19 ساعت،36 دقیقه
“There was heavy snow and we could not see two feet in front of us. We had heavy loads on our backs and it was getting darker and colder by the minute. My friend came off the road and fell 500 meters. I was crying and horrified and tried to look for him. After a little while, I felt my hands go numb. I was freezing. I managed to take shelter, but my hands were freezing. And now I have to have all 10 fingers off.”
[Please note: Some readers may find the accompanying photograph for this article, below, disturbing and upsetting.]
This is the story of Ahmad Razi, a 46-year-old Kurdish goods smuggler living in Kermanshah.
Smuggling goods is dangerous and difficult, and most people involved risk their lives every time they take on a job. Hengaw, a human rights website, reports that in the first half of 2019 alone, at least 39 smugglers (including three children) lost their lives near the borders of Kurdistan; 91 smugglers sustained injuries. Nine of those who died and 72 of those who were injured were shot by police officers; 19 deaths and 12 injuries were due to accidents and other hazards, including falling off mountain paths or suffering from frostbite. The site reports that one person died and seven were injured after stepping on land mines.
Driven to Smuggling
Ahmad dropped out of middle school. At first he started smuggling goods, but then got a job working as a construction worker in Tehran when he was 17. However, his financial situation continued to deteriorate and he returned to his hometown, Noosheh. He could not find a job for weeks and was forced to take on the dangerous job of smuggling again. “Back then smuggling was not as dangerous as it is now. They wouldn’t shoot at smugglers. They only shot at donkeys and not often at people. Back then the death count for smugglers was not this high.”
In February this year, his financial situation was so bad he could not even pay a 300,000-toman ($25) debt to a relative. “My debt was due and he wanted his money back. I was under so much pressure that I needed to do something about it.”
For two days, Ahmad and Nazdar, a friend of 10 years who used to smuggle goods with him in the past, went to the border. But police officers blocked their way and they had no option but to turn back in order not to get caught.
His friend, Nazdar, suggested that they try from Uraman, also on the Kurdish border. Passing through this mountainous area is very dangerous and during winter even the locals don’t use the path after 4pm. “I told him I didn’t know the path and it was dangerous. Nazdar said he had used it a couple of times and he knew the way, so there was no need to worry. We had to go. It was February 14, 2019. At around 3pm we got to a village called Kamale, where we began our journey on foot.”
Smugglers have to walk three to four hours from Kamale to another village in Iraqi Kurdistan to collect goods and bring them back. “We had nothing with us on our way there and were supposed to bring back cigarettes. It was around 6pm when we got there and bought the cigarettes. It was very cold and they told us we’d be better off if we spent the night there and hit the road in the morning.”
Ahmad says he was confident they were prepared and thought it was best not to waste another night — even though smugglers have already died due to frostbite and or accidents this year. “It took us around three hours to get to the peak, the rest was downhill. We decided to rest a little, warm up and get some energy before going down the hill. It was 10pm when we continued climbing down, and there was a freezing wind blowing.”
After walking for two more hours they reached the area known as “Ghazi Café,” an infamous place where many smugglers have lost their lives. “It’s a very dangerous place, many smugglers have fallen off cliffs. Some of them died and others were paralyzed," Ahmad said.
Looking for Nazdar
Nazdar has a young child. and that night he told Ahmad the child had told him, “Daddy! Be careful that snow doesn’t take you.” Ahmad says they could not see even two meters in front of them. “We took two steps forward and one back. We were terrified. We were continuing on our way, but the storm was so intense that my friend got lost off the road and fell down a cliffside. Later we found out that he rolled down for 500 meters with the load on his back, but thank God, nothing happened to him.”
Ahmad looked for his friend while crying uncontrollably — he did not know if Nazdar was alive or not. “I left my pack and went looking for him, but I could not find him. I was scared and my hands were frozen.”
He became aware of the seriousness of the situation with his hands when his cell phone rang in his pocket but he couldn’t answer it. “I completely lost control and did not know where I was. I was freezing to death and had no choice but to go back to where we came, [even] from this far.”
[Please note: readers may find the photo below disturbing. Photo credit: Ebrahim Alipour]
When he reached the Iraqi village, his hands were inflated like balloons. “There was no wood to burn. The guy who had given us the load saw me and lit the fire by burning his own clothes and some fabric. I did not dare to get close to the fire. I knew something terrible had happened to my hands and direct heat might make them worse.”
He first went to Diale Hospital in Iraq, where they removed the dead skin from his hands and dressed his wounds. They told him they couldn’t do anything more for him and recommended that he follow up with a hospital in Iran. He went back to Iran and to Imam Hospital in Kermanshah. He was hospitalized for five days there, where he underwent surgery.
But without finishing his treatment and upon his own request, he was released from the hospital. “They told me my treatment was not finished, but I had no money and I had broken pride. They were too nice to me and I could not take it anymore.” He left, unable to pay the hospital bill.
Journalist and photographer Ebrahim Alipour documented Ahmad’s story, and the photographs of his hands went viral online.
Ahmad had heard about a doctor working in herbal medicine in the city of Shaneh. He had heard his traditional medicine and cures were a lot cheaper than conventional medicine. Ahmad thought he could afford his services and went to him for help. But his hands improved very little.
Alipour says if Ahmad had finished the full hospital treatment immediately after the incident, the situation with his hands wouldn’t be this bad; he thinks he could have been cured. But Ahmad says: “My hands were bruised [and burnt] up to my wrists. The herbal medicine worked a little. First my wrists healed. But when it came to my fingers, they weren’t curable, the cold had burned the nerves.” Ahmad’s fingers are now suffering from serious infection. He says he knows that he has no option but to cut them all off.
Since his ordeal, he has been living with his sister, who also is unemployed. Since the siblings lost their parents 16 years ago, they are only able to carry on with the help and kindness of friends and relatives.
But Ebrahim Alipour is still hopeful. When he published the photographs of Ahmad’s hands, he started a fundraising campaign for his medical expenses at the same time. He says he raised more than 20 million toman ($1600) in less than 10 hours. They plan to send Ahmad to the hospital for surgery in the coming week.
He also said that, although Ahmad’s situation is devastating and shocking, there are many other smugglers without any support whatsoever, poor men living the worst lives. “I’ve been photographing smugglers for the last two years. There are so many of them who have been paralyzed or who have serious injuries. I met a man that was shot and lost both his eyes. There are so many sad cases like this. So far, I’ve taken photos of 16 smugglers. But there are so many more out there.”