By YAHYA BARAZANJI
HERGEINA, Iraq - Kurdish Iranians in poor border towns are taking advantage of the porous boundary with Iraq to sneak into the country for coveted items - like alcohol - to sell back home.
For the past three years, Farshid Karimi has earned his living smuggling goods - and dodging border guards.
The 23-year-old was drinking a cold beer at an Iraqi bar on a recent evening, taking a short break before carrying 60 bottles of whisky into Iran. With his baggy, Kurdish-style pants tucked inside his socks so he wouldn't trip while climbing the region's mountains, Karimi had already carried his load two hours.
Karimi is one of the "night men" who hide on the Iranian side of the border, waiting for the right moment to make the crossing under cover of darkness.
"I am afraid of encountering Iranian soldiers who would chase me and might shoot at me for carrying liquor," he said as he sipped his beer. "Or I might wander on the road and end up stepping on a land mine" left over from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Karimi, who is from the Iranian border town of Marivan, admits that what he's doing is dangerous, but for him, the risk is worth it. He must provide for his family of five.
Alcohol is illegal and considered sinful under Iran's strict Islamic laws. Lashing is the usual punishment for drinking in Iran and traffickers can end up in prison.
Last year, Iranian soldiers caught Karimi in a border ambush. He was jailed for one year and given 80 lashes in public. His back was covered in blood and he could not sleep on it for a month, he said.
"I did not mind the physical pain. What hurt most was my pride and dignity that was shattered by being beaten in front of everyone," he said.
Despite efforts to tighten border security, Iranian smugglers remains so active that a few taverns have opened in the Iraqi frontier towns to serve the clandestine transporters hot meals, beer and whisky. Some also sell feed for the mules and donkeys that smugglers often use.
Residents on both sides of the border in this area are Kurdish. They speak the same language, dress alike, have the same traditions and many intermarry.
After crossing the border, smugglers gather in the Iraqi town of Bashmagh, where they fight among themselves to purchase whatever Iraqi goods are available.
Iraqi trader Mohammed Ibrahimi, who sells china, says he offers 100 packages for sale every day but often has up to 500 smugglers clamoring to buy.
"It becomes a fierce fight where survival is for the fittest," he said.
The Bashmagh crossing point has two routes one used by trucks transferring legal goods and another used by smugglers carrying items that are illegal to sell in Iran, like liquor. The smugglers, who sometimes have to bribe the Iranian soldiers to let them in and out of the country, also carry foodstuffs not available in Iranian border towns, like tea, sugar and rice.
It's not only young men who embark on the smuggling journey. The elderly, children and women also take a chance.
Sirwa Ahmady, a 31-year-old Iranian widow with eight children, says she crosses the border into Iraq three times a day to buy plates and cups to sell back home.
"This is my everyday routine so that my children won't go hungry," she said. "The worst thing for me is to return home empty handed."