Working in the smuggling trade in Iran is a risky business -- one that has cost the lives of hundreds of anonymous "human mules" who carry heavy loads of contraband on their backs across the western border with Iraq and Turkey.
The death of 17-year-old Vahid Dolatkhah provides an exception to the norm -- a face, a name, and an identity of one of those who died plying the perilous trade.
Dolatkhah died on August 21 near the border with Turkey due to an "unnatural accident," according to Iran’s semiofficial ILNA news agency. Opposition websites and groups documenting rights violations in Iran have claimed, however, that Dolatkhah was shot in the chest and stomach by Iranian border guards while carrying smuggled cigarettes.
Hundreds of the human mules have been killed or injured in past years, according to reports by rights groups. Some have been shot by security forces and border guards; others have died after being caught up in natural disasters, stepping on land mines that remain from the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, or falling from mountains.
As images and videos that emerged online attest, Dolatkhah was much more than a beast of burden. He had his whole life ahead of him, a young man who enjoyed playing the tar and singing in a Kurdish dialect:
When he died of his injuries after being taken to a hospital in West Azerbaijan Province, he unintentionally became the human face of an occupation often born of economic desperation. By Iranian lawmaker Rasool Khezri's estimation, there are currently 70,000 smugglers, often referred to as "porters," working in Iran’s border regions. The trade is particularly prominent in Kurdish-populated regions, such as Kurdistan Province and West Azerbaijan Province.
In 2016, 42 human mules in Kurdish areas were shot dead by Iranian border guards and 22 died as a result of hypothermia and other causes, according to the France-based Kurdish Human Rights Network.