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Government In Iran Bans Tourism To Region Where Many 'Human Mules' Die

Human mules (kolbar) on a mountain path connecting Iran to Iraqi Kurdistan. Undated photo from social media.
Human mules (kolbar) on a mountain path connecting Iran to Iraqi Kurdistan. Undated photo from social media.

In the past few days a travel agency's advertisement of tours to highly perilous mountain paths where hundreds of "human mules" have lost their lives has outraged many Iranians.

The controversy over the tours started a few days ago when social media users shared an image of a travel agency's poster in Uraman, Kurdistan Province, in which the smuggling paths used by the porters were advertised as "tourist attractions".

To many locals who are themselves among the porters known locally as kolbar who risk their lives on the deadly paths on a daily basis for a meager subsistence, taking tourists to where many of their kin and neighbors have lost their lives is an outrage and disrespect to human life.

"When suffering and hardship becomes a tourist attraction," the tweet below says.

The porters carry incredibly heavy contraband of cigarettes, spirits, home appliances, computers and other commodities on their backs from Iraqi Kurdistan and merchandise from Iran to Kurdistan. They often fall victim to the harsh terrain and climate on their journey through the death-defying mountain paths, or are shot to death or injured by border guards or walk on land mines remaining from the time of Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

ٍEven the government acknowledges that poverty not greed is the reason for choosing this occupation. In mid-2016, Iranian authorities announced that they would issue special licenses to adult male residents of border areas who worked as porters illegally for years to allow the transport of goods on foot without the risk of being stopped by border guards.

The hazardous occupation of transportation of good on foot through mountain paths is oftentimes the only option for villagers – mostly Kurdish -- in the deprived western border areas of Iran including the provinces of West Azarbaijan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Ilam where unemployment poses a huge problem.

Rights activists say border guards shoot at the poverty-stricken porters, many of them teenagers, with no warning and have systematically killed or injured hundreds in the past few years.

The tragic deaths of the fourteen-year-old Farhad Khosravi and his seventeen-year-old brother Azad who froze to death on a smuggling path in the Kurdish mountains in December 2019 were widely reflected in Iranian news outlets and social media.

At the time Hengaw, a Kurdish human rights organization, said twenty adolescents and children working as porters had been shot by border guards or frozen to death in 2019.

After the media criticized the Cultural Heritage Ministry for allowing the pains and poverty of the Kurdish kolbars to be presented as a tourist attraction, on Friday the Tourism Deputy of the Cultural Heritage Ministry said the ministry will not allow travel agencies to turn the paths into tourist attractions and will penalize the agencies.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.