The Inside Story: Afghanistan’s Addiction Crisis
Episode 10 – October 21, 2021
Voice of: KATHERINE GYPSON, VOA Congressional Correspondent:
Afghanistan’s poppy fields provides most of the world’s opium …
Creating a crisis of addiction in the country.
Mark Colhoun, Former UNODC Representative in Afghanistan:
So, these are all increasing the threat to the population exponentially.
The old … the young.
The men … and the women …
Drugs’ grip on Afghanistan’s society and economy —
On The Inside Story: Afghanistan’s Addiction Crisis.
The Inside Story:
Hi. I’m Katherine Gypson, VOA’s Congressional Correspondent.
While members of Congress and others debate the tactics of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the strategies of 20 years of war, there is one issue that has constantly plagued that country: Drugs. Narcotics. Specifically, opium.
According to the U.N., Afghanistan produces 80 percent of the world’s opium.
While the rest of the world tries to deal with the trafficking of the drug, millions of people are addicted inside Afghanistan.
Before the U.S. withdrawal, VOA’s Afghan Service traveled through the country to document the extent of Afghanistan’s Addiction Crisis.
Our grim trip begins in the capital, Kabul.
Voice of narrator (Annie Ball):
In Afghanistan, this is where, and how, it sometimes ends. A drug addict’s life.
Health workers came to round-up the addicts and take them to addiction treatment centers. But today they encounter the lifeless bodies of three addicts.
Here, at Kabul’s “Pul-e-Sokhta” bridge, the health workers face the grim, and heavy chore of removing the bodies, hauling them up to the street and away for burial. If no family can be located, they will be laid in an unmarked grave, with no one to mourn their loss. It is the mark of shame to be buried alone in Afghanistan.
For the workers and government officials, it reminds them they cannot help everyone.
Dr. Aref Wafa was working with addicts.
Dr. Aref Wafa, Department of Drug Demand Reduction:
Especially when we come here in the winter, our goal is to save their lives. They may increase the dose due to cold or chills. When they overdose, they do not feel it, therefore, this causes their death.
Doctors say, these addicts are consuming heroin, morphine, opium and increasingly, crystal meth. The cause of death is usually a drug overdose. They are taken to a Kabul cemetery for burial. How many bodies are buried there? No one knows. Officials don’t track the numbers.
Gholam Yahya’s brother lost his life to addiction under the bridge. Yahya, an addict like his brother, still lives under this bridge. Now, he describes the sadness—and shame—and how addicts’ deaths are treated by religious leaders.
Gholam Yahya, Drug Addict:
They said those who use drugs, commit suicide. Since they commit suicide, their funeral prayers are forbidden. They cannot be washed. His mother did not bring her child to this world to end up under Pull-e-Sokhta bridge. He did not wish this for himself., but I could not bury him in any cemetery.
In Kabul’s ‘Pul-e-Sokhta area, this is not just the story of Gholam Yahya’s life.
Throughout Afghanistan, it is known as a drug addiction center. The bridge in western Kabul has become a major hub for drug users for the past two decades. An iconic symbol of drug abuse in a nation rife with addiction.
The addicts don’t come just from Kabul, but many from the provinces, too. Hundreds of them share this grimy space, spending their days and nights getting high amidst the waste and debris. Most of them have been evicted by their families and have no shelter.
They live in squalor, surrounded by filth, black walls, and dirty water.
Over the years there have been several unsuccessful attempts to close the area. But it remains a popular gathering place for addicts.
Nazo is one of many looking for loved ones. Her husband and brother are addicted to drugs. Nazo’s husband uses opium and is remarried. He left her with the responsibility of taking care of their six boys. In Afghanistan, single mothers with no men in the house face a particularly difficult life, especially when the single mother is the only breadwinner. This is why Nazo hopes to find her brother, who is a heroin addict.
Nazo, Sister of a Drug Addict:
It has been five months since I went to Kart-e-now, Arzan Qemat, Jada, and Cinema-e-Pamir to Shama-li so that anyone could tell me his whereabouts. I don’t know the area. I went to ask. I got home about ten o’clock at night. I am a woman. I cannot bear this grief, if God forbid. someone touches me or someone talks dirty behind my back.
