The Exodus of Iranian Kurds

For many Iranian Kurds, passing over the mountains into Iraq’s Kurdistan Region means crossing into an uncertain future

The Exodus of Iranian Kurds
A KDP-Iran Peshmerga walks in front of a mural at one of the group’s training camps near Koya in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq / Winthrop Rodgers

Hiwa Molania has left half of himself behind.

He sits on a beige carpet in a plain room in the city of Van, in southeastern Turkey. Outside, lights glimmer and sirens wail in the background. Wincing, he props himself awkwardly against a large cushion. His back has never really recovered from beatings he received in Iran years ago, he said. A whirring fan beats back the painful summer heat.

“I was forced to escape from my own country,” he said. “Half of my body has remained on Iran’s soil. I miss my water, my city, my country, the land where I was born.”

Hiwa, 35, grew up in a village in Sardasht district in northwestern Iran, where most residents are from the country’s 8-million- to 10-million-strong Kurdish population. Amid the folds of the imposing Zagros Mountains lies the international border that divides Iranian Kurdistan, which is called Rojhelat in Kurdish, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, known as Bashur. It’s a place of thick green forests, wide-open skies, smuggling routes and cross-border ties. When Hiwa was growing up, most of Sardasht’s population made a living transporting electrical goods, cigarettes and textiles between Iran and Iraq, he said.

Hiwa Molania leans over a railing in the city of Van in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast / Lizzie Porter

In autumn 2007, under the cover of darkness, Hiwa fled across that border. He had taken part in protests and been imprisoned by Iran’s security services for nine months. Like many others, he felt he could no longer stay in the country. His father went with him some of the way, and the pair dodged traps set up by Iranian border guards for kolbars — the semiformal cross-border porters who operate in the area. Hiwa’s story was confirmed by two Iranian human rights activists and a journalists’ rights organization.

“My father accompanied me as far as possible,” Hiwa recalled. It would be the last time Ali Molania would see his son for five years. But the pair’s bond remained strong despite the miles and boundaries between them.

Fleeing political oppression and economic decline at home, thousands of Iranian Kurds like Hiwa have fled across the border into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, seeking asylum, work or the opportunity to move on to a third country. There are currently some 10,000 officially registered Iranian Kurdish refugees in the semi-autonomous region, according to figures from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). There are likely thousands more who are unregistered or come with work permits.

For many Iranian Kurds, passing over the mountains into Iraq’s Kurdistan Region means crossing into an uncertain future. Poverty, neglect and a shaky legal status weigh heavily. Although some have been in Iraq for decades, reticence from some lawmakers in Baghdad means there is little chance of them obtaining Iraqi citizenship and some measure of security. With the Kurdistan Region’s authorities unwilling and unable to offer full protection, the threat posed by the Iranian security forces is never far beyond the horizon.

Many are members of a galaxy of fractious Iranian Kurdish opposition parties that have found precarious shelter in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Some join the parties out of genuine political conviction. For others, it’s merely a transactional way of obtaining a valuable residency permit in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which requires sponsorship.

But some are now questioning the groups’ ability or willingness to support the Iranian Kurdish community, accusing them of focusing more on internal party politics than bettering the lot of those they claim to represent.

Since the mid-20th century, the opposition parties have been critical players in the daily political life of Rojhelat. They have offered support and organization in a place where most kinds of advocacy are viewed by the government with suspicion, or worse. The parties also appeal to the deeply held national identity of Kurds, who are socially and economically marginalized by the government in Tehran.

Historically, the largest of these parties have been Komala, whose full name is the “Society of Revolutionary Toilers of Iranian Kurdistan,” and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI). There is also the local branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), called the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK). They compete with each other and smaller parties for members and influence.

The KDP-Iran — one branch of the fractured PDKI — has one of its bases in the town of Koya, between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil. They occupy a fortified military complex built by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, known informally as “The Castle.” Its buttermilk-yellow walls are painted with murals of party members who were killed in a missile attack on the facility in 2018, for which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) claimed responsibility. Komala is based in Sulaymaniyah province and PJAK has camps along the Iranian border.

