December 2016, Germany

Play Sound Stop Sound It was the first time I was seeing the picture of an old man who was struggling to shoulder a heavy load. It was the picture of a Kurdish man: Khezr. The cyberspace was inundated with his pictures on that day. His face was swollen as a result of a gum infection. While heaving the load on his shoulder, he was telling the camera that he was 70 years old and had no choice but to shoulder the load in order to feed his wife and children.

Khezr was not alone. He was surrounded by old and young men, all alike. Their similarity was in the force of their lives; unemployment, force of their destiny. They were looking for employment and there was none. To keep their wives and children away from hunger, they took up a gruelling job. They shouldered heavy loads, panting, sweating along the mountain paths of Iraq and Iran. They scaled mountain after mountain. Every day was a new suffering and every moment a danger was in ambush for their lives.

Khezr’s suffering was heaving on my soul and mind. Finally, I went to Iran two months later.

3 March 2017, Iran-Iraq border zero point

“Every time that we come to the border to smuggle goods, we sell our lives to earn bread for the following day.”
This was the 17-year-old Bahman. I had seen him one winter afternoon when he was scaling a mountain on a mule; in the long line of mule riders along the mountainous bends, which resembled a coiling snake, the beginning and end of which was hiding in fog.

He said: they call us smugglers! They say, what we are doing is wrong. Well, we know it. We have to do it, when we have no work in this cold hell. He said: the sufferings are not few. It is a bigger pain to be shot at by border guards; that is by far more tragic than shouldering loads in snow and storm. You are trying to earn bread for your wife and children, but they shoot at you from four directions, for the crime of shouldering loads, calling it smuggling.

Show Caption Show Caption
Two Kulbars are descending the mountains. They have crossed the border at midnight. Depending on the goods, their load weighs between 40 to 100 kilograms. They travel on foot and it takes them about 8 hours. They receive between 100,000 to 200,000 tomans, i.e between 20 to $40. Border mountains, city of Paveh, 1 March 2018
Show Caption Show Caption
The Kulbars have reached the village after many ups and downs. The owners immediately take delivery of their goods. They buy the goods over the telephone in Iraq and use the Kulbars to bring them to Iran. The goods must be quickly loaded on trucks and sent to the next destination. This stage is full of anxiety, because the whole cargo would be confiscated if the security forces arrived. Drivers use their trucks without registration number plates or with fake number plates. They drive along dirt roads to evade the police checkpoints, but they are occasionally ambushed by the police and their vehicle and cargo are confiscated. Uraman-Marivan Road, 1 March 2018

Iran has its longest border with Iraq: 1,458 kilometres. West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Kermanshah are Kurdish-populated provinces of Iran, were the people are Sunnis.

More than 40,000 people in the cities and villages of these areas earn the bread of their families by smuggling goods (housewares, fabric, cigarettes, alcoholic drinks etc.). Families in these areas generally are large. This means that around 400,000 people are dependent on smuggling. Many other people earn their living by selling those goods in border markets or by brokering and shipping those goods to central cities of the country.

I took pictures in those areas during seven trips over land in 2017 and 2018 in more than 20 days.

There are skilled guides among the Kulbars who are tasked to check the safety of the road with hunting binoculars and to report the conditions over the wireless telephone.

Duleh-Bid Village, city of Sardasht, 7 March 2017

“We do not deserve this. We defended these borders for eight long years during the Iran-Iraq war. We gave blood. Now, our children have to carry loads on their backs like animals for a bite and finally lose their lives on the job. They hunt us like animals.”