In addition to her six children, Nazo also has been taking care of her mother and her brother’s wife. She washes dishes and cleans people’s laundry, making about $2.60 a day.
Nazo, Sister of a Drug Addict:
I suffered for him so much. The other day, I told my mother. ‘Mother!’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said ‘it’s a pain, we can get over it. I will find a poison tablet and we will end everything together.
Stories like Nazo’s are becoming more commonplace because of the drug trade’s grip on Afghanistan’s economy.
2017 was the peak, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Nearly 10-thousand tons of opium brought in one-point-four billion dollars — seven percent of Afghanistan’s GDP.
And now the opium produced from the poppy plant has a rival that also grows wild in Afghanistan.
As a country, Afghanistan deals with insecurity, endless wars, corruption, poverty, a weak economy, high unemployment, and other challenges. But it also faces the problem of home-grown addiction and drug use. Some describe drug addiction in this country as a hidden tsunami; a large wave ready to crush what is in its wake.
Despite billions of dollars in international aid, government projects and efforts, Afghanistan remains the world’s top cultivator of poppy—the plant used to make opium and heroin.
The country is the world’s largest narcotics producer. A joint survey by the Afghan government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, shows they are losing the war to eradicate the crop.
It says in 2020, poppy cultivation was up 37% in Afghanistan.
The report found that last year poppy was cultivated on nearly a quarter of a million hectares of land in 22 of the 34 provinces.
Most of the opium is smuggled abroad, but what remains is a problem at home.
Mark Colhoun, Former UNODC Representative in Afghanistan:
We are seeing high level of opioid use in the country. We are seeing high level of cannabis use in the country and an emerging threat that we have been noticing for the last number of years is definitely methamphetamine and other amphetamine type stimulants in the country. So, these are all increasing the threats to the population exponentially, so we have drug production and then rising drug use in the country which is a severe threat to the people of the country.
Drug production and addiction go hand-in-hand, and both are on the rise.
User statistics are hard to come by. The most recent numbers are from a 2015 survey. It was conducted by INL, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the Afghan government. It found that 2.5 to 3.5 million Afghans are directly or indirectly addicted to drugs. At that time, one in three families tested positive for drugs. And the rural areas were three times worse than in the cities.
Dr. Ahmad Jawad Osmani, Former Afghanistan Minister of Public Health:
Unfortunately, drug addiction is not diminishing. It is increasing. And that’s why, we think that the number that was estimated in the past has increased even more.
Meanwhile, a recent report shows crystal methamphetamine – also called crystal or meth — is a growing problem in Afghanistan. Last November, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) reported that the country is becoming a significant global producer of meth.
One reason is drug traffickers discovered that the ephedra plant, which commonly grows wild in parts of Afghanistan, can be used to make meth. The report focused on the production of meth in Bakwa district. It called the preliminary findings “worrying,” adding there is potential for meth to rival the country’s production of opiates.
Concern over the rapid increase in meth production is its relative low cost to make.
And for many of Afghanistan’s addicts, low cost is what they are looking for.
And it is not limited to the cities.
VOA’s Afghan Service went about 180 kilometers west of Kabul — to Bamyan province — for a ground-level view of addiction’s reach into rural villages.
Bamyan is known for its beautiful landscapes. It is where, nearly 20 years ago (March 2001) the Taliban destroyed two ancient statues of Buddha, which had been the largest in the world.
Here, people in the cities and villages suffer from drug addiction.
Local officials say there are about 50,000 addicts, and people affected by addiction.
Head west, into more rural areas, and you find drugs even more prevalent than in central Bamyan province.
The Waras district is where most of the villagers use drugs.
The long drive to get there winds through scenic landscapes and rutted roads.
Waras district is surrounded by green hills and valleys.
People in this remote area live in poverty. They lack the benefits of modern society, like good schools, clinics or hospitals, and technology.
The sun shines brightly this morning in Bazobala village. Here, everyone, young and old, including the men, women and children are drug addicts.
Eighty families live in Bazobala.
