Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Over the Mountains to Iran

By Jamal Penjweny
  • Early start: at dawn, three Kurdish women head for Bashmakh where they hope they will be hired as mules for the day.
    Early start: at dawn, three Kurdish women head for Bashmakh where they hope they will be hired as mules for the day.
  • Sabria Ahmed, 56, secures her pack for the trip. She has been smuggling for four years, making two trips a day starting at seven in the morning and finishing at ten at night.
    Sabria Ahmed, 56, secures her pack for the trip. She has been smuggling for four years, making two trips a day starting at seven in the morning and finishing at ten at night.
  • Srwa Kareem, now 24, lost both her parents to a landmine explosion during the 1991 Kurdish uprising. The rest of the family escaped to Iran, where Srwa cares for her nine younger brothers and sisters. She is a qualified nurse but cannot work in Iran, so she has taken up smuggling.
    Srwa Kareem, now 24, lost both her parents to a landmine explosion during the 1991 Kurdish uprising. The rest of the family escaped to Iran, where Srwa cares for her nine younger brothers and sisters. She is a qualified nurse but cannot work in Iran, so she has taken up smuggling.
  • The luckier smugglers have horses or donkeys to carry the load.
    The luckier smugglers have horses or donkeys to carry the load.
  • Plastic sheeting protects the contraband from rain.
    Plastic sheeting protects the contraband from rain.
  • Men offer stiff competition. The uniform in front of these smugglers belongs to an Iraqi Kurdish soldier.
    Men offer stiff competition. The uniform in front of these smugglers belongs to an Iraqi Kurdish soldier.
  • Srwa has a light load this time - two boxes of lightbulbs - but sometimes she has to carry 70 or 80 kilograms.
    Srwa has a light load this time - two boxes of lightbulbs - but sometimes she has to carry 70 or 80 kilograms.
  • The smugglers have to bribe their way across the Iranian border, or risk being arrested and having their contraband seized.
    The smugglers have to bribe their way across the Iranian border, or risk being arrested and having their contraband seized.
  • Sabria knows the risks, but says she has no other way of earning money.
    Sabria knows the risks, but says she has no other way of earning money.
  • Kurdish border guards look on as the smugglers head for Iran.
    Kurdish border guards look on as the smugglers head for Iran.
  • As the sun goes down, the smugglers return to their villages. Tomorrow morning it will begin again.
    As the sun goes down, the smugglers return to their villages. Tomorrow morning it will begin again.

The Kurdish village of Bashmakh in northeastern Iraq is the last outpost before you reach no-man’s land on the frontier with Iran. Living so close to the border, people in this poor and remote area have one major source of income - smuggling. Under Saddam Hussein’s rule many villages on the Iraq-Iran border were attacked by government forces. Homes were demolished and residents deported to the interior, all in the name of national security. When the Kurdish region acquired autonomy in 1991, the villagers started to return. But their fields were barren and their livestock dead.

With their traditional income gone, people in Bashmakh and neighbouring villages like Halalawa, Maso and Hargena looked for new ways to earn a living, and found they could make money by smuggling consumer goods to Iran, as well as banned items like alcohol.

Foodstuff, cosmetics, electrical appliances, and sometimes beer and whisky arrive by truck in bulk consignments. The smugglers then load up and carry as much as they can and begin the six-kilometer journey on foot to the border.

They walk five or six hours a day through rough mountainous territory, earning six or seven US dollars for each load. Sometimes they make the trip twice in one day.

Once they reach the border, they have to pay a bribe to avoid arrest or having their contraband seized. On the Iranian side, the merchants are waiting to load the goods back onto trucks and send them off for sale around the country.

This might seem like a trade where Kurdish men would dominate. However, because hundreds of men from villages in this area were killed during Saddam’s clearance programme, many families have lost their main breadwinner, and women have taken over. The loads may be heavy, and some merchants pay women less than men, but they have no other way of putting food on the table.

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