Shoot first

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Shoot first

Iran’s Kurds are suffering in silence. But for how much longer?


Smuggling is necessary but dangerous work for these Kurdish boys. Iranian border patrols kill many every year. Rahman Hassani/Alamy

Some unarmed Kurdish boys and men work as porters. They cross dangerous mountain passes, and Iranian border guards continue to shoot and kill them.

The Iranian border guards have killed or injured hundreds in recent years, as they move between Iran and Iraq. Hengaw is an Independent Human Rights Organization. They report on violations in the Kurdish areas in the west of Iran. They say there were about 231 deaths in 2018. Between March 2019 and March 2020, 237 more were killed or injured, most also when border guards fired at them. At least four more were shot and killed in May 2020, and a fifth froze to death.

The porters are called kulbars – from the Kurdish words for ‘shoulder’ and ‘carry’. The Iranian authorities see the porters as smugglers. It is against Iranian law but they shoot them on sight,

The porters continue because there are not many other opportunities in the poor area of Iranian Kurdistan (or Rojhilat) where they live. They carry heavy loads of goods such as tobacco, tea, clothes, household items, and even alcohol, and they can make $10-$30 a day.

Mohammed was a kulbar for 30 years before they shot his 27-year-old son Shafi. Shafi was paralysed. Mohammed told photojournalist Mamrez Soltani, ‘I didn’t want my children to become kulbars. But there is no choice when we don’t have any bread to eat. We do not deserve this. We defended these borders for eight long years during the Iran-Iraq war. We gave blood. Now, our children have to carry loads on their backs like animals for food. And finally they lose their lives on the job. They hunt us like animals.’

The security forces violently stop protests against the shooting of kulbars. In fact, they stop most protests in Iran today. The government has closed down Kurdish and Persian language newspapers, banned books, and punished publishers, journalists, and writers.

Kurdish demands for independence are not as strong in Iran as in Turkey, Iraq or Syria. This is perhaps partly because of closer Kurdish-Persian cultures and languages are closer. But Iran’s eight million Kurds cannot hold the higher ranks of power. The mainly Sunni Muslim Kurds also experience religious prejudice from Iran’s fundamentalist Shi’a regime.

But it’s in the justice system that the inequality is most clear. There are a disproportionate number of Kurds in the prisons, especially as political prisoners. About 3,000 were put in prison in the past year, many for protesting against fuel prices and the Turkish army’s attack on Syrian Kurdistan. Kurds are also more likely to be executed – 13 in the month of April 2020.

Iranian Kurdish political parties and movements, such as the PJAK, KDPI and Komala, are banned and work in exile. But there are signs of armed groups in the country too. In May three members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were killed in the Kurdish-majority western Iran. This was during what the state-run Press TV described as an ‘operation against terrorists’.

We do not read about Kurdish resistance in Iran in the media headlines, nationally or internationally. But Kurdish resistance is growing.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)