Most people here use drugs together, in groups, and out in the open. The lives of the villagers revolve around smoking drugs. When they have it, they use it.
When asked why, they mention many reasons. Like this 18-year-old man:
Drug Addict, Bazobala Shuqol village:
The reason I became addicted to drugs was unemployment and poverty. I went to Iran, far away from home. I was unemployed and the situation was bad, so I got addicted to drugs. So, when I return here, I thought that the situation will be better. The situation is bad here as well.
Ali Yawar, Bazobala Shuqol village:
I have been using drugs for almost fifteen years. First, I used heroin, now I’m using in crystal.
It affects the children too. Parents not only use themselves, but also give drugs to their children. In addition to heroin, opium and crystal meth, the addicts of Bazobala are also familiar with other drug options, like tramadol tablets. It is a cheap alternative to heroin and opium.
Drug Addict, Bazobala Shugol village:
Those whose consumption is high, like myself, my spending is also high. I use may be one or one and half packet. A packet is 25 (32 cents) to 50 Afghanis. You can’t even purchase this tramadol 500 for 100 Afghanis.
In Pezhandur village, women are also drug addicts.
In many families in the area, they use drugs with their husbands and children
This is Fatima. She has been addicted to drugs for 30 years. Fatima, her husband and her sons use drugs together.
Fatima, Pashandur Village:
I have asthma. I’m sick as well. I’m 65 years old. I go to work in the desert and mountains until late. I’m weak and my husband is also sick.
Villagers here work in farming and raising animals. Young people go to the mountains to collect grass for the animals, and the children are shepherds.
The idyllic life of these villages is disrupted by narcotics, brought in from neighboring provinces. Residents say they have repeatedly informed security agencies about the smugglers, but no action is taken.
The villagers want the government’s attention. They want help, and they want an addiction treatment center.
There is only one 20-bed clinic in Waras, which clearly lacks the ability to treat all the addicts in an area of tens of thousands of people. Local officials want more.
Qasim Ali, Chairman, People’s Council of the Peshandur & Bazobala Area:
Everyone is addicted to drugs. These people are all unfortunate. The reason is unemployment and poverty. The government does not care about these people. I request from the government, the international community, and human rights to build a hospital in the Shiwqol area. The hospital should be 100 beds or so so these people can be treated.
Addiction treatment is undergoing a change now that the Taliban are running Afghanistan.
Police have been recently rounding up addicts in Kabul, giving them a choice to either sober up or face beatings.
They are stripped, bathed and shaved before going into a 45-day treatment program.
But as one Taliban officer put it: “It’s not important if some of them will die. Others will be cured. After they are cured, they can be free.”
The addicts rounded up in these raids have been men. But women fall victim to drug addiction, too. Before the Taliban took over, our VOA Afghan Service team went to Balk province in northern Afghanistan and discovered the disturbing way women addicts can be preyed upon.
The yellow morning sun shines on Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh’s capital.
This is one of the most populous provinces in northern Afghanistan, and Mazar-e-Sharif is the fourth largest city in the country.
The Blue Mosque, dating back to the 15th century, has made this city famous.
Mazar-e-Sharif hosts internally displaced people, IDPs, from nearby provinces. Security in the city brings people to come live here.
The city suffers from a large presence of drug addicts. Local officials say more than 300,000 people in Balkh province, including women and children, use drugs.
Easy access to drugs has led to more addicts. In the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, some women addicts are homeless, and some seek shelter in the cemetery at night.
This area is called Dasht-e-Shoor. These are the tents of internally displaced families.
This woman lives in the camp. She is an addict with a difficult story.
Zohra, Homeless Drug Addict:
I was 13 years old, and my father was not there when my brother and mother married me. Now I am 31 years old, and I am lost. My mother-in-law was beating me. My father-in-law was beating me. I was smoking opium. I used to drink opium and that’s why they were beating me and telling me not to eat it. My husband left me and said “I don’t want a wife like you. You are free.” I have my two children with me. My husband hates me and doesn’t allow me to go home. I live in a tent. I have relatives, but they don’t care about me.
