By Shahed Alavi
February 13, 2020
A kulbar is a porter who hauls goods on his back across the borders of Iran and over long distances, mostly in the impoverished, mountainous Kurdish areas adjacent to Iraq.
But who are they, why do they risk their lives in this way, especially since they are systematically targeted and killed? Are there Iranian laws that are relevant or applicable to kulbars? What rules are Iranian border guards expected to follow with regard to them, and do they adhere to these rules? What do Iranian officials have to say about kulbars?
“In 2019, according to our statistics, at least 74 Kurdish kulbars were killed on Kurdistan’s borders and roads and 174 were injured. Of those killed, 50 were directly shot by security forces and border guards, 23 lost their lives after falling off the mountain, avalanches and freezing to death and one was killed when a landmine exploded. Of the injured, 144 were directly injured by security forces.”
These figures were provided by Arsalan Yar Ahmadi, the director of the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights in Kurdistan. Eight years ago, Ahmad Shaheed, who was at the time UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, raised the “systematic killing of Kurdish kulbars” in paragraph 64 of his 2012 annual report: “The Special Rapporteur was also informed of the systematic killings of kulbars (back-carriers) and tradesmen, Kurds residing in border areas. The kulbars, who ferry cargo across the border on their backs or smuggle commodities such as tea, tobacco and fuel to earn a living, are particularly affected. Iranian law regards the activities of the kulbars as a crime that is punishable by several months of detention or a fine equal to the value of the seized commodities. The Special Rapporteur received reports, however, that Iranian border guards indiscriminately shoot at these individuals, thereby killing and wounding dozens of kulbars annually, as well as their horses.”
Who are the kulbars and what is kulbari?
A kulbar is a person who bypasses customs to carry goods and belongings to Iranian tradesmen from the border areas in Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran; they are paid depending on the weight and the type of goods that they carry. On average, their load weighs between 25 to 50 kilos, although in some cases their loads can be much heavier [Persian links].
Kulbars must carry their loads on mountainous routes that, on average, are around 10 kilometers long, even though it can be longer in some instances. Mehdi Khosravi, a member of the Iranian Youth Boxing Team who was forced by desperate financial circumstances to engage in kulbari, as the job is called, told IranWire: “A kulbar who carries a load from the mountain pass of Tatah on the Marivan border [with Iraqi Kurdistan] on his shoulders must walk almost 19 kilometers” [Persian links].
Kulbars are paid based on the weight of the load that they carry and the rate generally changes with the inflation rate and the value of the Iranian currency. Pay can also vary depending on the border where they work. At time of this report in early 2020, the kulbars whom I talked to say that, depending on the value and the type of the goods, the route and the season, the rate fluctuates between 6,000 and 12,000 tomans per kilo, or between 37 and 88 US cents.
Consequently, when a kulbar is given a job — the amount of work is not reliable and is so physically demanding most kulbars do not work every day — he makes on average somewhere between 125,000 and 350,000 tomans ($10 to $25) a day, depending on the weight and the type of the goods. The highest the amount they would get is between 300,000 and 600,000 tomans ($22 to $44). However, Mehdi Khosravi tells me the competition is so high and the work is so backbreaking that a kulbar can only do the job twice a week and sometimes there are no jobs for weeks.
However, the estimated payments cited above are misleading. The real income of kulbars is in reality even lower. This is because, after they reach the point across the border where they start carrying the load and then reach their destination and hand over the goods, they must pay for a car to take them back to where they live.
A very small percentage of kulbars, called “quadrupeds,” carry their loads on horses and mules. Most kulbars are men but in the last few years some women have entered into kulbari as well [Persian link]. People as young as 13 and aged 65 and older work as kulbars. Most kulbars are active in the three provinces of West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Kermanshah, all of which border Iraqi Kurdistan.
Obtaining accurate statistics about kulbars is almost impossible. Various Iranian officials have offered different figures, but it is unclear where these figures come from. In January 2018, Mohammad Hossein Shahriari, the governor of West Azerbaijan province, said that 50,000 official permits, or Border Exchange Electronic Cards, had been issued in the province. Some months earlier, in July 2017, Rasoul Khazari, a member of the parliament’s Social Affairs Committee, said that there were 70,000 kulbars working in Iran [Persian links].
In June 29, 2019, Mohammad Dehghan, then the supervisor of West Azerbaijan’s Industry, Mines and Commerce Bureau, announced that there were 4,800 active “peddler” cards or permits for kulbars in the province. In May 2018, Hossein Firouzi, Kurdistan’s Deputy Governor for Economic Affairs and Human Resources, announced that 68,000 “peddler” permits had been issued in that province [Persian links].
