Ahmad once earned a good living as a fisherman on Lake Hamoun in Iran’s Sistan Basin.
But after the lake dried up due to severe drought and water diversion for irrigation, he began smuggling fuel. He is not alone: approximately six million liters of fuel are smuggled from Iran to Pakistan every day (or over two billion liters per year). Given the low price of fuel in Ahmad’s homeland, and the much higher price in Pakistan, the passage across the borders between these countries comes with a tempting financial reward.
Yet fuel smuggling is illegal, a ban assiduously enforced by the Iranian police. While many smugglers use cars, Ahmad prefers donkeys, guiding the animals up the impassable mountainous areas that cross into Pakistan. On one such fuel run, Ahmad was stopped by the police, who confiscated his load. Later, even though he had already turned back without the fuel, the police shot him in the leg and also shot his donkey to death. Ahmad was taken to the hospital, but the doctors had to amputate his leg.
Tragically, Ahmad’s story is not unusual. In the Sistan and Baluchistan Province of Iran, joblessness is rampant—it is one of Iran’s poorest and most undeveloped regions. These economic pressures are leading many young people towards the profits promised by fuel smuggling and the dangers that come with it.
Today, Iranian documentary photographer Sadegh Souri estimates that more than 3,000 vehicles in the province are involved in smuggling fuel. Lately, it has become so profitable that many drug smugglers have also entered the market. When international sanctions against Iran are tightened or loosened, the market for smuggled fuel fluctuates due to rapid changes in the value of Iranian currency. At times, smugglers can sell fuel across the border for up to 10 times what it is worth in Iran.
In response, the Iranian government has built semi-effective walls, embankments and even moats in lowland areas to fight fuel smuggling. But in some especially rugged mountainous regions, only barbed wire can be deployed. Souri says this is why donkeys are often utilized there. “The smugglers use the vehicles as far as they can go and then they use the donkeys,” he says. “The final job is done by the donkeys.”
Away from the mountains, the stakes of the cat and mouse game are even more harrowing. Police focus their efforts on stopping the smugglers as they cross the border. When vehicles enter a border area, police have the right to shoot. Police try to shoot at tires, but can end up hitting the smugglers. In response, the drivers push their cars to high speeds trying to escape. It is not uncommon for vehicles to crash, flip and catch fire. Souri estimates that 10 to 20 people are hurt or killed every month.
Despite these grim statistics, Pakistani border areas have become dependent on smuggled fuel, creating an even greater imperative for the fuel to keep flowing. A recent news report from Pakistan estimated that more than 35,000 vehicles in the adjacent Pakistani province of Balochistan rely on smuggled fuel. The current price of diesel in Iran is .09 USD per liter, compared to Pakistan, where it is .73 USD per liter. The Iranian government reported in March 2017 that smuggling was expected to decline due to increased patrols, changes in fuel pricing and other measures, but it is unclear if that is actually the case.
Amidst these macroeconomic forces are the stories of the individuals involved. This is where Souri focuses his lens. Souri hopes his work documenting the plight of people like Ahmad, who are “forced to smuggle fuel because of bad luck and the lack of a proper job,” may help bring awareness to the situation. Perhaps increased awareness will lead to different employment opportunities for a mostly young, educated and literate workforce.
“As a photographer, it is my duty to help the world,” Souri says. “I must portray the unpleasant events around me so that others will witness them too. As a human being, I too want a world filled with peace and calm; a world devoid of hatred, animosity, and discrimination. Helping these people can provide them with a new life.”
This project, like many of the other difficult topics that Souri has tackled, was not easy at first. When he first began documenting fuel smuggling, he says he had a difficult time establishing a rapport with his subjects.
He says some smugglers thought that he was a spy who might hand over their photos to the authorities, leading to legal action and heavy fines. But because he lives in the region and approached his subjects with confidence and friendship, he was eventually able to gain their trust—and even make some good friends in the process.
The dangerous project took about four years for Souri to complete. At times, the fuel smugglers thought he was operating with the police and used smoke to block his view while driving. He also had to travel in dangerous border areas that are heavily monitored by police. Souri says he was stopped many times; the police would take his memory cards and destroy them. He was always careful to have backups.
At one point Souri was arrested, and friends advised him to take on a less dangerous project. But he persisted, driven to bring attention to a group of people who “have unfortunately been ignored.” He also admits that he is inherently drawn to such high-risk work because it is where his ability to help people like Ahmad are highest. Though he recognizes the risks, for Souri, a smuggler’s grim motto seems to encapsulate the stakes of what he is after: “Either I end up in a cemetery or I’ll reach home.”
Souri is also the author of the award-winning documentary series, Waiting Girls. The project documents girls, some as young as nine years old, imprisoned in Iran for their crimes. Since murder, armed robbery and drug trafficking are punishable by death—but only when the individual is 18 years old—the girls are detained until it is “legal” for the state to kill them.
Souri is currently working on a documentary about people who are trafficked while smuggling fuel, among other projects.