- Dervish Mohammad, city of Sardasht

Show Caption Show Caption
Shafi, 27 years old, was targeted by the Border Regiment in February 2017. The bullet hit his right breast and threw him from the horse on the rocks. He suffered a spinal cord lesion when the back of his head crashed on the rocks. He is fully paralysed. I met his father Mohammed in hospital. Muhammad worked as a Kulbar for 30 years and has seven children. With eyes full of tears, he said: "I didn't want my children to become Kulbars. But what choice is there when we don't have any bread to eat!? We do not deserve this. We defended these borders for eight long years during the Iran-Iraq war. We gave blood. Now, our children have to carry loads on their backs like animals for a bite and finally lose their lives on the job. They hunt us like animals.” Sardasht, 6 March 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
Nav Village is located a few hundred metres from Dariyan dam. They were horticulturalists in their orchards until four years ago. Their lands went under water when the dam was built. Now, most residents of this village earn their living by working as Kulbars. Some others have procured boats and transport cargo to other villages. Nav Village, 23 June 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
This elementary class has been built for students of several border villages. It has 13 students. Six of them have not been to school for a few days because of the snow and the far distance from their homes. The class is designated for students of the first to fourth grades of elementary school and the teacher instructs every student according to their grade. Duleh-Bid Village, 5 March 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
The four men are two pairs of brothers. There are many like them in border villages; young men who have not been able to find work in cities and have had to leave their families to come to border villages. They have rented a room with a stable to keep their horses and mules. They usually cross the difficult dangerous mountains every three days to go to Iraq and earn the bread of their family. Youssef, the elder brother who has left his wife and two children in the city to come here, says: "I worked in Tehran for two years as a bricklayer. The site closed down, I returned to our city and was unemployed. Now that I am here, I don't know if I will return alive from the border at night or they will take back my corpse to my family. My wife and children will go hungry if I don't do this." Darmanabad Village, 5 March 2017

With the evening approaching, groups of Kulbars arrive from the nearby villages and cities at the mountains and cross the border as a caravan. They include 13-14 years old children and 70-80 years old men. There are quite a few university graduates who have lost hope of finding employment.

Buaran Village, border area, 5 March 2017

“The proletariat has
nothing to lose but
its chains.”

- Karl Marx

Kulbar: “shoulder carrier”.

Play Sound Stop Sound Indeed, it is simple so long as it is not your profession. For them, however, it was their profession. It was their profession and the profession was apparent in their visages. Kulbar was no longer a simple word.

It was intertwined with the names of men who were trees and had their roots in the ground. It was as though history was taking shape in a different form in this part of the world. The “now” was intertwined with the “past”. There was the fatigue of the body and the smell of gunpowder.

They carried a load from one side to the other time and again. The soil was not waiting to be ploughed. It had already been ploughed under their feet. The pained faces of these men had depressed the soil. It didn’t have the energy to take the seed.

Show Caption Show Caption
"I have a bachelor's degree in computer science. Our town is small and I couldn't find a job. I worked as a bricklayer for a while but the town is small and everybody knows one another. Therefore, they don't pay you cash. You work, but they pay you a month or a few months later. I am newly married. You can't live without money. My wife is opposed to my work as a Kulbar. She is constantly worried until I return from the border. Well, it is dangerous but it is better than staying at home."
Khosro, 25 years old
Tateh Border Pass, 1 March 2018

Play Sound Stop Sound It was past sunset and the entire mountain was pitch-black. I was frightened. I had no energy. My clothes were totally wet from the rain at sunset and I was somehow freezing. We had set off with smugglers towards the border in the afternoon. We were due to go to Iraq over the border mountains and come back with them. They would not accept to take me with them. They refused first and then gave it in when I persevered. This didn’t mean that they would do anything for me or provide me with a mule. I had to go with them on foot.

Everything changed when darkness fell. When we reached the border zero point, the sound of volleys broke the silence of the mountain. Nothing could be seen. Everybody had taken their lives in their hands and was fleeing. It was as though that voices were fleeing; sound of successive anxious breathing; sound of hooves of horses and mules skidding on frozen rocks. Fear of bullets and falling down poured fright into my body. Everybody left; I remained with silence and blackness.

It occurred to me to go back the way I had come. My hands and feet were frozen. I had no energy left. But I was resisting the cold. I wanted to reach the destination. I couldn’t move more than a few metres on those snow- and ice-covered rocks. I didn’t know the way. I lost my energy.

