Smugglers Risk Death in the Shadow of Iran
We visited a camp for traffickers moving illegal liquor across the border
This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one.
The morning light streams through the tent, a Kurdish flag flapping in a strong wind. The temperature dropped last night, and those on guard put on warm jackets. The long dry summer is coming to an end.
The morning routine begins much like the last. Fighters who are not on duty spend their time washing, preparing breakfast and making a fresh batch of chai.
U.S. Army veteran Ryan O’Leary and his colleague Shaho – an Iranian Kurd who now lives in Denmark — wake late after pulling the graveyard shift. They sit down to a breakfast of dry bread and yogurt with the rest of their group.
Shaho is here carrying on a family tradition. His father, a peshmerga before him, fought against Tehran before being killed by Iranian agents in the Iraqi-Kurdish capital of Erbil. The assassins shot his father 16 times.
“I originally came to Kurdistan to help the Peshmerga against ISIS,” O’Leary says.
Originally from Iowa, O’Leary fought with the U.S. Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the Army, he moved to Iraqi Kurdistan. He says his original plan was to use his military skills to teach the peshmerga tactics and first aid. Instead, he met with peshmerga from the KDP-I, and became convinced the greater threat came from Iran.
“After several meetings I realized that ISIS really isn’t going to be a long-term threat to the Kurdish people,” he says. “They are going to get pushed back.”
Day to day, O’Leary spends his time teaching the newer members of the group. The Kurds are excellent mountain fighters, but many lack basic military skills. “The main thing that was lacking probably was with the young guys and their weapons discipline – where they were pointing it – and the cleaning,” he says.
Joining the group certainly wasn’t easy – but that’s mainly because he is the first westerner let into the KDP-I … ever. Some of the older fighters were understandably skeptical of his intentions. It took about two months before he gained their trust.
“They really haven’t ever had a westerner come and say ‘hey I want to come help you out,’” he says. “They’re used to doing it on their own. Like their saying goes, ‘no friends but the mountains,’ which is slowly changing.”
Though he’s built a rapport with the peshmerga, his family and the U.S. government raised concerns. The State Department and the FBI have both contacted him, he says.
“Their main thing is they continuously say ‘you’re going to get kidnapped,’” O’Leary says before explaining that he feels safer here than some other areas in Iraq.
It’s easy to understand the concerns – an American citizen on the border with Iran training anti-Iranian fighters is a sensitive subject on a normal day, let alone during historic, high-level nuclear negotiations between Iran and United States.
Ryan says that after coming back from his final tour of Afghanistan in 2011, he wasn’t sure what to do with his life. He ended up working a job he didn’t feel was worthwhile.
“I would say I was lost like a lot of the other veterans are – not just from the U.S., the British and other places too – when they come back from war it’s a big change and it’s hard to integrate into society,” he says.
“A lot of people don’t realize that there are atrocities committed by the Iranian regime on ethnic minorities. I think some of the areas in eastern Kurdistan are at boiling point right now, between full-blown riot type deal versus some support for the regime [from the locals].”
Now, whatever the future brings, Ryan says he’s determined to stay for years rather than months. He feels the group is making a difference and counts being here as one of the highlights of his life.
“I didn’t come here to kill people, I came here to help make a difference for the Kurds,” he says.
We trudge our way down the dusty hill with O’Leary and Shaho to meet up with Gen. Khalid and a group that will be visiting a checkpoint along a smuggling route elsewhere in the mountains. We clamber into the same 4×4 we arrived in two nights ago.
Khalid talks as the 4×4 bumps across tarmacked roads and worn, sandy tracks. In two months, he will reach his 36th anniversary of being with the KDP-I. “It is my personal opinion that if you don’t fight for life, you don’t deserve life,” he says. “You have to fight for your rights.”
Khalid says that the group’s vetting process for new recruits – which weeds out Iranian agents – is justified. The KDP-I has caught many spies, who are given a trial and sometimes executed, he says.
The peshmerga have a more relaxed attitude about Iran’s regular army soldiers, many of whom are conscripts pressed into service from far-flung parts of Iran.
Khalid says that the soldiers were often told that they would be fighting to retake Karbala, a city in Iraq that holds great significance to Shia Muslims due to it being the home of the Imam Hussein Shrine. Those from remote areas of Iran believed what they were told, and didn’t realize they would be fighting other Iranians on the border of Iraq.
One example Khalid gives is of a Baloch soldier captured by the KDP-I. The Baloch are an Iranian people who live along the border between Iran and Pakistan. Many also live in Afghanistan. The army told the soldier that the peshmerga would kill if him if he ever surrendered.
