face extreme poverty, financial difficulties, a lack of proper education, a lack of investment, and other issues. Kolberi (those who are Kolbers), in particular, is one of the most visible manifestations of this systematic oppression of Kurds, which has resulted in a humanitarian crisis as well as East Kurdistan’s (Iran’s) largest financial problem.
Eastern Kurdistan’s provinces of Urmia (West Azerbaijan), Sine/Sanandaj (Kurdistan), Kirmashan (Kermanshah), and Ilam, which are located on the borders with Southern and Northern Kurdistan (Iraq and Turkey), are where the Kolbers usually come from and have some of the lowest rates of government investment while also having some of the highest rates of unemployment. Some Kolbers from other Kurdish-populated provinces, such as Hamedan and Lurestan, also travel to the borders to work for the same reasons.
In 2016, for example, Iran’s unemployment rate was 13%, while unemployment rates in places like Kirmashan ranged from 14 to 20%. Misery and poverty are the result of high unemployment rates, and the Iranian government’s inhumane economic policies toward Kurds. Between 2019 and 2020, the average poverty rate in Iran was 48%. The Kurdish province of Kermanshah had the highest rate of poverty, at 55%. Sanandaj came in second with 53.2%, Urmia came in third with 46.9%, and Ilam came in fourth with 45.3%. Non-Persian provinces, particularly Kurdish provinces, received the least funding in Iran’s 1401 (2022–March 2023) national budget plan. Ilam, which has a population of over 600,000 people, received the least amount of money, 935 billion tomans (approximately $20 million), of any of Iran’s 31 provinces. With a population of nearly 8 million, all four Kurdish provinces of Urmia, Sanadaj, Kermanshah, and Ilam received nearly 11,000 billion tomans (approximately $245 million), while Isfahan province, with a population of about 5 million, received over 32,000 billion tomans (over $710 million), which is three times more than the entire budget for the major Kurdish provinces.
Consequently, high suicide rates, drug use, and domestic violence are just a few of the social problems associated with poverty in Eastern Kurdistan. Ilam, for example, has the highest suicide rate in Iran, at 17.3 per 100,000 people. Kermanshah and Luristan are second and third, with rates of 13.6 and 11.1 per 100,000, respectively. In comparison, the average suicide rate in Iran is 5.2 per 100,000 people. These statistics demonstrate a very systematic, social, political, and economic discrimination against Kurds, which has resulted in a phenomena such as Kolberi.
In addition to the issues mentioned above, Eastern Kurdistan is subject to two types of economic sanctions. The first is a set of sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community in response to its destabilizing behavior, human rights violations, and nuclear-weapons development efforts. However, while the sanctions have not forced the Iranian government to change its behavior, they have affected nearly all the people inside the geography of Iran, especially Kurds. This is a similar case as to the disastrous “Oil for Food” program in which the Saddam regime deliberately under supplied the Kurdish regions with food, so that an atrocious humanitarian and economic issue ensued, resulting in mass poverty and starvation. Clearly, the governments that occupy the Kurdish regions maintain a deliberate and extensive policy of economic underdevelopment in these regions.
The second is a domestic embargo that has been imposed on Eastern Kurdistan for over a century and was exacerbated after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Following the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious command urging “jihad” against Kurds in 1979, Rojhilat has been heavily militarized and is considered a security zone. For example, the Iranian regime has constructed approximately 2,000 military checkpoints and bases in Kurdish provinces, and because Kurdistan is considered a security zone due to its history of opposing the Iranian state, local citizens are usually not allowed to freely invest in their regions and create jobs for the people, or they intentionally do not invest in Kurdistan’s industries because of the lack of legal protections.
Simultaneously, the Iranian state frequently causes difficulties for local farmers and landowners, preventing them from earning a living from their lands. Furthermore, unless they, or their families have ties to the government, Kurds are almost never accepted into government employment programs, and if they do so they must kowtow to the official government and its anti-Kurdish policies. Consequently, Kurds make up a very small percentage of government employees, even in their own regions and even then can only reproduce official government procedures.
Eastern Kurdistan, as previously stated, is extremely resource rich. For decades, the Iranian government has exploited these sources with no benefit to the Kurdish people. For example, one of the largest goldmines in the region is known as “Zarra Shuran”, which is located in Urmia Province’s Tikab district. It has a total supply of over 200 tons of pure gold and over 2,000 employees, almost all of whom are from outside the province and are brought there by the government who also owns the mine. The only benefit to the locals from this mine is poisonous chemicals left over from the gold mining process in nearby factories, which enter their water supplies and cause a variety of diseases. Similarly, there are hundreds of other mines, oil basins, wells, and even farming lands in Rojhilat that the Kurdish people basically do not benefit from.
The Iranian government has also failed to legally recognize Kolbers and their work, which means Kolbers are not covered by insurance schemes or programs, and they receive no government assistance because they are considered “criminals”. This process also allows the military to treat Kolbers in the most heinous ways possible. According to the Iranian state’s law on using weapons in border regions: “Officers of the armed forces are allowed to use weapons in the cases listed in this law if they first have no other choice but to use weapons and secondly, if possible, follow the ranks of aerial shooting, shooting to the waist down, and shooting to the waist up.”
The Iranian armed forces, however, illegally disregard this law and target Kolbers, who mostly import or export necessary goods such as food, clothes, fabrics, medicine, electric appliances, and so on, and the Iranian judiciary frequently claims the shootings are legal and reasonable. During a 2021 visit to the region, Alex Perry described the scene as the following:
“I spy more air conditioners, plus towering stacks of washing machines, televisions, refrigerators, boxes of tea, cigarettes, pet food, beer, whisky, and lingerie—the secret shopping list of an entire nation. The old man says that on busy days the line of men and mules snaking up the hills can be a mile long. On the Iranian side, where discrimination against Kurds leaves them few alternatives to kolbar work, it can be several miles long.”
The cases mentioned above are some of the main reasons that have resulted in a humanitarian crisis and a phenomenon known as Kolberi that the Kurdish people deal with under the Iranian state. So far, the Iranian government does not appear to be assisting in resolving this issue. Instead the government is positioning the Kurds in a worse financial situation so that more desperate people choose Kolber as a job, allowing the government to oppress the Kurds more easily.
With the ongoing revolution of ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi’ (Women, Life, Freedom) the economic situation of the Kurds is worsening exponentially as the Iranian regime sees the Kurds as the source of the uprising. Poverty rates, unemployment, desperation, and misery continue to dominate the climate of the Kurdish region, which in turn foments further unrest and uprising. The Kurds continue to be scapegoated for the various internal domestic failures of the Iranian regime, and so long as this cycle of social isolation and state sponsored terror continues, so will the miserable conditions that force kolbers in Rojhilat. As hundreds of thousands of Kurds would not continually risk death to carry a refrigerator on their back over treacherous mountains for $20, while freezing and being shot at, unless they were victims of intolerable suffering from a state that views them as disposable.