Risking Life to Earn Crust
On the last day of my final exams in the third grade, I excitedly anticipated joining my father, a courier and a Kulbar (porter). This is someone who takes items across the Iran-Iraq border, thereby putting themselves at great risk. Kulbars have little means of survival other than depending entirely on transporting a variety of items across the borders to support their families.
On holidays, we had nothing to do in the village as we had no electricity with which to watch TV, and no playground or a centre that held activities. I begged my father to let me travel to help him. At first, he said that the journey of more than eight hours was too risky for a child, but he later agreed, and I was overjoyed. For me, it was the beginning of several years of living dangerously. There were several reasons. Scores of people were killed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; people were tortured by Kurdish militias, looted by robbers, or even mauled by wild animals. Couriers also frequently had to endure the harsh weather.
It was 1995, and I was just 11. My family lived in a village called Bardabal, at the foot of Mount Soreen, 65 kilometres east of Sulymanieh or Sulymani province in Iraqi Kurdistan. Bardabal was one of 5000 villages bombed and destroyed in 1978 by the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He had forced villagers into camps, preventing them from returning to their homes. But in 1991 the Kurds overthrew Hussein’s regime and elected their own independent government, enabling the people, full of hope and expectation, to return to their villages. They expected the Kurdish government to rebuild remnants of the almost destroyed villages. Ultimately their dreams and hopes were realized.
The 1990s became the most challenging decade for the Kurdish population in economically sanctioned Iraq due to civil wars between Kurdish parties, adverse weather conditions that affected agriculture, the spread of diseases and severe poverty. Moreover, the population bore the brunt of the international sanctions imposed on Iraqis. Additionally, the Iraqi regime also imposed internal sanctions on its Kurdish population in the north as a response to their aspiration for freedom and self-governance.
During this period, some of the Kurd leaders formed their militias, looting the nation’s wealth and selling it to Iran. Thus, people had no other option except to work at the borders, jeopardizing their lives just to survive.
Before the 1990s, the courier and Kulbar “business” suffered because of the Iran/Iraq war of 1980 – 1988. After 1991, however, Kurdish residents along the border began to re-engage in a grey economy conducted across villages on different sides of the border (Iranian/Kurdistan also called Rozhalat, which is east of Kurdistan). They transported a variety of items: car parts, contraband goods, and various electronic items such as light bulbs, fridges, heaters and sometimes also alcohol.
My father had two mules, and it was hard for him to manage them along with his other responsibilities, which included farming and building mud/stone houses for the family. He was always so exhausted, which is the first reason I wanted to help him. Another motive was that my courier friends told me about Ameen’s delicious Iranian drink called Nushabe, local for Pepsi. He was nicknamed Ameen Nushabe. Ameen sold beverages and cake. He became the only person I was truly eager to meet. Seeing Ameen was more important than seeing Maradona or Brad Pitt. I wanted to take on this dangerous journey to drink Nushabe for the first time in my life!
Once my father gave me permission, I slept a little and woke up very early, in the quiet of dawn, to pack the necessary things. I had so many high hopes for the outcome of this trip with my father; maybe I would become a hero in my village, or perhaps make vast amounts of money and quit school, or maybe even buy another mule. I just wanted to prove to my father that I was useful and capable of making this journey.
I took some snacks and went out to the area where the men loaded the mules. I yanked the reins of one of them, leading it to the house where father had already made a deal for the mule with a trader. On seeing me the man put both hands on his waist and said, “Did you bring your milk bottle little boy?” When I did not respond he jokingly continued, “Hey baby, didn’t you go to kindergarten today?” By then I was annoyed by his remarks. My father told him that he didn’t think I was old enough for this work, but that he believed in my ability to manage it nevertheless.
After loading the mules, my father handed me a stick, which he usually used to beat off snakes or simply to avoid losing his balance and slipping off the mule on ground that was sloping. This stick was hefty and much bigger and longer than I was. The terrain the mules travelled on caused the sound of their shoes to make a rhythmic clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop as their hooves stuck the ground. As we proceeded, I noticed my father kept observing me. For the first hour, I managed the walk very well, but there were three more hours to go. The route we had taken passed through a ridge of grey rocks over which we had to climb.
I recall the weird smell of the horses’ urine and the long dusty path, which made me dizzy. Sand got into my shoes, my clothes became stained with dust and, to make matters worse, black flies bit us incessantly. I was drenched with sweat from head to toe, and as I wasn’t wearing socks, my plastic shoes kept making rude sounds. This made everyone look at me and laugh at my embarrassment.
After a while, we took a short break in total silence, when suddenly my gut started making noises. Someone joked that my stomach rumbling wasn’t coming from my shoes this time. I felt humiliated; my drab, stained clothes and downcast eyes must have added to my depressed look. Still, I didn’t want to give up. I only thought about sipping a fantastic Nushabe.
I ate some snacks and felt much better. We reached the peak of the scenic mountain ranges, where the sound of birds singing, the smell of wet grass, the vibrant, colourful flowers, the remnants of snow in the shaded places and the fabulous blue skies filled me with awe and wonder. For the first time during the trip, I enjoyed the feel, sound, and smell of nature.
We eventually arrived at the terminal, where we had to submit the loads. It was around midday. All brokers, traders, couriers, and Kulbars spoke Kurdish with the same accents, sharing the same culture and soil. But we had become strangers, divided by a border between Iraq and Iran, since 1921. This was the vital issue. We were dispossessed of our land, our values, and our culture.
I was surprised at the large crowds of people trading. Kulbars were working, bargaining, shouting, laughing and eating together. I seemed to be the only one searching for one of my main reasons for being there, to try Nushabe from my icon, Ameen. My father gave me enough money to buy it and pointed me in the direction where I could find it.