On February 4, 2020, the economic affairs website Tahlil Bazaar estimated that the number of kulbars active on the border was close to 4,000 , but provided no source for the figure. Prior to this, on January 16, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) News Agency reported that, based on unofficial statistics, there are close to 20,000 kulbars in Iran [Persian links].
In December 2019, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that, according to official statistics, the number of kulbars in Iran active on mountainous routes up to 15 kilometers long is between 80,000 and 170,000, whereas in July 2019, the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA), affiliated with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, had put the number at 80,000 [Persian links].
Goods carried by kulbars include consumer items that can legally be bought and sold. According to Alireza Ashnagar, Kurdistan’s Deputy Governor for Political and Security Affairs, the kulbars in that province import 89 types of consumer goods, including tea, packaged food items, TV sets, air-conditioning units, textiles, shoes, clothes, kitchen utensils, beauty and health products, car tires, mobile phones and, occasionally, cigarettes. As a rule, kulbars do not transport alcoholic beverages even though they bring in a high price because they are illegal in the Islamic Republic, transporting them is difficult and can lead to heavy fines and even prison [Persian links].
The Risks that Kulbars Take
Kulbari is a very dangerous business. As the kulbars I spoke with put it, it is like stepping on the road to death. According to the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights in Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, between 2015 and 2019, a total of 368 kulbars were killed and 595 were injured.
In his interview with IranWire, Mehdi Khosravi summarized the dangers to kulbars: “Before my own eyes, kulbars were shot, they were killed, injured or permanently disabled. Before my own eyes, a kulbar died because of extreme cold. Being shot at, falling off the mountain, freezing to death and stepping over landmines continuously threaten the lives of kulbars.”
In addition, authorities pose significant risks to their livelihood, wellbeing and lives. Sometimes the kulbars are arrested, beaten, put on trial, fined and even sentenced to prison terms for carrying goods that belong to somebody else. Nevertheless, the most signifiant and immediate danger kulbars face is being killed by Iranian border guards. This is such a serious problem that members of the Iranian parliament have introduced a bill to prevent guards from directly targeting the kulbars [Persian link].
According to the statistics published by Hengaw, in 2019 “at least 252 Kurdish kulbars and tradesmen were killed or injured in Kurdistan. Of this number, 72 lost their lives and 176 were injured. Compared to 2018, when 231 kulbars were killed or injured, this figure shows an increase of 8.3 percent.”
The same statistics show that 77 percent of the casualties — 50 deaths and 144 injuries — were the result of Iranian border guards and security forces shooting at them directly. Landmines planted by Iranian security forces killed one kulbar and disabled 11 Kulbarsl for life. Of the 50 kulbars who were killed, seven were under 18 years old.
In 2019, incidents caused by nature, such as avalanches, or other accidents connected to the natural environment, such as dangerous mountain passes or freezing conditions, took the lives of 23 kulbars and injured 19 others [Persian link]. One kulbar who froze to death in the snow was a teenager under 18. Traffic accidents killed two and injured two others. The casualties were from the provinces of West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Kermanshah.
Kulbars say that Iranian border guards and security forces consider their lives worthless and shoot them in the head and the chest while they are carrying heavy loads and cannot escape [Persian link]. Kulbars take routes that are not used by the armed members of Kurdish opposition parties because these routes are under close observation by the Iranian border guards. It is not clear why the security forces do not shoot in the air as a warning to stop the kulbars, instead of shooting to kill them.
Security forces show no mercy to pack animals either and ruthlessly kill kulbars’ horses and mules as well. Not only is it a crime to kill innocent animals whose owners have put loads on their backs, this killing also robs the families of their only source of income, which is dependent on these animals. In certain cases, security forces have even massacred horses and mules that were not carrying anything, such as in the massacre in May 2018 in a village in West Azerbaijan province, when forces killed close to 90 horses that were simply grazing [Persian links].
Kulbari, a Direct Consequence of Poverty
So why are kulbars willing to make a living in one of the most dangerous ways possible? Or, more specifically: why, in certain border areas of Iran, are there people who, to prevent themselves and their families from dying of hunger, have no other choice for work but kulbari?
