Men in impoverished Rojhalat find no other means to earn a livelihood but to risk their lives and climb impassable passages for long hours while carrying goods such as tobacco and tea to make as little as $10 a day.
LOS ANGELES, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Last week, yet another Kurdish kulbar(border courier) was shot by Iranian guards. The Kurdish term “kulbar” consists of: “kul” meaning back and “bar” meaning carrying. “Kulbaran” is the plural form.
Twenty-eight-year-old Soran Ahmadi from the village of Ghala Rash, near Sardasht in Iranian Kurdistan (Rojhalat) was shot last week while carrying goods from the Kurdistan Region to Iran.
Ahmadi is one of many men in impoverished Rojhalat who find no other means to earn a livelihood but to risk their lives. They climb impassable passages for long hours, and sometimes days, while carrying goods such as tobacco and tea to make as little as $10 a day. The high rates of unemployment have affected Iran in general, and Kurds and Baluch ethnic minorities in particular.
According to human rights organizations, between 36 and 44 border couriers have been killed in 2015 alone, and at least 21 were wounded by Iranian government forces.
IMPUNITY FOR MURDER
United Nations’ March report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran states that the arbitrary killing of the unarmed kulbar is “in violation of Iran’s domestic laws and international obligations.”
In response to the UN concern with the plight of the border couriers, Iran said “[I]t is very difficult to distinguish drug traffickers and armed bandits from real Koulbaran [sic] at [the] borders.”
But how difficult is it to see that the persons crossing with heavy loads on their backs or mules are not bandits in an armored vehicle but humans left with no option except to auction their bodies to feed their family?
Iranian laws dictate that the border guards can fire their weapon only if they believe the trespasser is armed and dangerous and only after following these steps: first, an oral warning, second, by shooting into the air, and third, targeting the lower body if they must fire.
But activists say that border guards fire at anything that moves among the trees and bushes, be it a human, an animal, or breeze, and they enjoy impunity for it.
“[The spilling of] Kurdish blood is halal in Iran,” Rebin Rahmani from Paris told Kurdistan24, using the Islamic term for what is "permissible."
Rahmani is the director of the European branch of the Kurdistan Human Rights Network that recently published a detailed report on the situation of the kulbar, among many other human rights violations, in Rojhalat.
Rahmani himself was imprisoned twice in Iran once for being a kulbar when he was in high school—carrying shampoo to pay for his schooling—and once for his political activities for being the editor-in-chief of a student newsletter that was shut down like innumerable others in Iran.
Activists report that the relatives of the killed and injured kulbar are threatened not to file a complaint against the guards.
They are also forced to pay for the bullets that have cut through the flesh of their loved ones in order to be able to repatriate the corpse and bury it.
This type of oppression is not a new strategy in the Islamic Republic of Iran. For four decades, families of political activists who were sent to firing squads have had to cover the expense of the bullets.
According to the detailed report by the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, 41 percent of the kulbar killed are between the ages of 20 and 30, and 20 percent are over the age of 30. One percent are under 18 and 20 percent of the dead were over 30 years of age.
So far, no complaint has been filed against the border guards.
THE ‘BARE’ LIVES OF THE ‘UNPEOPLE’
English writer George Orwell coined the term “unpeople” for those who are easily “vaporized” (killed) in 1984 when the government wants to dispense with their lives. Building on Orwell’s terminology, Professor Noam Chomsky used the word “unhistory” to talk about the ignored realities of the lives of the powerless people around the world. Both terms apply to kulbaran in Iran.
“Kurdish and Baluch kulbar in Iran have no rights as citizens and are not protected by the law; therefore, their lives are dispensable, and anyone can get away with killing them. This is what Agamben calls ‘bare life.’” Shahed Alavi, a Kurdish activist and journalist based in Washington DC, told Kurdistan24.
Stripped of significance and subject to violence, the poverty-stricken Kurds on the Iran-Iraq border are appropriate examples of what Georgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher, calls living a “bare life.” These people are exposed and unprotected although, unlike Roma and refugees whom Agamben refers to, they are within their lands.
“Although kulbaran live in their ancestral land, they are perceived as displaced people. Their crime is disrespecting frontiers,” Alavi added.
BORDERS AND FIRST NATIONS
The border guards have been freely shooting unarmed kulbaran because the borders are “sacred,” much more valuable than the life of unemployed humans who are willing to do the most difficult jobs to earn a humble living.
But for the Kurds, crossing one side of Kurdistan into another does not feel like crossing borders. They are moving across their ancestral lands divided as a sacrifice to the interest of world powers after World War I. The Kurds are like First Nations in North America; the borders between Canada and America that have divided their land are meaningless.
“Kurds aren’t only killed on the borders of their cities and villages but also in wealthy cities of Isfahan and Shiraz when they carry goods,” Rahmani added. Wearing traditional clothes marks one immediately as “sub-human,” a non-person who can easily be killed with no punishment.
Thus, the unaccountable killing of unarmed kulbaran has much deeper roots than the so-claimed “difficulty” that the Iranian government points out.