More and more Afghans are turning to cheap heroin, creating a health threat that is potentially as serious as the insurgency.
Afghans fight an addiction to heroin
KABUL // More and more Afghans are turning to cheap home-grown heroin, creating a health threat that is potentially as serious as the insurgency, narcotics officials and community workers warn.
The drug's easy availability has become a major problem since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, despite efforts by the international community to stop poppy growth and the production of opium, from which heroin is derived. Christina Oguz, the representative for Afghanistan with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said the issue had been ignored and must now be tackled alongside cultivation, manufacturing and illicit trading before a catastrophe occurs.
"People are dying here as well," she said, adding that the Afghan leadership had recognised that it must do something about drug abuse "because it could spread easily as an epidemic". "You have seen the status of these people. You have seen the status of the health services and the outreach services, which are very, very poor. If you get the HIV [for instance] into this population it could explode," she said.
According to the UN's only survey on the topic, there were 50,000 heroin users and 150,000 opium users in Afghanistan in 2005. Nearly four per cent of the population used some kind of drug. Ms Oguz stressed that she did not know if the number had increased, but the perception among addicts and community workers is that there has been a dramatic rise. Ahmed Shakib was arrested and beaten for using hashish during the first year of the Taliban government, which came to power in Sept 1996. The pain was so bad that he turned to something stronger after his release.
Since then, he has been unable to stop smoking heroin, which he said is now available "in every part of Kabul: in every bus station, in every district. It would take longer for you to buy some meat or vegetables". Having already frowned upon drug use, Mullah Mohammed Omar's regime then outlawed opium cultivation in its final year in power. Since Hamid Karzai became president in Dec 2004, production has boomed, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the world's supply. Ignorance about the drug does not stop some Afghans falling victim to its deadly spell.
"I didn't even know the name 'opium' when I was a younger and I didn't know anyone who was addicted," said Zabiullah, 26, from Kabul, who is now a regular user. In yet another sign the drug trade is growing, most of Afghanistan's opium is now converted into heroin and morphine inside the country. The annual income from the trade is estimated at Dh12.9 billion (US$3.5bn), and much of the money is widely believed to fund the insurgency.
The Taliban view the drug production as a lesser evil than foreign occupation. Close allies of Mr Karzai have also been accused of profiting from the poppy fields, and despite once pledging to identify high-level figures in the trade, he has never followed through on his promise. The overall effect in Kabul is clearly visible, with huge newly built mansions - known as "narco-palaces" - towering over the same landscape that is full of desperately poor Afghans looking for their next fix.
Khoja Agha was introduced to heroin by friends in his home province of Kapisa, and has now been hooked for three years. He does not know whether he is 28 or 29. Now, he attends a government clinic in Kabul in search of a cure and is treated by having buckets of cold water regularly thrown over him. "Where I live the people are very jealous if anyone gets treatment," he said. "And everyone is armed, they all carry a weapon on their shoulder. They all told me not to come here, to be just the same as them.
"There is no garden where you will not find at least 20 people who are coming together and using heroin. They are all young, very young." Observers say the return of Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan is a significant factor in the increasing number of drug users. Many Afghans first picked up their habits abroad, working as poorly paid labourers and living in refugee camps. They include Dost Mohammed. After his leg was blown off by a mine, he went to Iran to look for work. While there, he was told opium would help numb the pain caused by his injury.
He then switched to heroin when he returned home. "After coming back here, if one person is addicted they will make five other people in their village addicted," he said. Tariq Suliman, director of the Nejat Centre, an NGO set up to rehabilitate addicts, said he believed the number of users may have doubled since the 2005 UN survey. "Slowly maybe, discussions can stop the fighting in our country," he said. "But it's more difficult to stop the drug problem."