Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines

AFGHANISTAN: The Cheap Way to Hell

KABUL, Oct 27 2009 (IPS) - For the last three weeks, 30-year-old Ghulam Nabi has lain in a Kabul hospital bed, suffering. His face is etched with hopelessness, loneliness and despair over the life he once had and has now lost forever.

“I lost my land, my garden and everything else, to opium,” he says, thin hands gripping the rails of his bed, his wan gaze falling weakly at the doctors and nurses surrounding him.

He started smoking hashish as a young man, but after the killing of his two brothers by unknown assailants, and worsening conditions in his home village, he switched to opium by the age of 15.

Within a few years the addiction consumed his life. His wife, five children and extended family became distant strangers while he, lost in a fog of drugs, slept out in the open, away from his home.

“I do not know what they [my family] eat, wear, or who they must borrow money from, because I lost…everything to opium. If I found one or two pennies, I was buying opium. I could survive without food, but not without opium.”

Since coming to the hospital last month, Nabi says that things have gotten better. He is determined to give up his addiction and that after he gets out of the hospital he will never use again and will work hard to support his family.

Addicts AbroadOne little hard to pin down statistic is the number of people who pick up an opium habit while outside Afghanistan and return home with a nasty addiction. Some doctors put the number as high as 85 percent of all of Afghanistan’s addicts, though that number is likely wildly overstated.

“If you interview 85 percent of addicted people” says Dr. Wahidullah Koshan, who treats patients at a Kabul addiction centre, “they will tell you that they became addicted in Iran.”

Dr. Laiqullah Obaidi, a doctor at a 20-bed hospital in Nangrahar echoes this statistic, saying that, “85 percent of the addicts I treat are returnees from abroad.”

Thirty five-year-old Omer Gul has been an addict for years and says that he picked up the habit in Iran. “I became addicted while outside of Afghanistan,” he says. “It was the years I was in Iran. Sometimes I smoke but now, sometimes I inject.”

Zalmai Afzali of the Ministry of Counternarcotics says that out of three families returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan or Iran, generally one or two people will have become opium addicts while abroad.

But here at home, the addiction is decimating families, as the men of the household are usually the first to pick up opium addiction.

Malang has smoked opium for 12 years and has four daughters and a son, who he has been unable to provide for because of his crippling addiction. “I really regret, what I put my family through,” he says. “It is my shame.”

He started smoking opium because he was unemployed and unhappy, a not unusual circumstance in a country with poverty levels of 70 percent. But now Malang has checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic and is making an effort to get clean.”I have made a firm commitment to quit,” he says.

But Nabi’s potential to get healthy is far from the norm for Afghanistan.

A sachet of opium can be had for about 120 Afghanis or 2.4 U.S. dollars on the open market. It is a cheap habit to start, and enables many of Afghanistan’s poorest to start young.

Afghanistan produces 6,900 tonnes of raw opium a year, more than the world’s entire demand for the drug. The raw opium is refined into heroin powder for illegal use, primarily in western countries, where it is snorted like cocaine or injected with a syringe.

According to a U.N. report released last month, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is down 22 percent while opium production is down 10 percent last year. But this decline has little effect on the local market, where the supply is so plentiful that opium remains cheap and always available.

The Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics fears that as many as 2 million Afghans may be addicted to the drug in its raw form and has begun a census to confirm that number. Ministry officials say that the results of the survey will be completed later this year.

According to a 2006 survey, nearly one-million Afghans were addicted to opium at the time and 7 percent were children, 13 percent women and the rest, adult males. In the meantime, addiction treatment centres have been built in 34 provinces across the country, with 16 more currently under construction.

Zalmai Afzali, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Counternarcotics, says that the number of treatment centres pales when compared to the scope of the issue. “The number of addicts” he says, “has been increased by half-again over the number we had in 2006.”

Afzali says that the biggest problem in combating addiction is a lack of funding to government agencies responsible for the prevention and treatment of opium use. “We want the international community to help us decrease the number [of addicts] and increase their treatment,” he says.

In the addiction centre where Nabi is trying to get his life back on track, around 100 opium addicts are currently receiving treatment round-the-clock, while another 400 are registered as outpatients.

Fareed Rayed, spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Health, says that this centre is able to keep the lights on due to funding from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental aid agency.

He says that it takes “45 days to treat an addict in these centres,” but that is only after they spend a few days in “sleeping rooms” where their vitamin A levels are fortified so that their bodies have the strength to respond to treatment.

While centres like these are critical to combating the symptoms of Afghanistan’s opium addiction, the root of the problem lies with Afghan families and neighbourhoods.

The close relationships in Afghan families, where many generations live under the same roof, means that when opium addiction spreads it does so quickly and to catastrophic effect. Addiction isn’t just transferred from one friend to another, it leaps from husband to mother to son to daughter, and on and on, until an entire family or village is snared by unrelenting, crippling addiction. In this way, entire districts in places like Badakhshan and Nangrahar, have become slaves to opium.

Salima (not her real name) has used opium constantly since she was young and now her body resembles little more than skin and bones. She is only 40, but the ravages of drug use have aged her terribly and she looks at least 20 or 30 years older than her years. She is from Badakhshan, but currently lives in the Ashqan Aw Arifan section of Kabul.

She began consuming opium 20 years ago after her husband died, leaving her with two young boys to care for. Her vacant eyes fill with tears as she describes how she began down the path of addiction.

“A woman in our neighborhood was eating opium and I started too. I did not understand the power of the drug.”

And of course, Salima is not alone.

Many users begin by smoking the drug, before graduating to intravenous use. “First I was smoking, now I use injections,” says one 40-year-old man who declined to be identified. As he sat, his gaunt face looked tired and lifeless. “I am very tired with my life right now,” he adds.

*This is from Killid, an independent Afghan media group. IPS and Killid have been partners since 2004.

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