The World’s Most Dangerous Mountains
Each year an estimated 300,000 smugglers, known as ‘kolbars,’ haul millions of pounds of contraband from Iraq to Iran over the 14,000-foot peaks of the Zagros Mountains. More than 50 of them will die—shot dead, killed in accidents, or freezing to death—and countless more will be arrested and imprisoned. Alex Perry travels to Iraqi Kurdistan to investigate the roots of a trade that all but defies comprehension.
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Heading east across Iraqi Kurdistan toward the Zagros Mountains and the border with Iran, we pass from a land of sand and dust into the green prairies of Mesopotamia. For an hour, we cross fields of barley and watermelons, and orchards of figs and pomegranates. Reaching the foothills, we follow a tumbling cloud of swifts, like a hundred tiny crossbows, into a canyon that plunges to the heart of the massif. After a while, the gorge arrives at a natural rock amphitheater enclosing the small frontier town of Tawella. And there, saddling his mules in front of a warehouse just off the bazaar, I find an old highlander in a jacket, cummerbund, baggy trousers, dress shirt, and dress shoes who agrees to tell me about the smuggling.
The boxes his four grown sons are humping from the warehouse are 70-pound air conditioners, the man says. They’re wrapping them in gray and orange plastic sacks to keep out the rain and dust, then strapping them four at a time to the mules. Once the animals are loaded, his boys will lead them up a zigzag out of Tawella’s ravine. Avoiding border patrols and 40-year-old mines left over from the Iran-Iraq War, they will slip through terraces of walnuts and almonds, then copses of wild oaks and pistachios. Above that will come crevices and caves where Neolithic families once lived, now home to bears, eagles, wolves, and leopards. Above the tree line, the men will risk open ground—first thistly yellow-grass hillside, then shale, then scree. After several hours and 2,000 feet of climbing, they’ll reach a patch of bare earth beneath the snowy peaks that the map on their phones will identify as the point where Iraq meets Iran. This is the bargah, where Iraqi Kurds hand off their sacks to Iranian Kurds known as kolbars, after the Kurdish for “back” (kol) and “load” (bar). Evading their own patrols and mines, the kolbars will lug the loads five hours down their side of the mountain to the town of Nowsud. There they will stack them onto trucks, to be driven through the night to Tehran, arriving in time for the morning market.
The smuggling has its roots in the clumsiness of rulers who for hundreds of years have taken the thousand-mile Zagros range as the boundary between Arabia and Persia but ignored how Kurds live on both sides. Petty smuggling between cousins has existed here forever. But trade soared after 1991, when the U.S., the UK, and France created a no-fly zone to the west of the mountains to protect Iraqi Kurds from gas attacks by Saddam Hussein. The new area became Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous enclave of five million that today is stable, open for trade, and tolerant of alcohol and sexual freedom. That liberation contrasts with the restricted lives of 84 million Iranians to the east—including eight million Iranian Kurds—who are cut off from the world by international sanctions and Iran’s own prohibitive taxes and inhibited by strict laws against alcohol and sex. The chief effect of this juxtaposition, the old man says, has been to ensure that “the Iranians want everything” that the Iraqi Kurds have.
So it seems. Walking around Tawella, I find hundreds of houses built to the same unique design: comfortable villas with balconies and roof gardens on the first floor, overlooking cavernous warehouses at street level. Inside the stockrooms, I spy more air conditioners, plus towering stacks of washing machines, televisions, refrigerators, boxes of tea, cigarettes, pet food, beer, whisky, and lingerie—the secret shopping list of an entire nation. The old man says that on busy days the line of men and mules snaking up the hills can be a mile long. On the Iranian side, where discrimination against Kurds leaves them few alternatives to kolbar work, it can be several miles long.
And that’s just Tawella. Along the Zagros lie hundreds of villages and towns devoted to high-altitude smuggling. The Kurdistan Human Rights Network estimates that around 300,000 smugglers per year are humping appliances and contraband over these 14,000-foot peaks, mostly for about $15 per load, or $20 to $25 for Iranian kolbars desperate enough to cross the border and make the entire journey themselves. The Iranian parliament puts the value of all that trafficking at $25 billion, roughly the same as Iraqi Kurdistan’s GDP, or the annual trade passing through the Port of Seattle. Later, looking at satellite images of wide, dusty mountain paths, I realize that this is smuggling you can see from space.
The scale of the business ensures its terrible human cost. Iraq’s police largely tolerate it, apparently appreciative of the legal precision of Iraqi Kurds who, since most never set foot in Iran, are not technically breaking the law. It’s a different story in Iran. Last year its border guards shot dead 43 kolbars and injured 151, while arresting untold numbers. (Iran does not publish statistics on kolbar detentions, but the frequency with which kolbars report them suggests thousands each year.) Those figures were down from 55 and 142, respectively, in 2019, and 71 and 160 in 2018. The violence provides more evidence of Iran’s anti-Kurdish racism. It also has a lethal secondary effect: persuading kolbars trying to dodge patrols to set out in poor weather or on dangerous routes, leading to dozens more deaths and hundreds more injuries as they fall from steep paths or drown under loads or step on land mines or perish in snowstorms, such as the five young Kurdish Iranians buried by an avalanche this past January.
The Iranian parliament puts the value of the kolbar trafficking at $25 billion, roughly the same as Iraqi Kurdistan’s GDP, or the annual trade passing through the Port of Seattle. To place this phenomenon in context: several times more people die in the Zagros in a typical year than are killed on all 14 eight-thousand-meter peaks in the Himalayas and Karakoram combined.
To Western ears, a town where old men dress up to go smuggling, in a mountain range called the Zagros, in an imaginary country called Kurdistan, which historians say doubles as an approximation for Eden, can all sound a little unreal. To place this phenomenon in more familiar context, then: several times more people die in the Zagros in a typical year than are killed on all 14 eight-thousand-meter peaks in the Himalayas and Karakoram combined.
The difference between dying in the mountains for glory and dying there for twenty bucks a day should give any climber pause. Just as arresting: the realization that the deathly legends on which the reputations of a K2, a Denali, or an Eiger are built are nothing next to a single season in the Zagros. Half the elevation of the Himalayas, all but unknown to the outside world, almost never summited, these are by far the deadliest mountains on earth.