Show Caption Show Caption
Faramarz comes to this border from Marivan, about 130 kilometres away, twice a week. The path is almost impassable and one can only travel it on horses and mules. Alcoholic drinks are usually imported through this border. It is one of the most dangerous borders for smuggling as far as crossing and shooting of security forces are concerned. The caravan stops here and waits for darkness to fall and to receive safety report through wireless telephone. Two friends of Faramarz were shot dead by security forces in this area last week. Border zero point, Sardasht, 3 March 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
“This is the ninth truck I have bought in the past four years. They have confiscated my trucks eight times before. We always travel on rugged mountainous roads to avoid the security forces. But they occasionally lay ambush along the route and leave us no escape route. If we are smart enough, we will manage to leave our truck and cargo and save ourselves. They have shot at my truck many times and I may be very lucky that I am still alive. Our trucks either don't have any registration number plates or we use fake number plates. It takes me more than three hours to drive the 15-kilometre path and I charge about 1 million tomans (the equivalent of $200) to carry alcoholic drinks. The fee for other types of cargo is less than half.”
Nozad, truck driver
Exit from the village into dirt road, 6 March 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
“We do not remain indifferent when they kill our brothers and comrades. We take revenge for the blood they shed. They shoot us in the head. They slaughter us, without warning, without firing in the air. This is cruel. What crime have we committed? This is a small region. We hear who has shot at night. We find them and take revenge.” They showed me this picture on their mobile phone and explained that he was an agent who had shot dead a Kulbar at the border. His brothers had found that agent later and had violently killed him. The smugglers I got to know at the border provided me with these explanations. I was their guest at dinner the following night. 4 March 2017

The mountain skirt is fully covered with snow and one cannot walk on it. The Kulbars slide down their loads on snow. Then they load it on their shoulder at the bottom and move ahead. Depending on the goods, their load weighs between 40 to 100 kilograms. Sometimes they cannot load it on their shoulders on their own.

Tateh Border Pass, 1 March 2018

Unemployment is the biggest problem of the border dwellers. The ruling ideological outlook considers the dwellers of these regions as “outsiders”, based on ethnic and religious affiliations. The government is also concerned that autonomous movements may ascend in the Kurdish populated areas at western and north-western borders.

As a result of specific policies, the cultural, political and in particular economic domains have remained undeveloped in these regions. Border dwellers consider themselves victims of a certain definition of citizen in official terms. Unlike the people in central regions, they bear the brunt of second-class citizenship. As a result, they give priority to escaping hunger and finding a job over compliance with law.

Show Caption Show Caption
When security forces started shooting at the border last night, everybody scattered across the mountains. This forced the smugglers to use the routes farther away to cross the border and not be able to return to Iran before sunrise. They were on the way the whole day. They had lost one of their mules and its load in mountain storms and had been forced to cross the border in daylight. Duleh-Bid Village, 4 March 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
Wireless telephone is an important and valuable equipment for smugglers. They can find information about the safety of the route by means of wireless telephone. There are skilled guides among the Kulbars who are tasked to check the safety of the road with hunting binoculars and to report it over the wireless telephone. Darmanabad Village, 5 March 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
Karwan, the 18-year-old Kulbar, who was caught in an avalanche, lost his life as a result of severe hypothermia a day later. He had written in his final Telegram post: “Oh God! Why is life so difficult these days?” In winter 2017 alone, more than 16 people lost their lives as a result of hypothermia in the mountain. Relief Aid Ambulance, Buaran village, 5 March 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
The border urban and rural thoroughfares are always full of men sitting idle. They get together, chat, and speak about their problems and sufferings, and play. “I saw Mohammad hanging on a mule with blood all over. His friends had brought him down from the mountain. My son appeared as though he had been sleeping for years. There was no life in his body. They said they had done all they could to save him, but they had been unable to bring him alive to the village. We had organised his engagement a month before his death. Mohammad had done his military service; he had studied in the university and obtained a bachelor’s degree. He had looked for a job in the city but been unable find any. His mother and I took care of him for 25 years. Lives of our children are not worth anything here. What crime had Mohammad committed that they killed him? Not even a single government official came to console us here.” Ali, 55, Mohammad’s father, Sardasht, 7 March 2017

Play Sound Stop Sound The water was calm and green. Green it was. The boat was heavy and half sunk in water. It cut through the water like a sharp blade and went forward. When we reached near the village, the water lost its shine. As though the village was empty. It was asleep. We jumped out of the boat and tied it with a rope to the truck’s rack. Everything was calm and safe inside the boat. But it became unsafe as soon as we left it. All heads turned with anxiety. When we were finished with unloading, the work was over. My job was over.

“Stay the night with us. There are no transport means to the town at this hour.”

