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Toronto Star, August 29, 2009

Afghanistan’s hidden heroin addicts

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has said eradication "didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar."

Rosie DiManno

An addict
Noor Mohammed, foreground, with friend, Ali, lights up heroin paste in a bit of newspaper in a old bathroom stall in the underground ruins of the Russian Cultural Centre in Kabul, which has an estimated 200,000 heroin addicts. (Photo: ROSIE DIMANNO/TORONTO STAR)

The flame from a match pierces pitch-black darkness, casting an eerie glow on dirty, feral faces.

Sucking sounds. Lungs expand with the inhalation of heroin fumes. A gulp and an aahhh. There's more furtive movement nearby, scratching, the rustle of newspapers crunching underfoot, foul-smelling bodies pressing in.

These are the human moles of Kabul, drug addicts who live in the stark ruins of the Russian Cultural Centre, all rubble and dank subterranean warrens.

Police officers never venture into this underground maze: Too dangerous and forbidding, the garbage shin-high, glass shards and jagged tin cans, mounds of rags except some of them are breathing, wheezing.

Can't see your hand in front of your face, or a menacing presence at your back, one room leading into another, rusted rebar collapsed on ground that's shifted, buckled, like tectonic plates.

The smell of human waste makes eyes water.

Crouched inside a narrow cubicle – indeed, what was once a washroom stall in the basement of this building, a half dozen of them side-by-side now used as sleeping quarters – Noor Mohammed rolls heroin paste into a scrap of newsprint, scrabbles amidst the rubbish for another matchbook, fires up the roach, then passes it to his friend, Ali, lying feebly against the wall.

"I am ashamed," Mohammed says, his voice barely a whisper. "Look at me, what I've come to."

Mohammed, 22, might actually be considered one of the luckier of Kabul's estimated 200,000 heroin addicts. He is not a permanent resident of these ramshackle ruins, where upwards of 3,800 resided until a recent police flush; merely comes here every day to buy what he needs – a hit of opium selling for as little as 10 Afghanis, or 20 cents.

He has a home. He has a wife. And for the past two years he's been keeping his addiction a secret, working as an itinerant labourer to support his habit.

"But my wife is getting suspicious, especially these last few months. She looks in my eyes and she sees that I'm not there any more."

Twice, before his marriage, Mohammed sought treatment in one of the capital's few drug-rehabilitation facilities. Even now, he is registered as an outpatient but routinely comes directly from the hospital to the ruins in a crazy balancing act between his desire to quit and his lust to get high. Mohammed does not use needles but will inject others, as a kindness. "I hate it, I hate this drug,'' he insists. "My body hurts, my stomach, my head. I am always so tired. But when I use it, I feel better, if only for a little while.''

From deep inside the cubicle, Ali moans. He is 17, his hands and face blackened with grime, his tunic just soiled tatters. A year ago, his older brother died from a heroin overdose down here, died in his arms. "I will die soon too, I think.''

The brothers had both worked on construction crews in neighbouring Iran – where, like so many Afghans, they developed their drug habit – but were expelled when unable to produce proper documents. Ali had no home to go back to, his parents internally displaced. "Someone ... took me by the arm, brought me here. That was two years ago. This is my home now."

Ali begs on the streets sometimes but police have cracked down on obvious heroin users. So, instead, he sets out most days with a burlap sack to collect cans and bottles that he sells to scrap dealers.

Heroin gives him fleeting relief. "I forget all the sorrows. I don't think about everything bad that happened in my past. And I don't worry about the future. But then – when it wears off – comes the pain. It's like this hole inside of me that can only be filled with more drugs.

"There is no solution for me."

They don't tell you about this, about Afghanistan's growing domestic drug problem – an estimated 1.5 million addicts, including 120,000 women, according to the Ministry of Narcotics – all those advocates of legalizing the country's robust opium crop – a yield that provides some 93 per cent of the world's heroin. This heroin, which is refined opium, ends up on streets across the globe but also is destroying families here.

ICOS – the International Council on Security and Development – has for years been promoting the legal cultivation of opium. It denies any association with global drug companies looking to cash in on the market for pain-relief morphine.

Yet ICOS is no longer welcomed by the Afghan government. And, despite ICOS claims, the International Narcotics Control Board counters there is no worldwide shortage of heroin for medical purposes. Nineteen countries legally produce it; only India exports it.

They don't tell you about this, about Afghanistan's growing domestic drug problem – an estimated 1.5 million addicts, including 120,000 women, according to the Ministry of Narcotics – all those advocates of legalizing the country's robust opium crop – a yield that provides some 93 per cent of the world's heroin. This heroin, which is refined opium, ends up on streets across the globe but also is destroying families here.
Toronto Star, Aug. 29, 2009

Further, according to an ICOS research paper, it is folly to argue legalizing Afghan poppy cultivation would benefit farmers or deny huge profits to the neo-Taliban. The profit is all at the marketing and refinement end. In order to make legal opium economically viable in Afghanistan, says ICOS, farmers would have to operate at poverty levels. And, given the corruption here, there is no way to keep a legal yield from falling into illegal hands.

Meanwhile, eight years of poppy eradication programs – led by the United States and Great Britain – have not curtailed the industry, though officials say 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are opium-free.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has said eradication "didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar." Washington last month announced it was pulling out of the eradication scheme.

But the economics of opium have no traction here, in the Russian ruins. These men – and the addicted women shuttered inside their houses, routinely given opium during childbirth, even blowing heroin fumes into the mouths of colicky babies – can see no further than their next fix.

A middle-aged man appears at the crumbling entrance to the compound. He is looking for his 15-year-old son, an addict. "I was told he might be here. I need to find him and bring him home. We will get him the help he needs."

But then the man reveals he is a heroin addict also. "I thought, my son, when he saw what the drug has done to me, he would never be tempted to use it. I was wrong. This drug is a curse for all Afghans."

Category: Drugs, Corruption - Views: 17959