But it is not only the authorities that fill these border couriers with fear. Last May, Wali Khodabakhshian, a friend of the author, loaded his pickup truck with fuel to smuggle across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan. He crashed the car in the mountainous roads, igniting the fuel, and was burned alive.
Many others who do this dangerous job either die stepping on land mines left over from the Iraq-Iran war or freeze to death in the harsh winter of the Kurdistan mountains. Others are caught by the authorities, who seize their goods and hand them hefty fines that leave them with few options but to continue smuggling to pay them off. This creates a vicious cycle that eventually results in death for many of these petty smugglers.
This hard life for thousands of Kurds owes in part to lack of investment by the government in the Kurdish areas, which some argue is politically motivated.
"As economic problems intensify due to international economic sanctions by the Western countries and the incompetence of the government … other security and political issues have turned Kurdistan into a place for political disputes and this is one of the reasons why the government ignores the development of the region, and therefore people have been forgotten and resort to the dangerous job of kulbari to live," reads a report by the US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, an advance copy of which was obtained by Al-Monitor.
The governor of Kurdistan province also stated recently, "Investment and creating jobs are among the essential needs of Kurdistan."
Paiman Alkhani, 24, used to be a kulbar until he was injured by Iranian border police in 2008. He now lives in Ankara. When asked why he did such a dangerous job, he told Al-Monitor via telephone, "To put it simply, because of poverty and unemployment. There are no jobs in my region and people can only do this smuggling."