Former addicts try to help drug users in Afghanistan
KABUL // Raheem Rejaey was a drug addict for 17 years. He lived under bridges in Kabul or in the ruins of buildings. He stank. In his misery, he once overdosed on purpose and lay unconscious and undiscovered in a street for two days. It was only one of several attempts to kill himself.
So he knows the suffering of the other addicts he finds in the streets of the Afghan capital. Clean for six years, Mr Rejaey, 54, is a volunteer the Bridge Hope Health Organisation, a group made of up of former addicts like himself who help to get care and counselling to drug users.
It is an overwhelming challenge. Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of drug use in the world. Roughly three million – about one in 10 of the population – is an addict. It is also the world’s main source of opium and heroin. There are treatment centres, and police working with health officials often round up and bring in addicts from the streets, but the government simply cannot keep up with demand. Billions of dollars have been spent on counter-narcotics campaigns in the past decade, including encouraging poppy farmers to switch to other cash crops. But still, officials say the number of drug users is growing.
Most addicts are Afghans who work in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, where narcotics are even more of a problem. The 10 volunteers at Bridge Hope scour the districts of Kabul where addicts are known to congregate. They help 15 to 30 addicts a day, providing counselling or referrals to drop-in centres where they can get screened for HIV. Often, they come across old friends.
“My health was really bad when I was an addict, I was hoping to die,” said Mr Rejaey. “When I became healthy and gave up addiction, I decided to devote my life to serving these people, because I knew there is no one who will care for them.”
Afghanistan has more than 1 million women and 100,000 child addicts – “a big disaster,” said Abdul Manan Azadmanish, director of drug demand reduction for the public health ministry.
At least 40,000 are believed to inject drugs, making them vulnerable to HIV and other infections. The United Nations estimates that about 7,000 people in Afghanistan are HIV-positive, most of them intravenous users.
Non-governmental organisations are as overwhelmed as the government. Bridge Hope has a very small budget. Its volunteers take public buses in their neighbourhood tours to cut costs, Mr Rejaey said.
Reza Gul Jan, another volunteer, became an addict while living in Iran. He stopped taking drugs six years ago and says his heart breaks when he sees an addict now. “But a sense of humanity drives me to come here to help them,” he said.
The Taliban, which have been waging war against the Afghan government since 2001, are heavily involved in poppy growing. The militants’ growing control over the poppy fields in the south meant government eradication efforts almost completely stopped, while poppy cultivation grew by 10 per cent.
As a result, Afghanistan’s potential opium production increased by 43 per cent to 4,800 tonnes in 2016, according to Salamat Azimi, Afghanistan’s anti-narcotics minister.
Atiqullah, a 28-year-old in Kabul, was once a well digger with a decent salary. But after 11 years of addiction, his life and health have fallen apart. He now lives under a bridge in western Kabul, unable to walk.
“If I find money to buy food, I won’t be able to buy drugs. If I have money for my drugs, I won’t be able to have food,” he said, weeping. “I am tired of this life and even God is not ending my life so I can at least rest in peace.”
* Associated Press
Updated: March 3, 2017 04:00 AM