When night falls, Othman Bayzi, a 35-year-old Iranian smuggler carries his illicit cargo on his shoulder and disappears. Every night Bayzi meets his fellow smugglers heading towards the border separating Kurdistan
The nature of the smugglers’ work differs considerably from that of ordinary people. They have no capital to invest and they don’t have expenses. “All we need is a piece of cloth and a strong rope. We use the rope to carry our cargo on our shoulders and we wrap the rope with cloth so it doesn’t hurt our bodies," explained Bayzi.
From the roofs of the houses in Haji Omran, Juman district, in the far-east of the Kurdish Region, one can see the border-crossing into Iran. One year ago this crossing-point was officially opened and today 250 commercial trucks pass across it every day.
Despite this new official route smuggling continues to flourish. For many people living in the border area it is the only source of livelihood; some smugglers can make about U.S $40 every day.
Bayzi told Niqash that “smuggling between Kurdistan and Iran dates back to 1991 when the former Iraqi government banned all kinds of goods and supplies from entering Kurdistan. This encouraged people living in the border areas to turn to smuggling to bring from Iran the different kinds of goods they needed, especially oil.”
Political circumstances have changed but smuggling continues. “Today smuggling between Kurdistan and Iran has become a daily routine," said Bayzi. Alcoholic drinks, cigarettes and perfumes are some of the most popular goods taken into Iran.
"We always face the risk of death,” said Haj Yousifi, taking a deep breath and talking about his work as a smuggler. Sitting in front of a camp fire, Yousifi explained the difficulties and risks he and his fellow smugglers face. “In winter we cross the snowy mountain road on foot carrying the various goods on our shoulders… we are obliged to continue doing this dangerous and tiresome job to survive,” he explained.
Twenty-two-year old Akram Sohrabi is an Iranian smuggler and says he works as a smuggler because he has no other job possibilities. Sohrabi says he is not threatened by border officials but complains that the profession has become much harder since the Iranian government banned the use of donkeys to transport the goods out of fear that they were being used to carry weapons.
Now, Sohrabi and his fellow smugglers carry 30 to 100 kilos of smuggled items on their shoulders every day and walk a distance of more than 10 km.
According to official statistics more than 30 smugglers were killed in ambushes by Iranian border guards in the Haji Omran area in 2008.
However, according to Haj Yousifi "the situation is much better now for smugglers who coordinate their work with the Iranian government." Haj Yousifi says that most of the smuggling operations are carried out with the knowledge and approval of the Iranian government. All items that are banned from entering Iran, through official crossings, are transported by smugglers who carry special badges given to them by the Iranian security authorities for the purpose of smuggling. When a smuggler is faced by an ambush or a check point he shows his ID which allows him to cross the border explained Haj Yousifi.
Kurdish officials say they monitor the smugglers but do not prevent them from working. According to Ahmad Qader, head of the local town council, Kurdish forces "closely observe smugglers and only interfere when there are security implications." Qader confirmed to Niqash that Iranian officials give smugglers ID cards and that they “specify items to be smuggled.”
Azad Muhammad, a local resident and an academic and expert on Iranian affairs, told Niqash that Iranian authorities allow people to smuggle goods in order to “prevent border-area residents from joining Kurdish parties who oppose the Islamic Republic of Iran." According to Muhammad, “it is most likely that smugglers also bring back with them information to the security authorities on the activities of these parties.”