Elî Serdeştî, from the village of Piranşehr in Rojhilatê (Iranian) Kurdistan, is preparing for a difficult journey with his friends, most of whom are villagers. The dangers that await them include not just roads that run through impassable mountains, valleys, and cliffs, but the possibility of being ambused by Iran’s border guards.
“We come here out of desperation, we are not intent on suicide,” said Serdeştî. “We are not eager to cross these mountains, to be shot by bullets, and go to our deaths.”
They are the kolbars (border traders) from Iraqi Kurdistan and Iranian Kurdistan. Kolbars walk for miles through minefields carrying heavy packages, and they often come under heavy fire from Iranian and Turkish soldiers. The labelling of kolbars as smugglers began after Kurdistan was divided into four parts and the borders of the modern nation-state were drawn. Kurdish kolbars, who are carrying commercial goods on the historical Silk Road, continue this Caravan culture with great difficulty. Serdeştî explains as follows: “There are lots of Persian gangs on our way. Also, the month of Ramadan… we have to come here.”
Kolbars are a part of a Kurdish society that became steadily more impoverished as a result of the Iranian regime’s misguided political and economic policies. The world learned about the stories of the kolbars through Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s cult movie, “A Time for Drunken Horses”. An Iranian (Kurdish/Persian) film produced in Iran, it was a co-winner of the Caméra d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. Every year, dozens of kolbars are killed on the borders by mines, thermal tanks, and armed drones, but they still continue this risky job.
“They arrest some kolbars and kill some of them, but it will not change anything. Most people are in 15 years of debt already. We have to do this job,” states Serdeştî.