Finally, I thought I’d get to try it. But Ameen hadn’t come to the trading centre that day. Luck wasn’t my side. I was furious; I wanted to boast to my friends when I was back in the village. I returned downcast to my father for a lunch of rice with salad, which I could not enjoy at all. I talked to myself. Why didn’t Ameen show up? What would I tell my friends? I wanted to lie and tell my friends that I saw Ameen and had tried his Nushabe, but I worried that someone would tell my friends the truth.
When we returned home I stayed in bed for two days. I was terribly disappointed as well as tired. My dream of drinking Nushabe had been shattered, and my father kept teasing me, saying that I was his recovering champion.
Just days after my first trip, I set out on my second. The travelling this time felt easier. I was prepared for the difficulties, and the trading was successful. Most importantly, I drank Nushabe. My eyes watered after the first sip and I started coughing.
My father said teasingly, “I am happy you enjoyed your Nushabe.”
However, just a few kilometers after we left the trading terminal in Rozhalat, a horrible event occurred. We could hear commotion, and we fled and hid. We heard the Iranian Revolutionary Guards coming. We detoured from the main trail to avoid them. The guards were shooting at mules, horses, and donkeys. My friend, who was detained, later informed me that the guards callously kicked youths, tortured elders, and mercilessly arrested children. They sent a man who had mental issues to bring them clean water from kilometers away. They forced another to sing a song while they laughed at him.
“If you come back again, I will kill you,” a guard told him. The couriers vowed not to return to Rozhalat, but they had no other options.
Day by day, business got worse. The Iranian guards controlled the border. They planted hundreds of mines along the route. For two months the couriers hoped to be able to start again, but the guards closed the border completely. The couriers were desperate.
By spring of 1996, the couriers reinitiated their work, using a new narrow path, which took longer to cross. They had to walk some 10 hours. When I made my first trip on the new route, we walked through a dense forest inside Rozhalat. My father told me we would arrive at a spring — Kani Hafe — to take lunch. I was relieved. Suddenly, four men surrounded us and ordered us not to move. They wore grey clothes and black masks. One of them shouted and shot in the air. He told us to put all our money and possessions on the ground, then ordered us to put both hands behind our backs. The couriers did what he ordered, after which they collected all the money and belongings. They slapped a courier because he had nothing to give. They left as hastily as they came, and we didn’t get to see in which direction they disappeared. My father informed me that they were robbers. During this same period, the Kurdish militias, who belonged to several parties, sometimes forced couriers to pay them for their protection. We did not know whether the robbers were part of the Militias or their opponents.
Land mines were another grave concern. Years earlier, my two older cousins had lost their legs from land mines in the same area. On another trip, a man informed us that an Iranian-Kurdish courier, Aubaid, lost his leg when he stepped on a land mine. In these remote areas, far into the mountain, the chances of people surviving a mine explosion were very low given that there were no vehicles, let alone medicine. Sadly, he died before the volunteers who came to carry him to safety reached the hospital. The borders had been planted with mines during and after the Iraq-Iran war. In the 1980s, Iranian guards replanted them. This became our collective fate, as many more couriers before and later lost legs, and others their lives.
This savagery was not the only problem we had to face. The dangerous possibility of a snowstorm and an avalanche were concerns too, especially during the freezing winters. The air was crisp and dry. There was limited visibility, and there were risks of hypothermia for those who weren’t dressed appropriately. We had to step over the terrain slowly, the snow crunching under our shoes; I put both my hands into my pockets to keep them warm, and I slipped many times. My father would rub my hand, and guide the caravan as he jumped to stay above the snow. He encouraged me to keep going. He seemed to me like a polar bear in the Arctic.
I recall an incident where one of our courier neighbors called Taha, of whom I was very fond, was trapped for several days alone on the edge of q mountain and froze to death. Taha was handsome, calm, and an honest, reliable person. Many other people, after ordeals, recounted their experiences of being snowed in and stuck in the mountains.
Besides this, we were also at risk from wild animals, such as bears, wolves, wild dogs, and snakes. These were common throughout these treacherous mountain ranges. There were risks during each season and many ways to die.
When I started the awful and tedious work of being a courier, I didn’t realize the extent of the risks involved. I worked there from 1995 to 2003, until the Americans invaded Iraq. People had hoped the Americans would change their lives so that they no longer needed to take the risks associated with being couriers. After a few years, our border work stopped altogether; the Kurdish government vowed to provide other jobs. During this period, I quit the job. Then I left my village, and finally my country to study in India.
The memories of these events traumatized me. I’ve had nightmares for years. I used to imagine Kurdish militias detaining my father and torturing him. I also envisaged the Iranian guards placing their guns against my forehead, or having robbers steal our belongings. I’ve had visions of bears attacking me. My thoughts, feelings, memories, imagination and dreams were never those of an average child.
I now live thousands of miles away from the country where I was born. I still hear the same sad stories about border crossings, and I am filled with immense sadness. Recently, I heard, yet again, about the death of a group of couriers and Kulbers who were shot by Iranian guards. I wonder whether I’d known them. These stories still haunt and affect me profoundly as I too have experienced similar horrific conditions. I always tell myself that I was fortunate to have survived.
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Diary Marif is an Iraqi Kurdish journalist and non-fiction writer based in Vancouver, Canada.
Diary earned a Master’s degree in History from Pune University, India in 2013. He is an author at New Canadian Media. He wrote in Kurdish for several years His writing has appeared in the Awene weekly, Livin, and on KNNC TV, where he contributes as a documentary researcher. He moved to Vancouver in 2017, where he has been focusing on nonfiction writing. He shared his stories with several writers’ groups and wrote the draft of his first nonfiction/memoir. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.
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