The peshmerga captured him on three separate occasions. Instead of killing him, the peshmerga let him go, where he then encouraged other conscripts to surrender, Khalid says.
Khalid notes the same is not true of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Its soldiers will often fight to the death rather than being taken alive.
The car speeds onward toward the checkpoint, passing through farmers’ fields and sunflower patches. Occasional UNHCR tents can be seen — not housing refugees, but instead farmers who grow crops here during the summer months.
We stop to rest at a KDP-I checkpoint at a dusty T-junction. Peshmerga leave the vehicle to greet friends. Others take a moment to visit the toilet, located around 20 meters away along a path through the edge of a minefield with its read warning triangle stuck in the ground close to the checkpoint.
On the move again, the engine on the vehicle strains and the tires fail to gain traction in some places, requiring the driver to reverse and try again. As the vehicle gains speed we pass a PKK position. The position is well established, dug in to the hillside and sporting a tended garden.
The track stretches along a valley with towering mountains on both sides, a cool breeze coming through open windows beneath a sky with the first grey clouds some of us have seen in Iraqi Kurdistan in months. The track we are on — a smuggling route — leads to Iran, and a distant mountain seems to mark the end of the valley and the Iranian border.
There’s beaten patches now on both sides of the track. The air is thick with the smell of horse manure. A smuggler waves at the peshmerga in our vehicle. Horses belonging to the smugglers feed from nose bags, or stand prepared to have goods slung onto their backs.
We stop at a larger group of smugglers preparing their loads, and Khalid talks to a smuggler on horseback. Other smugglers hunker behind rocks brewing tea or sit in makeshift shelters with walls made from boxes and plastic tarpaulins thrown across the top.
The border is just 1.5 kilometers away, not far. A few smugglers are saddling their horses and placing cargo in plastic loose-weave bags, ready for a trip.
The peshmerga say there are usually more smugglers and horses here, but the Iranian border guards are very active at the moment. On a recent trip, a group of smugglers barely escaped with their lives. The guards captured and shot 13 of their horses. A good horse can cost around $3,000.
A smuggler tugs my arm and leads me over to a pair of horses eating from nose bags. He crouches and points to one. The animal has a large bullet wound where its chest meets a leg.
Boxes with familiar brand names are everywhere. Whiskey, wine, beer and vodka. The Islamic Republic of Iran bans alcohol, but Iranians still drink. In other parts of the border, smugglers sneak televisions and household goods across, but today these smugglers are hauling liquor.
“[It] goes to Mahabad, Isfahan, Tehran, it will be sent mostly to where the Persian populations are,” a smuggler says.
If the border guards catch them — and don’t kill them — the smugglers can face up to 15 years in prison. There’s few rewards for being a smuggler. Desperation drives most of them into this line of work.
The smuggler says he carries out a maximum of five trips per month. The money he makes doesn’t just go to him. Some of the horses are rentals or financed. He must pay for food and water, and have enough left over to pay off his contacts inside Iran.
Another smuggler, who has one of his sons working with him, has been in the trade for 15 years. He says they will earn around 350,000 Toman for a trip – or about $116. “We are swimming in shit and dirt,” he says. “You can see how bad this is, that we are forced to do this kind of work.”
Here, if you’re not a farmer or don’t own a business, there’s no money. He says there are around 3,000 smugglers working this route.
A third smuggler says that he was a student before, but took up smuggling because he couldn’t afford to live. The amount of money is low, but in Iranian Kurdistan, with the Rial doing so poorly, a hundred bucks is a lot of money. He says he would take up arms against the regime if the time was right.
“Maybe 95 percent have reached that point of no-way back.”
One of the smugglers makes a comment as we leave. He says that he is Khalid’s servant. It’s a call-back to tribalism, which angers the general. Khalid tells the smuggler that he will never be his servant – stating that it could just as well be him, Khalid, in the same position. Another smuggler asks the general for advice on a debt that someone owes him.
Lunch is served in a nearby KDP-I camp, located right next to the smuggling route. A large pile of boxes sit by the side of the track left in the care of the peshmerga by smugglers who were unable to make a trip.
We leave in the same 4×4 we arrive in, which heads back down the dusty tracks to a nearby town. In some ways it seems odd, with Islamic State still squeezing the region, that the KDP-I and others are renewing their campaign against Iran.
But as Khalid said to a smuggler who complained about his group’s withdrawal from the mountains, “we’re back now.”