Killing Kolbers: Iran and Economic Terrorism
Economic violence, economic under development and marginalization are policies that have long been implemented against the Kurds in the Middle East. The regimes of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq have traditionally kept Kurdish dominated regions poor, underdeveloped and malnourished as a means of curbing their self-determination aspirations and cries for human rights. When analyzing the Kurdish situation the focus is often on ethnic cleansing and violence, the wars and efforts to gerrymander Kurdish regions, to Arabize or Turkification, or the resource struggles including water and oil. The economic impacts of these wars and violent state policies has generated relatively little focus.
The Kurds in the Middle East are familiar with poverty.
One group of Kurds, the Kolbers, have generated little comparative attention in academic, journalistic and activist circles despite the horrendous levels of violence that they experience on a daily basis.
The Kolbers are a group of laborer across the regions of Rojhelat (Eastern Kurdistan, Iran) though they can also be found in lower numbers in Bakur (Northern Kurdistan, Turkey) and Basur (Southern Kurdistan, Iraq).
The word Kolber is a Kurdish word meaning those who carry loads. Kolber are people, who driven by economic desperation, are forced to carry goods and smuggle them- either across their backs or relying on horses and mules- across the borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
Kolber’s are some of the most oppressed and economically marginalized group within the Kurdish identity politics. The number of Kolber is estimated around 20,000 people each year. Though some local figures have estimated as high as 500,000 people per year. The Kolbers face, as a result of their economic status daily threats of violence and outright murder at the hands of the Iranian border guards.
The border guards have total impunity and often act as executors, or confiscate the goods being transferred by the Kolber at their whim. Other times goods are destroyed, delayed from being transferred, damaged or otherwise confiscated. These practices are arbitrary and at the whim of the border guards. Each year, hundreds of Kolbers are killed by the border guards.
The numbers of Kolbers killed, injured and jailed each year are vague and unclear. For instance, in 2018, according to Iran Human Rights Monitor, Iranian border guards killed 48 Kolbers and 104 were injured. The Kurdistan Human Rights (KHR), instead, states that 64 Kolbers were killed with 104 severely injured.
In 2017 an estimated 167 Kolbers were killed by the border guards. However, the general consensus is that one Kolber loses their lives a day. These numbers do not include injuries, accidents, mine explosions and arrested each year which also lead to loss of life for the Kolbers. Many of the wounded who are detained often lose their lives due to denial of access to medical care. This increases the numbers of Kolbers killed by the regime to double the official estimates.
Additionally, the livestock of the Kolber, including Horses, donkeys and mules are often, at best, confiscated, and at worst, out right shot and killed. This adds an additional layer of oppression as the killing of the load carrying animals reduces the possibility of other alternative jobs and economic means being found.
Economic terrorism has been a tool of authoritarian states against minorities in the region for decades. The Kolbers symbolize the intersection where race and class come together and add a further layer of violence, marginalization and oppression to the Kurdish issue.
Although Kurdistan is rich in natural resources, at least 30 years of economic exploitation has alienated the Kurds from access to these resources, leaving much of their economy reliant on agriculture. Regular fires set by the regime to limit Kurdish resistance and guerrilla warfare have also severely impacted the Kurdish regions self-sustainability through reliance on agriculture and farming. Further, as a result of placing mines in agricultural lands for over three decades, many Kurds have lost access to their traditional means of revenue.
As a result of these discriminatory government policies, economic data demonstrates that the Kurdish dominated regions in Iran have higher rates of unemployment. The Kermanshah province, for instance, consisting of a population approximating 7.5 million (10% of Iran’s population), registered the highest rates of unemployment at 21.6%. Due to the lack of economic development, these underdeveloped provinces tend to be traditional flash points in mass protests and anti-government action.
The large number of local Kolbers being shot by the border guards in Kurdish cities remains a sore point resulting in general strikes or protests. Though, despite knowing the danger of arrest and torture due to protesting, entire cities participate in solidarity with the Kolber.
Due to the lack of government recognition and licensing the Kolber’s situation remains even more precarious as they lack the capacity to unionize, have insurance or retirement plans. In 2016 the Iranian regime claimed that it would start providing licenses to the Kolbers. Despite these promises by the regime to develop the local economy of the Kurdish regions to end the practice of Kolbers, nothing has been done in terms of development.
