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.
The New York-based Center for Human Rights In Iran reported in 2012 that between February and March 2011, 70 porters, or smugglers, had died. The overwhelming majority were killed by security forces; four died as a result of mine explosions, avalanches, or extreme cold.
Bent under the weight of their loads -- smuggled cigarettes, alcohol, gasoline, and even home appliances -- the mules, known in Iran as kolbar, are a common sight in Iran's western border regions.
They’re usually residents of local villages -- both men and women, and children as young as 13 and others in their 70s --who turn to smuggling goods to sustain their families.
The unemployment rate in Iran’s Kurdish-populated provinces, where many of the porters come from, is about 20 percent. But a lawmaker last year suggested that unemployment in Kurdistan Province is much higher.
"The real rate of unemployment in the province of Kurdistan is between 40 to 50 percent – despite what officials claim -- and this is very worrying," Mohsen Biglari, who represents the people of Baneh and Sagez in the Iranian parliament, was quoted by the semiofficial Tasnim news agency as saying.
Sanandaj-based journalist Soma Safari says some of the mules have university educations.
"They basically have no other choice," Safari told RFE/RL. "They chose this profession because of lack of employment opportunities, lack of investment in the region, and ethnic and religious discrimination they face."
"Being a kolbar is not a choice, it is a compulsion," some 60 Kurdish civil society and political activists said in an open letter issued in January. "If other jobs were available, the majority of porters would definitely not choose their extreme profession."
The activists called on Iranian authorities to reach out to the porters in the short-term and to create jobs in Kurdish-populated regions in the long-term.
Nima Sarvestani, a Sweden-based filmmaker and the director of a documentary about the plight of several Iranian mules, says they risk their lives for little money.
Sarvestani spent about a year and half in the border region with Iraq to make his 2009 documentary, On The Border Of Desperation:
"They would tie tanks with 60 liters of petrol on their backs and carry them out from Marivan to the border crossing of Bashmakh in Iraq, where they would sell it and make about $7 or $8 for a trip," Sarvestani told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.
"If the conditions were right, they would make the trip twice a day," he added.
Savestani says many of the mules must pay bribes to border guards. Those who don't face confiscation of their goods, detention, or even summary execution.
Safari says that in recent months there appears to have been a rise in public awareness and sensitivity about the lives of porters.
In early September, the killing of two of them by border guards led to protests and strikes in Baneh on Iran’s western border.
Reports say police used tear gas to disperse the angry crowd.
Prosecutor Mojtaba Shiroudbozorgi in Iran's Kurdistan Province was quoted by domestic media as saying that five suspects in the killings of the porters have been identified and detained.
Sarvestani believes that unless jobs are created, the mules' plight is likely to continue.
"The only solution is for the government to create jobs, to create industry where people can be employed," Sarvestani said, suggesting that Kurds be given top regional posts.
He added that he’s not hopeful, claiming the establishment "does not care about Kurdistan."
Safari agrees that many in the region believe only permanent and stable jobs and investment in the region can resolve the issue and suggests that the little guy is being singled out for abuse.
"Unfortunately, instead of fighting big and organized smugglers who have crippled Iran’s economy, authorities are busy eradicating porters," lawmaker Shahab Naderi, who represents people from the majority Kurdish-populated city of Paveh in the Iranian parliament, was quoted as saying by the Mardom Salari daily.