The answer lies at the economic roots of kulbari. Nothing can drive a human being to an activity that is so dangerous and, at the same time, so difficult and pays so little, like absolute poverty and extreme hunger
The major factors contributing to this absolute poverty in Kurdistan and Kurdish areas, and which drive people to the dangerous job of kulbari, include “lack of economic infrastructures and lack of investment to build these infrastructures,” “disproportionate allocation of national resources in a way that ignores the margins and benefits the center,” “lack of job opportunities and lack of planning for stable employment and resulting widespread unemployment” and, most of all, “the treatment of Kurdish areas as a security matter.” [Persian link].
Economic indicators published by various official organizations in Iran confirm the claims above. According to these statistics, Kurdish areas from West Azerbaijan to the province of Ilam are among the most underdeveloped regions of Iran, suffer from structural shortcomings and fall way behind central regions of Iran in every social, political, cultural and economic indicator.
For instance, according to 2018 statistics published by the Statistical Center of Iran, the per capita income of Kurdistan province is around 46.4 percent of the national average, putting the province at the rank of 29 among 31 Iranian provinces. In the same year, Kurdistan’s share in the gross domestic product was 0.95 percent, meaning less than one percent, and 23rd among all Iranian provinces. According to the statistics for all recent years, the provinces of Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Ilam were among the four provinces with the highest rate of unemployment in Iran [Persian links].
According to statistics published by the newspaper Tose’e Iran, not only is the per capita income in the provinces of West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Kermanshah, the epicenters of kulbari, less than half the national average, their real rate of unemployment is over 38 percent and their inflation rates tops 44 percent. And, according to statistics published by ILNA, more than 40 percent of college graduates in these provinces are unemployed [Persian links].
According to Ahsan Alavi, a member of the parliament from Kurdistan’s capital Sanandaj, this province has not received any share of planned development projects [Persian link]. “Exactly at the time that they were building big industries in other cities [with cheap dollars], Kurdistan was still busy cleaning up the aftermath of the war [with Iraq] and was deprived of any investment,” he said.
In the spring of 2014, Kurdistan’s deputy governor told a seminar audience that 70 percent of the industrial units in the province were closed or almost closed and that the real unemployment rate in Kurdistan was over 35 percent.
According to statistics published by the Statistical Center of Iran and the Iranian Central Bank, in summer 2019 the average rate of unemployment in provinces where kulbari is common was more than 38 percent, 2.5 percent higher than a year earlier and five percent higher than the average rate of unemployment for the country. In the 12 months ending in November 2019, the average rate of inflation in these provinces was 35.28 percent, around two percent higher than the national average. In the same period, the rate of inflation in Kurdistan province was 45.2 percent.
The Economics of Kulbari
Analysts and researchers focusing on kulbari have often looked at the impact that smuggling and trafficking has on kulbaris’ lives.
Smuggling is often a lucrative business, despite its risks. So why do kulbars not benefit from smuggling’s high margins of return? It comes down to how the profits of smuggling done through kulbari are divided and what routes the smuggled goods take.
First of all, according to Rasoul Khazari, a member of the parliament’s Social Affairs Committee, 99.5 percent of smuggled goods enter Iran by the sea, through illegal piers and inside shipping containers, while the share of smuggling through kulbari is only half a percentage point. In other words, smuggling done by kulbars feeds a very small market and plays no significant role in the Iranian economy. It is also reported that even in the best case scenario, when the kulbar is paid the maximum amount, he receives less than one percent of the value of the goods that he carries [Persian link]. This means that out of each $100 worth of goods that is smuggled into Iran through kulbari, the kulbar receives less than one dollar.
The goods a kulbar carries belong to businessmen in Iranian cities. Mansour Amini (an alias), a businessman in the Kurdish city of Marivan, says that some of these businessmen are locals and live in border regions but the others live elsewhere, mostly in big cities. “Depending on the market demand or when he receives an order, the businessman buys the merchandise that he wants from someplace in the world, especially from China, South Korea, Turkey, Singapore, Taiwan and, in some cases, even from representatives of big corporations in the United Arab Emirates, and imports the merchandise to Iraqi Kurdistan in a legal way and by paying transit fees,” he says.
According to Amini, this is where the work of the middlemen, a crucial link in the legal and illegal commerce in the border areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, starts. “These middlemen have offices and storehouses on both sides of the border to store and manage the goods and work with a collection of drivers who carry smuggled merchandise, and agents who are their intermediaries to kulbars and the owners of pack animals,” he says.