Iran is not the only country that has adopted violent policies towards the Kolbers. The Roboski massacre is one such tragic example. On the 28th of December, 2011 Turkish air forces bombed the border region of Basur. The bombing killed 34 young men who were returning from Kolbering from the Iraq border. The neighboring village, Roboski where the young men were from on the Turkish side, were formed early in the 1990’s as a result of large numbers of people being evicted from their villages by the Turkish regime. The resulting poverty and displacement forced many families to rely on Kolbering to support themselves. The regime responded by placing mines across the region, which has claimed the lives of at least 5 people and over 20 more injured.
The Kolbers represent a lost and dying way of living and co-existing. Before the implantation of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the carving of the region according to colonial interests, the nomadic Kurds would cross regions, sometimes travelling hundreds of miles to reach greener plains, move from cold regions to warmer areas, or locate new pastures for their livestock. The nomadic lifestyle was endemic to the Kurdish identity, history, resistance and nationalism. The loss of the right to travel across traditional and ancestral lands caused devastating losses across communities, families, and tribes. At the same time, this loss contributed to the formation of resistance and identity politics for the Kurds, who in response to their sudden changed conditions were forced to formulate new methods of interacting with the new nation-state model being implemented. In all four parts of the now divided “Kurdistan” resistance led to nationalist movements made necessary by increasingly exclusionary models of one nation-one state model.
Nevertheless, much of the hundreds of thousands of miles of borders now claimed by countries like Turkey or Iraq or Syria remained largely porous and people still managed to travel across. This porousness allowed the traditional economic process of Kolbering to continue. This was made even more necessary as Kurdish resistance, rise of nationalism, increasingly autocratic and violent regimes in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq forced the Kurds into long term wars, guerrilla and peshmarga warfare and struggles. In addition to this, regional aspirations of dictators such as Saddam, imperial interference and interests linked to the global oil trade resulted in continues wars, conflicts and mass displacements of people within the region. The Kurds, often used as pawns by regional and imperial powers, in their own desperate efforts at autonomy and statehood, suffered more. These historical factors combined with the deliberate policy of the four regimes to keep the Kurdish dominated regions economically underdeveloped, burning and razing of hundreds of thousands of villages, forcing displacement and moving people from traditional lands and subsistence into over populated urban areas contributed heavily to the economic woes of the Kurdish regions.
The Kolbers, in light of this long history of oppression and marginalization, represent a form of resistance, symbolizing the refusal by indigenous communities to accept artificial and colonial borders. More than that, the Kolbers are a representation of the marginalized status of the Kurds, lacking an alternative, lacking in human rights, barred from access to development that other regions enjoy. The constant danger and out right killings that the Kolbers face daily on the borders of Iran-Iraq represents lack of choice and desperation. No one chooses to be a Kolber, unless absolutely necessary, knowing the great risks involved; knowing that the load that is being carried may be the last thing one sees before they are shot in cold blood by the border guards. Yet, desperation beats a drum louder than personal safety, louder than hunger.
In the past decade, but specifically in the past two years a number of conditions including an ongoing drought, and issues of water supply, a country wide unemployment crises, widespread government corruption, and ongoing human rights violations have contributed to mass protests. The economic declines has meant that Kolbers are increasingly highly educated university graduates, instead of traditionally poor villagers.
The response of the Iranian government to the devastating November 2018 earthquake in the Kurdish province of Kirmanshah in barring urgent aid supplies from reaching the devastated city to confiscating and re-allocating the donated goods to non-Kurdish cities reflects the ongoing exclusionary and discriminatory mentality of the government. According to reports by Amnesty international in 2018, 690 citizens were executed in 20 countries. The Kurdish organization Hengaw estimated that 70 Kurds were officially executed in Iran in 2018. This means that 10% of the global executions have been of Kurds and conducted by Iran. The situation of Kurds in Iran remains precarious.
As war tensions increase between Iran and the US, threats of sanctions also increase. Certainly, the Kurds, and other oppressed minorities will most likely feel the brunt of these sanctions first. Undoubtedly, this will increase the number of Kolbers exponentially; and so will the deaths.