My 30 Seconds in Iran (and other reasons to be careful around borders)

Reading the account of how the three Americans backpacking in Kurdistan got detained after wandering into Iran, I was reminded of the time I wound up on the on the otherside of that particular border. It was about three years ago. I’d gone up to northern Iraq to do a story on the PKK and PEJAK, two Kurdish guerilla groups fighting against Turkey and Iran, respectively. I’d already spent the night in the Kandil mountains, spoke with the leader of the PKK, and then to fighters with PEJAK. I had a few more days to spend in Sulaymaniyah, doing some more interviews, looking for other stories, hanging out, etc. The Kurdish fixer I was working with asked me if I wanted to go see Kurdish smugglers. I said sure.

My fixer drove us(I was with an American photographer) about 45 minutes east of Sulaymaniyah. We were heading to the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran(near where the three Americans were detained.) When the Iraqi border checkpoint came into view, we took a right up a dirt road, about a half a mile. We arrived at a field with about a dozen or so cars parked. About thirty Kurds were hanging out, cooking tea and grilling tomatoes. These were the smugglers, my fixer told me. In the distance, we could see the Iranian border outpost–I recall, and I don’t think I’m making this up, a green building with a large picture of the Ayatollah.

The smuggling route worked like so: the Kurds would unload the smuggled goods from the cars and trucks in Iraq. They’d put them on their shoulders, and walk across a small stream. The stream, they told us, was what marked the border between Iraq and Iran. The smugglers acted like human mules, precariously balancing big boxed television sets on their shoulders,  lugging crates of alcohol, and other items. Once in Iran, they’d walk a good distance into the country(behind the border post) where they’d be met by Iranian smugglers, who’d pay them a few dollars for their work and load them up into trucks there. This way, the goods got across the border without using the road.

The smugglers were quite friendly, though they bitched about their jobs. The main complaint: every once in while, the Iranian soldiers would decide to mess with them, arresting them, beating them, taking their shit.

We went up to the stream so the photographer could get shots of the smugglers crossing the border.  After getting the pictures, we decided to cross the stream ourselves. We knew is was sort of a stupid thing to do at the time–never wise to enter a country illegally, alas–but we weren’t going very far.  Then we stepped back over the stream, and we were back in Iraq. I could now claim I’d been to Iran, albeit for about 30 seconds.

We hung out for about twenty more minutes, until an Iraqi border official came over to see why two Americans were there. (The entire smuggling operation was in plain view of the both of the border outposts, so it was clear there was some serious look-the-other-way-money being spent.) Our fixer had a brief conversation/argument with the border official. We got back in the car and took off.

As I said, I was reminded of this when I read the account of the three Americans who were detained there this week. One of the detained is a freelance journalist, Shane Bauer. According to Shon Meckfessel–a friend of the three who stayed back at the hotel–the backpackers made “a simple and very regrettable mistake.” They didn’t realize they were close to the border. Kurdistan, Mekfessel implies, is about the one place Western tourists in Iraq could go if they felt so inclined. That being said, it’s still pretty edgy choice for a vaction. PEJAK, that guerilla group I mentioned above, is actively crossing the border to attack Iran, and there have been regular reports of other extremists groups crossing over in the area. So it’s not a big surprise that Iranians patrolling the area would be a bit jumpy, and find it odd that three Americans were out there wandering around.

What’s my point of all this? Am I just using it as an excuse to share my lame border exploit? Perhaps.

But I guess it’s also to say that the Iraq/Iranian border is, as we like to say, very porous. And, unsurprisingly, not well marked. It’s a fairly dangerous place to be, too. I think it’s probably wise–despite the Kurdish government’s tourist campaign to call it “The Other Iraq”–to scratch Suly and Erbil off the must see lists for the near future. Yeah, it’s got some nice mountains, but there are lot of nice mountains to be seen that aren’t in totally fucked up parts of the universe.

This is also the second high profile case recently where an American journalist(though he wasn’t on assignment) has been detained for treading too close to another country’s borders. It was along the Chinese/North Korean border where Euna Lee and Laura Ling got picked up. And they, like three Americans in Iran, were immediatley accused of spying.

This shouldn’t come as much of shock–journalists are always accused of being spies. You also can’t blame the Iranians for being suspicious–there have been reports of the PEJAK working with the CIA. (When I asked a Pejak fighter about it a few years back, he said vaguely, that he had talked “to his American friends.”) And if our American border patrol was competent enough to catch three Iranian tourists in Vermont who “got lost” while hiking in Canada, they’d probably not get the warmest welcome, either.

The most obvious point: hanging around borders is pretty high risk behavior, and if you’re going to do so, be careful!

The other more problematic point: journalists are drawn to borders because all sorts of strange things(ie, Kurdish TV smugglers, human trafficking, etc.) go down there.

I don’t mean to make light of this, really. It’s surely a nightmare for their friends and families. Hopefully, like Laura and Euna, they’ll also get released soon.

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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