More than a month has passed since three Kurdish kolbars from the village of Bavan Silvaneh, in the border rural district of Margavar, West Azerbaijan province, disappeared without a trace. Efforts by locals to find them have yielded no clue. The three were lost on their return from the Turkish border, walking on treacherous, winding mountain paths through a heavy blizzard in the morning of January 13.
Kolbars are border couriers who physically shuttle large amounts of items for sale, from tissues to cigarettes to white goods, between Iran, Iraq and Turkey. They are often the sole breadwinners for households in areas where jobs are scarce. They face untold perils in the course of earning a crust for their families, from falling down hillsides, to treading on unexploded landmines, to being shot at by border guards.
Who Are the Three Missing Kolbars?
The three kolbars who vanished a month ago are named Bahlool (Mohajer) Saidanifard, a 44-year-old father of four, Barzan Mihani, Bahlool’s 19-year-old nephew, and Asad Saidanifard, 34, also a father of four and Bahlool’s cousin. Previously their main sources of income in Bavan had been farming, shepherding and manual labor. But gradually the work dried up, and poverty forced them into kolbari.
A local source who asked to be quoted under the pseudonym Janan told IranWire that the three had called their families as usual on the evening of Wednesday, January 12. They were heading back to Iran and said they would start towards Bavan on Thursday morning. “Since the snowfall on Thursday night was heavy,” Janan said, “news that they had not yet returned [the following day] made the villagers extremely worried. They should have reached Bavan by noon or at the latest, in the afternoon.”
The families and other residents of Bavan and wider Margavar were initially hamstrung in their search efforts by the blizzard and the dark. “On Friday morning,” Janan told IranWire, “we called the Ziveh Border Regiment, West Azerbaijan’s border forces, the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, the offices of the Red Crescent and other related agencies and told them that three people from Bavan had got lost.
“After informing government agencies, we, the families and and tens of residents of Bavan and other nearby villages in the area began the search on the trail leading to Binar Valley in Margavar. But the snowstorm stopped us from making any progress.”
Locals now fear that the three men got trapped in the Binar Valley; its heights are the only real route available to kolbars on the Turkish border. It leads to the village of Goliasham in the Shamzinan, in Turkish Kurdistan.
Local Red Crescent and Forces Held Back by Weather
Sarhang, a relative of Barzan Milani also speaking under a pseudonym, told IranWire they eventually managed to extend their search beyond the Binar Valley. “On Friday about 10 family members crossed the border to Turkey, legally, and went to Goliasham to seek news from those who trade with these kolbars.” A villager named Khaled, who sells kolbars most of the merchandise they take to Iran, told them the three had left for Goliasham on Wednesday. Because they didn’t have a Turkish SIM card to contact him, the family were told, they took a few shovels with them that they said they would place them at a certain point on the border to show that they had crossed.
A team from the Turkish Red Crescent, Sarhang said, did their best to find the lost kolbars or at the very least, the shovels indicating where they had been. “When we reached Goliasham the snowfall was so heavy that it was impossible to keep searching. We had to wait for a week for the weather to calm down. But despite the blizzard, the Turkish Red Crescent did not stop looking, and cleared the snow almost to Iran’s border. Unfortunately there was no sign of them. We came back to Iran.”
By contrast, Sarhang said, the Iranian Reds Crescent in Urmia had been ill-equipped to do much at all. “As of now, they haven’t been able to get onto the main route to Binar Valley because they have has insufficient equipment to search or clear the snow. They sent one bulldozer, with 15 relief workers, to the area but with the slightest gust of wind they would immediately stopped again.”
He also said that he and his family felt neglected by local officials during a terrifying period. “Three days ago the governor’s office in Urmia informed the families of Barzan Mihani, Bahlool Saidanifard and Asad Saidanifard that the search would be suspended until the weather conditions improved. After the three were lost they visited Bavan to meet the families, and promised they would take ‘serious action’. But now the operation has been deemed weather-dependent.
“A number of the Revolutionary Guards took part in the search and accompanied people in their military Toyotas as far as they could go. But then the people were left by themselves to search. They were only observers.”
The families, Sarhang said, were “devastated” and still in need of immediate help from other people in the area, rescue workers and government agencies.