But Zohra says she is not addicted to drugs by her own free will. She says her family got her hooked. They used drugs in groups, she explains, to lessen the intense pain caused by their work as carpet weavers.
Zohra uses marijuana and opium. She has tried to quit several times but concerns about being homeless led her to relapse.
She walks the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif at night, begging and collecting usable garbage. This is NOT normal practice for women—because generally, it is not safe here for a woman to be out alone at night.
VOA went with her one night to see how she fares alone.
Zohra told us about how she pays for her habit. And in this harrowing story, she shared about someone giving her a ride, and the offer he made her:
Zohra/Homeless Drug Addict:
I weave carpets to earn money. I use opium, that’s not cheap. I was on my way to collect waste when a car stopped, and the driver told me to get in the car. And he told me I will take you home and help you. Then I got in the car. The driver showed me the suicide jacket and asked me, ‘Do you want to do this? I will give you money.’ I said ‘No, I will not do it.’ And I jumped out of the car.
The United States spent more than eight-and-a-half billion dollars between 2002 and 2017 battling Afghanistan’s drug trade — That, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
In May, the Special Inspector General said the Taliban gets an estimated 60 percent of its income from illegal drugs — About 400-million dollars between 2018 and 2019 according to the U.N.
And in Afghanistan’s easternmost province, VOA’s Afghan service found out that addiction knows no age — old or young.
Here in Badakhshan province, there are an estimated 25 to 30,000 addicts. Like elsewhere, addiction tends to run in families.
Jan Begum’s family is one of them. They live in the city of Faizabad. Her two sons and husband are addicted. They use crystal meth and heroin.
Jan Begum, Drug Addict:
We don’t have anything. They are both unemployed, this one is an addict, that one is an addict, too. My older son is not here. It has been three years since he is missing. I don’t know if he is alive or dead. There are four of us, and all four of us are addicts. Yes, we sold everything. We sold bedsheets and everything that we had. And with the money, we bought drugs and used it.
Jan Begum’s family used to live in a house in Faizabad. When the homeowner found out the family was using drugs, he kicked them out.
Now, they beg, take in laundry, and spend most of their income on drugs. Some of them have been treated several times for their addiction, but relapsed.
Samiullah is 18 years old. He uses drugs together with his mother, father, and brother.
Samiullah, Drug Addict:
I have been taking drugs from a young age. I take it with my parents. I go out to find then I take it. I wish the government would come and treat us and I would work as a server in a hotel.
Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer.
Here in Nangahar province, children and teenagers work in the poppy fields collecting the gum with the elders in their family. They’re helping with opium production.
Mustafa is one of the teenagers working the poppy fields. Now,16 years old, Mustafa says he has been moving towards addiction for a long time, just because he works with poppies and opium.
Mustafa, 16-Year Old Poppy Field Worker:
Well, it’s narcotics, it gets you high. When we collect, we sniff, and it made us dizzy. Made us high, then we would sit down or go home with an excuse to relax and then go out. It had a bad effect. I had a headache when I went to school. I got permission to leave. It had a very bad effect because our heads were spinning, we were high. Drugs must cause this condition to our body.
This is some of Mustafa’s poppy harvest for the year. A few kilograms of opium have been harvested from the fields. He says that after collecting, he sold the opium and kept two more kilograms to sell later.
When the poppy season is over, he works in fields tending other crops like onions.
Mustafa says he has seen many people, including women, become addicted to drugs after working in poppy fields. He does not want to become an addict himself.
Mustafa, Poppy Field Worker:
If no narcotics were planted here, maybe no one would be addicted to drugs. Poppy made many people addicted to heroin. We want the government to stop the poppy cultivation. They should cultivate for us good, good fruit trees.
Less poppy production would mean less drug addiction, and fewer drug addicts ending up here, in this cemetery, in an unmarked grave. A sad and shameful death, in a nation where nothing is more important than family, honor and tradition.
These are just a few of the stories of addiction in Afghanistan – you can watch the entire documentary at VOANews.com. That’s all we have for now.
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And you can follow me on Twitter at Kgyp. That’s @ K G Y P.
See you next week for The Inside Story.