A mural at the KDP-Iran’s base near Koya in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, known as “The Castle,” depicts two of the group’s members who were killed in a September 8, 2018 missile attack. The wall’s façade shows some of the damage from the attack / Winthrop Rodgers

Ali Moradi joined Komala as a Peshmerga — the term Kurdish groups use for their fighters, which literally means “those who face death” — in 1986, he recalled in a recent interview in Sulaymaniyah. “Komala was the only party that had something to say. … [It was] all over Iran, not just Kurdistan. Iranians were joining Komala because it was leftist, and its door was open for everyone.”

Originally from Sarvabad, Moradi was a Komala member for more than two decades and has fought on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border against the Iranian regime, the Baathists, and more recently the Islamic State group.

In 2003, he was arrested in Iran for his activities in Komala and spent the next 13 years in prison. Four years ago, he escaped custody while being treated for a heart condition and was smuggled over the border into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where he has lived ever since. His story was confirmed to New Lines by a Kurdish human rights activist based in Europe.

But even outside Iran, the Kurdish opposition parties face pressure from Tehran, which sees them as terrorist organizations. And it has turned up the heat in recent months: This summer, several Iranian Kurdish activists were assassinated in the cities of Sulaymaniyah and Erbil and the IRGC launched cross-border strikes on rural camps belonging to the parties in the autumn. Tehran also made stronger political demands on the KRG to rein in their armed operations.

“If that demand is not met, we will act in accordance with the duty to destroy their bases and headquarters,” Fars News quoted IRGC ground force commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour as saying in September.

The parties have a reputation for being divided and quarrelsome. Bitter internal splits have occurred in recent years, reducing their appeal and effectiveness. Some people say that they have little capacity to enact real change. Others see injustice among the ranks of senior officials, who often have European passports and bodyguards and do not face the same battlefield dangers as the rank and file.

It was these grievances that pushed Moradi to leave Komala in 2019. In particular, he objected to decisions by party leaders to send inexperienced fighters back over the border into Iran, in missions that he considered a fool’s errand.

“When they would plan something in Rojhelat from here, they would send two Peshmergas with the team that had no experience,” he said ruefully, pulling on a cigarette. “They would get martyred on the way. They have no right to do that.”

A slight man with a thick mustache and the squared-away bearing of an old soldier, he spread out paperwork from his time in the party and prison on a café table. He described what he felt he had given up in pursuit of freedom and justice for his community.

“I might have never wanted to hold a gun; I just wanted to be a political activist for freedom of speech, freedom of media, equality of women and men, for everything,” he reflected.

He is also disillusioned that many members of the senior leadership hold European passports, effectively allowing them to sidestep the travel restrictions faced by other Iranian Kurds. New Lines met at least three senior Komala and KDP-Iran officials with western European passports.

“They all have passports from other countries,” said Moradi. “Their own families are abroad living their best lives, but they get other people’s children killed. … I can’t accept that.”

Komala did not respond to a request for comment.

Moradi’s critique — that the parties have lost touch with the people and become vehicles to perpetuate their leaders’ power — is a potent one. It echoes criticisms of Iraqi Kurdish parties like the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which are often accused of offering job opportunities and services to loyal partisans and family members.

The renewed cross-border military attacks by Iran have also weakened the Iranian Kurdish opposition’s standing, raising questions about their ability to fight one of the region’s most powerful militaries. Though they remain armed, the parties’ fighting units rarely engage in sustained campaigns. Instead, they launch occasional hit-and-run attacks in Iran, while their main bases are deep inside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Ali Moradi, a former Peshmerga for Komala, examines a book at a store in Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq / Winthrop Rodgers

While in exile in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Hiwa found work first as an accountant and then as a journalist and human rights activist. He did not join the opposition parties, believing them incapable of posing any real threat to the government in Tehran.