Amini says that it is the responsibility of the Iraqi partner is to get the merchandise to a storehouse near the border with Iran, sometimes by using small trucks or horses and mules, and to then deliver them to kulbars: “From this point on, the responsibility rests with the Iranian middleman. At a location near the border, the Iranian middleman has a car, often a Japanese Hi-Lux Toyota pickup, ready to take the delivery from the kulbar and to carry the merchandise directly to the owner or to his own storehouses in a city near the border. Of course, sometimes the Iranian side takes direct responsibility for bringing the goods from the storehouse in Iraq into Iran.”
The middlemen have their offices in the bazaars and commercial areas of border cities close to routes used by kulbars. Amini says that the middlemen play a central role in moving and delivering the merchandise: “The middlemen move the merchandise by giving guarantees. The amount of the guarantee is based on the weight of the merchandise in kilograms and it is primarily decided by the type of the merchandise and its monetary value. The middleman might make a big profit on one transaction, or suffer a big loss if the merchandise is lost or confiscated — because he is responsible for the cargo and if he cannot deliver them to the businessman who owns it, he must pay him the total amount he has lost.”
In addition, Amini says, “the driver of a Toyota who takes delivery of the merchandise from a middleman and delivers it to its final destination must provide guarantees. If his load is confiscated they not only lose their car, they must also fully compensate the middleman for his loss.”
If the middleman receives $5 per kilo for the final delivery of the merchandise to the owner, he might pay anywhere from $2 to more than $3 per kilo to those who move the load from place to place, depending on the distance to the final destination.
Amini says that kulbars do not have to offer any guarantees and they owe nothing if the merchandise is lost due to them falling off the mountainous routes, snowdrifts or attacks by border guards. However, if this happens repeatedly, they lose the middleman’s trust and are out of a job.
In some cases, when a large number of kulbars carry the merchandise together, the middleman sends one or more people with them to walk ahead of the column and to warn them about border guards and security agents or to guard the goods. But, says Amini, sending guards with the kulbars is not often required and this is not a common practice: “The middleman knows the names of the kulbars and where they live and. Of course, if the kulbars were into crime they would not have entered kulbari but would have engaged in crime instead.”
Iranian Officials and the Question of Kulbari
Some Iranian officials believe that kulbari is an illegal act because the goods they carry have not been imported via legal avenues and the customs department has not received its fee for importing the merchandise. But advocates for kulbaris ask why a person who is deprived of the rights and the privileges of citizenship must observe laws that do not secure him any rights. According to them, the right to have a job and to fend off hunger takes precedence over legal restrictions on importing goods and the payment of customs fees. Since the basic rights of citizens take precedence over legislation, kulbars who have been stripped of their citizens’ rights have no duty to observe such laws [Persian link], they argue.
But not all officials agree or are consistent on how the kulbars should be handled. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has said that he does not consider kulbars to be smugglers because their activities are negligible when it comes to the business of smuggling. He has essentially endorsed the idea of ignoring their activities. [Persian link].
On the other hand, according to a lawyer in Kurdistan, when he was engaged to handle a court case concerning a person who had been shot by the border guards in the town of Baneh, the military prosecutor for the province showed him a letter from the office of the Supreme Leader that clearly stated that border guards could not be punished for shooting at kulbars and killing or injuring them [Persian link].
During a visit to Kurdistan, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raeesi announced that discussions about smuggling should not include kulbars [Persian link]. Instead, he said, kulbari must be reformed and regulated. This idea has been introduced as a bill to the parliament at least once, but after the Parliament Research Center opposed it, the bill never advanced to the voting stage.
In 2010, the Supreme National Security Council approved a project aiming to bring an end to kulbari [Persian link]. The project stipulated that each year 10 percent of border revenue was to be invested in building industrial units and workshops and in creating jobs in border areas to decrease the number of kulbars. However, the project was never carried out.
In April 2018, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli reported that the cabinet had approved a bill to regulate and reform the business of kulbari [Persian link]. He announced that he had asked his deputy for security affairs to have a week-long meeting with the governors of border provinces and officials at the responsible agencies to review the situation of kulbars in the these provinces and then propose solutions.
Iranian Law and the Issue of Kulbari
According to Tehran-based lawyer Osman Mozayan, Iranian law does not include any definition for kulbari, and the concept does not match any definition of standard employment in the country’s labor laws. Kulbari “has no specific hours, endangers the lives of people engaged in it and has unwanted consequences because it violates the borders,” he says. “There is no way that it can be reconciled with human dignity, nor it can be considered a job.”
