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.
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.
Crossing treacherous mountain passes presents further problems in winter snow – hazardous minefields from the 1980- 1988 Iraq-Iran war.
Smugglers are often ambushed, fired upon or blackmailed by border guards.
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
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.
Vehicles waiting for contraband at the border summit.
Transferring contraband from Land Cruisers to smaller, quicker vehicles.
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…..