Observers

Photos and videos of dozens of dead horses along the Iran-Iraq border have been causing widespread disgust in Iran since they started appearing on social media May 1. Pressure is building on the border guards to stop their practice of killing packhorses when they break up bands of smugglers. WARNING: This article contains graphic images.

The mountains on the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan have for years provided a living for Kurdish smugglers known as “kulbars”. They use packhorses to transport goods over the rugged terrain – often products like satellite dishes and alcohol that are banned in Iran.

Kurdish smugglers known as “kulbars” use packhorses to smuggle goods into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan.


The human-rights group Amnesty International says Iranian border guards illegally shoot and kill dozens of the smugglers every year.

Photos of the horses were widely shared on Telegram, the messaging app that is popular in Iran, starting May 1, and this video was published anonymously on Apparat, the Iranian version of YouTube.


When the border guards don’t catch the smugglers, they often kill their horses. Our Observers in western Iran say at least 90 horses have been killed in the last three months, in three different incidents. The Iranian Border Guard Command and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which also patrols the border, have not commented publicly on the incidents.

READ MORE: The high price of smuggling in Iran


Hey you who kill kulbars’ horses, are you really OK with feeding your family using money earned by killing horses? How can you live with yourselves? Horses are innocent innocent innocent #NoToHorseKiling
 

“It’s a kind of punishment”

Shahoo is an engineering student whose family lives in Oshnavieh in western Iran, 20 km from the border with Iraq:
 
“When border guards come across kulbars they shoot them, often killing them. Sometimes the horses are killed with their masters. But most often what happens is that the kulbars run away, leaving their horses behind. Instead of taking the horses away, the border guards shoot them on the spot. They don’t even bury them. In some cases they don’t shoot correctly; they just injure them. Horses sometimes suffer for days before dying.


The smugglers’ horses are sometimes killed in or near water sources, raising the risk of contamination.

 
Sometimes you’ll have dozens of dead horses in the same spot. The zone can get infected for weeks or even months. Sometimes the dead horses are left near water sources, putting humans and other animals who drink the water at risk of disease.

The border guards don’t have to kill the horses. It’s hard to keep patrolling the border if they’re leading a group of abandoned horses, so they just kill them in cold blood. And it’s a kind of punishment for the smugglers. The border guards want to make a point.


Our Observer from the region says the border guards often kill smugglers’ horses on the spot.

 
“The solution is not complicated”
It’s barbaric to massacre these lovely and innocent animals because of the faults of their owners. I’m 25 and it’s been happening as far back as I can remember. People didn’t used to talk about it much before; when human beings are being killed for smuggling, it seems silly to make a fuss about their horses being killed too. But in recent years that has changed. Photos and videos of the dead horses are being published online, so now there are many more people who know about it. It’s not just locals any more. People talk about it on social media and there’s pressure for a change.

At the end of the day, the solution is not complicated. The border guards just need to recognize the animals’ right to live. I’m not naïve. I’m not asking them to leave the horses alone. I’m asking -- like many other people -- for the border guards to round up the horses and sell them in the market. That way we could save their lives. Each horse is worth around 7.5 million Tomans [€1,500].

Iranian MPs have been speaking out about the issue. On May 7, MP Ahmadali Keykha in an interview asked the Department of the Environment to work with the border guards to stop killing “innocent horses”, adding that it was not the right approach to stopping smuggling. Keykha suggested using tranquilizer darts and selling the horses at auction.

CORRECTION (9/5/18): An initial version of this article stated there had been no reports of smugglers being killed in the border region in the last three months. That is incorrect: there are reports that a smuggler was shot by Iranian border troops on March 26 in Sardasht County and later died of his injuries.