Iran’s Islamic Penal Code states that any punishable crime must be named by law — but there is no law that cites kulbari as a crime. Besides this, says Osman Mozayan, the so-called Border Exchange Card indirectly recognizes kulbari as a legitimate activity but “conducting kulbari without paying customs is viewed as smuggling and, as a result, [kulbaris’] loads are confiscated and they are taken to court.”
According to Article 18 of the Law to Fight Smuggling of Goods and Currency, breaking this law is punishable by confiscation of the goods and/or the currency, and by cash fines, depending on the type of the goods [Persian PDF]. However, what happens on the ground is that kulbaris are shot at by border guards and security forces, a response that has no legal justification, even according to existing laws in the Islamic Republic.
According to Mozayan, if police act strictly according to the law, they have no right whatsoever to fire at kulbars. The law that regulates the use of firearms by the armed forces specifies the situations where shooting an offender from the waist up is allowed, and then only if there are no other options. These situations includes if the offender attacks the agents, precautions prove ineffective and the agents are in definite danger [Persian link]. “Considering that kulbars are carrying a heavy load on their shoulders, they are unable to attack and cannot even run away with the load on their shoulders, shooting them goes against the law,” he says.
Mozayan says Iran has not been consistent in the way it deals with agents who break the law. In other parts of the country, agents who have shot at citizens and disregarded the law have been held to account and have been punished. “In Kurdish areas agents who shoot at kulbars, or even those who shoot at ordinary citizens going from one village to another, are not punished. If the agents do the same thing in Tehran, Isfahan or Shiraz that they do to people in border areas they would definitely be put on trial and would be punished for breaking the law.”
According to Mozayan, it is possible to bring complaints against the agents, but in instances where cases related to the shooting of kulbars has gone to court, military prosecutors have not taken serious action against offending agents. Instead of using the report from the actual incident, they have offered, as expert opinion, the views of the Accidents Committee as specified by Article 5 of the law governing the use of arms by the armed forces [Persian link]. “They always write that the person who has been shot had put his own life in danger and [say] ‘we are not responsible for their lives.’ In the end, these cases are generally thrown out or take a long time and eventually end in the payment of a small sum of compensation because they say that they have no budget for it,” Mozayan tells me.
One exceptional case regarding the shooting to death of two kulbars in a border area who were not at the time carrying any goods illustrates the judiciary’s bizarre attitude toward the systematic killing of kulbars. Based on the information provided in the verdict, the judge accepted the fact that the kulbars were shot inside Iran when they were not carrying any goods and the testimonies by witnesses and the inspection of their mobile phones showed that they had had no contact with anybody across the border and had not even crossed the border.
The judge ruled that the intentional shooting by the two soldiers involved had resulted in the involuntary manslaughter of the two kulbars, and sentenced one soldier to a cash fine of one million tomans ($235) and the other to six months in prison and the payment of compensation to the heirs of one of the kulbars killed. According to lawyers, in such cases the compensation is paid in instalments and it is never clear whether it will actually be paid or not.
Osman Mozayan points to another example, citing the case of a child who was completely paralyzed after being shot by border guards. The lower court ruled that the child must receive full compensation but the appeals court changed the verdict: “Without citing any reason and presenting any evidence, the second court ruled that the child was eligible for only 20 percent of the specified compensation because he himself had put his own life in danger. The verdict ignored the fact that the guards had no right to shoot a child even if he himself had put his own life in danger.”
Mozayan says that most criminal complaints get nowhere. The law-breaking agents are not only not punished but are not even summoned to court to testify, even if the shooting has been intentional. “In one case, an uncle and his nephew were carrying an ordinary load from the town of Rabat [in West Azerbaijan] to Mahabad when they were shot. One was killed and the other was injured. When the agents noticed that they were not carrying smuggled goods, they went and bought bullets to replace the ones that they had fired in order to cover their tracks. But after many efforts we succeeded in bringing them to court and they were sentenced to six months in prison. The appeals court, however, suspended the sentence and sent the matter of compensation to the Police Fund Administration.”
To prevent the killing of kulbars, in December 2019 a group of members of the parliament introduced a bill to amend the law regulating the use of firearms by the armed forces [Persian link]. This bill explicitly forbids shooting directly at kulbars.
The bill is yet to come to the floor and it is not clear whether it will become the law or not.
However, Osman Mozayan believes that this bill is insupportable because it gives a legal standing to the demeaning work of kulbari: “Right now, it is illegal to shoot kulbars and if this bill is made into law it only legalizes a work that goes against human dignity. It will not stop the killing of the kulbars.”