CONTRABAND

Our journey takes us to Western Iran and its border with Iraq, a predominately Kurdish region.

It is a mountainous sparsely inhabited area with tracks that seem to lead nowhere, or so we thought.

Numbering over 20 million, the Kurds are one of the largest non-state nations in the world. Their homeland, Kurdistan, has been forcibly divided and lies mostly within the present-day borders of Iraq, Iran & Turkey with smaller parts in Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Kurdish nation, with its distinctive society and culture continues to suffer.

Although the living standard of Kurds in Iran is considered to be higher than that of Kurds in other countries, poverty and high unemployment doggedly persists here. Sanctions have further exacerbated the problem. Simple things like decent toothpaste, something we take for granted, is in short supply and rather than being a paste is a powder more suited for dental moulds than cleaning.

Homes we see along the way

and shops

and this restaurant in a larger village

More Fault lines we thought we left behind in Tehran (click on this picture to read the Fault Lines post)

 

Poverty and lack of alternative opportunities have forced many people in this region to smuggle goods from Iraq, despite the grave risks associated with doing so. Everything from clothes, make-up, electronic goods and alcohol (banned in Iran) is carried across the border, and those involved face arrest or even death.

All for an average of just $US 10 per journey.

There are two phases for smuggling goods in from Iraq: in the first phase, smugglers, most of them Iranian, take goods over the border from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iranian Kurdistan, usually on horseback or on their own backs.

Once over the border goods are collected by vehicles and distributed throughout Iran.

The weight carried by each person depends on the capacity of each person and the weather, usually between 30kg and 40kg per person.

 

Mules can carry more.

Crossing treacherous mountain passes presents further problems in winter snow – hazardous minefields from the 1980- 1988 Iraq-Iran war.

Follow the dog and do not choose another way, because the dog knows where there are land mines, and how to avoid the army (picture and caption courtesy of Mada)

 

Smugglers are often ambushed, fired upon or blackmailed by border guards.

Making matters worse , they are forced to pay the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDK-I) and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) a “revolutionary tax” to ensure a clear passage.

 

In this region a very important relationship exists between a man and his horse or mule, the traditional mode of transport for smuggled goods. Horses are valuable possessions for families living at the border and often fall prey to the packs of mountain wolves that prowl the area.

These mules are lucky- they are hitching a ride back to their next load

Cheers to the ever friendly Iranians. It is not for us to judge them in what they do. Few other options exist.

These folk have just delivered their load and return back over the mountain by foot. Note their posture from carrying heavy loads long distances

 

Smugglers don’t work full-time – if they’re lucky, they’ll get a job once a week that pays according to the goods carried.  Transporting alcohol pays the best.

And for premium products, Iranians pay premium prices – a 750ml  bottle of Chivas which would normally cost +- $24, can fetch $200 in Tehran. Vodka sells for $100, and Hungarian wine a more palatable $50.

A bottle of whisky does not cost the same in Tabriz as in Tehran. The farther away from the Iranian/ Iraqi border, the more expensive the product.

For a country that bans alcohol, Iran has a drinking problem. The government has estimated it has more than 250,000 alcoholics and has set up a network of rehabilitation centres in an attempt to address the problem.

Just over the top of this hill (at 12 o’clock) is Iraq. If you look closely there are 4 smugglers Land Cruisers coming down the hill.

A closer view of the 4. The road is so narrow that it only allows for one way traffic at a time, making for a long wait.

Vehicles waiting for contraband at the border summit.

An abandoned Land Cruiser at the border. We can only surmise they were disturbed by the army or police as X marks the spot.

Transferring contraband from Land Cruisers to smaller, quicker vehicles.

An army check point some distance from the border. With the myriad of tracks across the mountains it can only be a very difficult task to control smuggling

While official statistics are not available on the frequency of smuggler killings, lives are lost on a regular basis. According to a report released by Hengaw, a Kurdish Iranian human-rights website, 25 men have lost their lives during the first three months of 2017 crossing the mountains.

365 days a year through all four seasons desperate people risk their lives. It never never stops.

As do inequalities in other parts of the world.

We wonder if mankind will ever learn from the mistakes it has made in the past.

Not that we would be the first to think of this in an age of enlightenment…..

7 Responses to CONTRABAND

  1. XT500

    Thank you. You have started my wunderlust again

  2. Colin

    Mind boggling! At the exorbitant price of alcohol it must surely bankrupt the poor Iranian alcoholics. Thank goodness for the life saving dogs and mules. The wolves and landmines seem too be a major problem. Another great post. Keep safe on your travels. Can’t wait for the next post. All the best Colin from Durban.

  3. Drifter

    A remote part of the world that seems forgotten by others? Not an easy life and I agree with you that one cannot judge these people. One has to survive

  4. Mike

    It brings one back down to earth to learn the plight of other folk – we always feel we are hard done by. The mountains look really rugged and tough to cross, much like our own Drakensberg with their ever changing weather conditions, so to cross carrying that type of load is incredible.People are incredible by their sheer tenacity.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Naude.K

    Wow! Your Gail summarised it well, reads like a gripping story. But the one realise this is reality for these people. Travel safe!

  6. gail van der mey

    This was a grippingly interesting post. Wilbur Smith type of story. Unbelievable that you got so close.

  7. Paul and Philna

    Ha ha I could give you an official letter on my letterhead that says NO! to that last question. The mountains are beautiful. Lots of love, p&p

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