Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mud, sweat and tears on Iranian frontier


Border crackdown upsets Kurdish smugglers trafficking oil and alcohol between Iran and Iraq.

By Khalid Mahmud in Sulaimaniyah (ICR No. 320, 20-Jan-10)

Trudging through cold and mud with watering eyes and a running nose, Salih Arif Dashti cursed the trade that had driven him into the path of landmines and hostile border guards.

“We start walking at 1 am,” said the Iranian Kurd smuggler. “While people enjoy a good night’s sleep, we carry loads of up to 60 kilos through snow and danger.”

“This is no life,” he said, staggering with jerry cans of smuggled oil towards a safe house inside Iraqi territory.

As members of Kurdish clans that straddle Iran’s rugged frontier with Iraq, Dashti and his friends are long accustomed to tough terrain and bitter weather. But in addition to the harsh conditions, they also have to contend with the increasingly vicious Iranian border guards.

Dashti recalls a crossing last autumn that ended in capture and humiliation by Iranian forces. “They destroyed our containers, and poured the petrol we were carrying over our clothes. Then they stripped us. We walked naked until we reached a car whose driver gave us blankets,” he said.

Smuggling has flourished for decades among the Kurdish communities divided by the border. Iranian traffickers bring petrol and diesel to Iraq, where fuel from vast domestic reserves remains relatively expensive and poorly refined. On the return trip, the smugglers load up with luxury goods, and with alcohol – readily available in Iraqi Kurdistan but forbidden in Iran.

An Iranian diplomat in Iraq defended the crackdown on the smugglers, saying they brought goods to his country that were either banned or had not been subject to levies or quality controls.

“Given the provision of so many official border crossings in the region, it is normal that smugglers should be punished,” Azim Husseini, the Iranian consul in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, told IWPR.

He said that his country’s security forces had not broken the law in dealing with the traffickers. “The treatment of the smugglers has never in any way been illegal or extra-judicial,” he said.

Husseini insisted the smugglers’ violation of the law justified the tough measures taken against them. “If the border violations were sent to court, the consequence would be much harder. There would, for sure, be imprisonment, fines and travel bans,” he said.

Iraqi Kurdish authorities said smuggling continued to thrive along the border despite their best efforts to curb it.

“We cannot completely stop those who bring fuel from Iran... Because the border is very wide and mountainous,” said Nuri Osman, the head spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s prime minister’s office.

He added that economic and historic factors kept the illicit trade alive. “The border people have inherited smuggling from their fathers and grandfathers. They will not give up this work,” Osman said.

The lowest paid among the smugglers earn about 90,000 to 120,000 Iranian rials (between 9 and 12 dollars) per trip. Many of the men use horses to bear heavier loads across the border. A horseman can expect to be paid between 1,000,000 to 2,000,000 rials per trip, depending on the weight of the load and the risk involved.

The border district of Penjwen, south-east of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, is dotted with tiny hamlets where the smugglers stop to reload.

Rudimentary mud or concrete structures provide the men with a space to relax and in some cases, fortify themselves with alcohol before the return leg. While their horses graze, the men describe the hazards of their work. Most agree that Iran has intensified its crackdown on their trade.

According to Tariq Talib Hamarashid, the Iraqi Kurd owner of a smugglers’ rest stop, the Iranians typically punish captured smugglers by slaughtering their horses, each of which costs between 3,000 and 4,000 dollars. Hamarashid said he had learnt of more than 200 horses killed in this manner in the last five years.

Last year, he said, he had seen a horseman break down in tears over the death of one of his animals. “The man was throwing mud on his head, rolling around in the dirt, as if he had lost someone very dear. My friends and I collected some money and bought him a horse,” he said.

Hamarashid said the smugglers’ mounting losses had left them unable to repay debts for alcohol purchases.

“There are people in Iran who owe me 12,000 dollars. When I call them, they do not reply,” he said.

Bestun Sidiq, an Iraqi Kurd who deals in trafficked oil, said the crossing he works at used to receive up to 100,000 gallons of fuel a night – nowadays, the amount rarely exceeds 3,000 gallons. He blames the fall in traffic on a border trench, constructed three years ago along the Iranian side of the frontier.

“Our daily bread has been cut ... We are out of jobs because of the Iranian government,” he said.

Ahmed Faraj, the Iraqi Kurd owner of a smugglers’ rest stop, said some 500 smugglers used to pass the crossing where he has worked for the last 15 years. “Now we get 15 or 20 carriers with difficulty,” he said.

Several smugglers say they or their animals have been shot at by Iranian border guards. Iranian Kurd Soran Ali Azizi said he was ambushed by an Iranian patrol six years ago, “The officer fired two shots, the first in the air and the second one in my direction.

“I was hit in the back and went home injured. When I went to the hospital in Iran, they kept asking me how I got hurt. I did not tell them.”

The smugglers say they avoid carrying weapons themselves, as they are more likely to be treated leniently if captured unarmed.

Patience, bravery and endurance are regarded as the smugglers’ prized assets. Also essential is a close familiarity with the rough mountain passes that bisect the border, mined heavily during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Horses are particularly valued by smugglers who favour the more difficult routes. Kawa Star Muradi, an Iranian Kurd, who took up smuggling to earn more money, said he lost his horse last winter when it fell into a deep gully.

“I was stuck there for an hour alone, beside a ditch full of mud and snow,” he said. “It was so cold my beard turned to stone. I saved myself from freezing to death by drinking the quart of whiskey I had brought along.”

Several Iranian Kurd smugglers said they were compelled by poverty to break the law and have been ostracized by society as a result.

“Nobody comes to our house because they say our earnings are [sinful],” said Hasan Said Mohammed Husseini.

Amjad Hussein Qadir, whose leg was blown off in a landmine explosion, said he had lost four horses during more than 20 years of smuggling. “I am not suitable for this job,” he said, “but I am obliged to do it.”

Pessimism is commonplace among the smugglers in Penjwen, who fear the Iranian crackdown will eventually put a stop their perilous trade.

Iranian Kurd Osman Hussein Bardal said he had heard that Iran was planning to construct a concrete wall along the frontier. “If this is true, we will be out of work,” he said.

Khalid Mahmud is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah. IWPR-trained reporter Shorish Khalid and IWPR local editor Hogar Hasan also contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah and Erbil.

Published under partnership agreement with IWPR. Normal copyrights applied. Visit the IWPR website at:The Institute for War & Peace Reporting