“I have come to the conclusion that none of the Iranian parties and opposition are able to, for example, do something positive for the future of Iran, for the betterment of Iran, for the safety of Iran’s soil and its people, because of these mullahs,” he said, his features strained, his eyes tired. “We live in the 21st century now. We cannot fight against the Islamic Republic of Iran with Kalashnikovs. The Islamic Republic of Iran is using modern drones now.”

The parties refuse to say how many members they have. Even senior officials admit that many people quit their mountain bases in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to find work in the cities or leave for Europe.

“They are free to choose to continue activities inside the party, to stay in Iraqi Kurdistan. And if they have possibilities to go to Europe, we are not against their plan,” said Khalid Azizi, secretary-general of the KDP-Iran party, in an interview at The Castle in August. “So some of them have opportunities and they have connections through different means and have managed to go through Turkey to Europe.”

A Komala official also admitted that some party members leave the mountain camps to earn money to support their families back in Iran.

“We have seen a trend in at least the past two years that people are very worried about their families’ economic situation,” the official said. “They are coming here to Sulaymaniyah or Erbil to work and help by sending money back to them.”

Some younger Kurds escape Iran aided by the parties, sometimes fleeing without their parents’ consent. But many other young people do not feel a strong attachment to the parties that made their names fighting the Shah and theocratic rule in Tehran.

Nasr Khorshidi, 31, was born in northwestern Iran but fled to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2016 after facing threats of detention over his journalism and activism.

He never formally joined an opposition party — to do so would oblige him to work inside its “paradigm,” he said. In many ways, the role of the mountain Peshmerga is now a limited one and the parties are losing their grip on larger society, especially given that they mostly remain confined to mountain camps and compounds like The Castle.

“Since I was born, things have changed and they are no longer among the people,” Khorshidi said. “I would say that if they think they represent Rojhelat, that’s just a dream and an illusion.”

With his many more years’ experience inside and outside the parties, Moradi has come to a similar conclusion. Even for the veteran Peshmerga, their appeal is not what it once was.

“They have no scenario, no charisma for the future,” he said.

Even in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as an outspoken critic of both Tehran and the KRG, Hiwa did not feel safe. He said that the authorities in Erbil pushed him to join one of the opposition parties like the PDKI to sponsor his residency permit, but he refused.

The KRG also pressured him to delete social media posts critical of Erbil and Tehran, he said. He received threats from Iran and extremist Islamist groups in Iraq.

“Unfortunately, the Kurdistan Region’s leaders have this vision of just building skyscrapers and calling it freedom,” he said. “This is wrong.”

In 2014, the KRG refused to renew Hiwa’s residency permit, he said. He was on the move again. With the help of a people smuggler, he escaped across another border — this time from Iraq into Turkey. Both the opposition parties and the KRG have failed to create a dignified living environment for Iranian Kurds, according to activists, human rights observers, and former and current residents of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. They have been trying to head to Europe long before the current refugee crisis on the Belarus-Poland border. Do they feel at risk in the Kurdistan Region? “We all do,” said Khorshidi. “Sometimes you have to turn around while walking, to see if anyone is following you.”

The KRG did not reply to a request for comment.

Hiwa Molania has been living in Van for the past seven years. But he has rarely felt at ease. He fears for his wife and young son, who does not have a passport. He would like to leave Turkey but has yet to find a safe way out. He last saw his father in 2017. Ali Molania has recently received threats because of his son’s activism, according to human rights monitors. Though the two men are separated by a border and are hundreds of miles apart, their fates are still tied.

“Before anything, I’m sorry for my family,” Hiwa said. “I am a father and I understand exactly what a difficult situation my father and all my family members are in now. For a father, a child is a child. He never grows up.”

He misses Iran, too. He still feels half of a whole.

“Most of the Iranian people might need to escape to survive, not because they don’t want to live inside Iran,” he said. “They want to, I want to. All of us miss our soil and our water.”

Additional reporting by Khushgul Sultani and Kanyaw Abubakr

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