Show Caption Show Caption
“My brother and I worked in our father’s teahouse. It was down there. When they filled the dam, everything we had went under water. The teahouse was eliminated. Then we bought a boat jointly with a friend of mine. We use it to carry goods that used to be carried with trucks to the villages before. There is work one day, and then no work for a week. Police detectives have confiscated our boat twice. They don’t issue a permit and we have to use it secretly.”
Behyar, boat driver
Dariyan Dam, 23 June 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
The Tateh Pass, the most difficult pass in the region, joins the two provinces of Kermanshah and Kurdistan. It is closed by heavy snow and storms half of the year. The Pass overlooks some regions of Iraqi Kurdistan. The first village in the picture is Hani Garmaleh in Iran and the other one is Biareh in Iraqi Kurdistan. Tateh Pass, 4 May 2017
Show Caption Show Caption
Dariyan Dam is located in Kermanshah province. When they filled the Dam in 2015, the orchards and lands of the surrounding villages went under water. The people were opposed to the dam’s construction and were forced to migrate after it was filled. Some people remained behind. Some of them acquired boats. They have been earning their living by carrying smuggled goods to the neighbouring villages. They take the boats onto water in the afternoon and pull them out and take them to the village when work ends. Smuggled cigarettes, fabric, housewares and sanitary items are transported by this means. Dariyan Dam, 1 March 2018
Show Caption Show Caption
Dariyan Dam is located in Kermanshah province. When they filled the Dam in 2015, the orchards and lands of the surrounding villages went under water. The people were opposed to the dam’s construction and were forced to migrate after it was filled. Some people remained behind. Some of them acquired boats. They have been earning their living by carrying smuggled goods to the neighbouring villages. They take the boats onto water in the afternoon and pull them out and take them to the village when work ends. Smuggled cigarettes, fabric, housewares and sanitary items are transported by this means. Dariyan Dam, 4 May 2017

“I raised my head and saw the officer of the Border Regiment standing above me. There was a soldier with him. Without uttering a word, he shot at my left knee from a distance of two or three metres. I fell on the ground and said: why are you shooting? This time, he shot at my right leg and they then went away. They shot at me in 2017 and I couldn‘t walk for a year. I have had more than five operations on my leg and I still can’t walk. My right leg is shorter now. I have been living in my brother’s home for a year and my sister-in-law looks after me. He can’t afford to pay for my medications and treatment. He is also unemployed.”
Farhad, Kulbar

Marivan, 28 February 2018

According to figures documented by human rights groups, more than 76 people were killed and 64 injured in Kurdish-populated areas in 2016. Targeted shooting by security forces, frostbite and avalanche, falling down from the mountain, and mine explosion along the route were reasons for death and injury of the Kurdish shoulder carriers.

Shafi, 27 years old, was targeted by the Border Regiment in February 2017, when he was crossing the border on a horse. The bullet hit his right breast and threw him from the horse on the rocks. He suffered a spinal cord lesion when the back of his head crashed on the rocks. He is now paralysed. His parents take him to a clinic for physiotherapy every day. Owing to their poor financial conditions, they transport Shafi on a door.

Sardasht, 6 March 2017

Play Sound Stop Sound


“Goods smuggling is very important. They say that $15 billion is the money in smuggling. That is the minimum they mention today. Up to 20 billion and 25 billion have been mentioned. That is a very big amount. This is a blow to the national economy. Smuggling must be prevented. Make no mistake. By smuggling, I don’t mean the poor Kulbar who crosses the border and brings back something on his back to provide for his family. That is nothing, it is not significant. We say: combat the huge goods smuggling gangs. Tens and hundreds of containers of various smuggled goods enter the country.”
From two speeches of Ayatollah Khamenei, leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2017-2018

Text and Photography : Mohammadreza Soltani

Coding : Mansour

English Translation : Khalil Rostamkhani

Graphic : Minoo Hassanzadeh

Persian Narration : Ali Jalali

Music : Arshan


Special Thanks to everyone who made this project possible, in particular :
Farzaneh Jalali
Zainab Tasbandi
Osman Mozayan
Varia Delangiz
Peyman Hoshmandzadeh
Mehdi Dadkhah
Kaveh Rostamkhani
Søren Pagter


Produced by Mohammadreza Soltani

© August 2018. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED