Nationwide, there are close to 1 million addicts spread all over Afghanistan,including the capital city of Kabul, where throngs of addicts live under bridges and overpasses.One of the elephants in the room in the war in Afghanistan is the opium pachyderm. CNN recently ran a moving story about drug addiction as a way of life passed down from generation to generation in remote Balkh province.
The story featured Aziza, who describes the many uses of opium that serves as a panacea for tranquilizing her children as a substitute for food in hungry bellies, and as a cough medicine or an analgesic for the elderly. The government provides no substitute medical treatment and rehabilitation centers are far away. Even if one can get to them they accommodate only a tiny fraction of the addicted.
Infants Fed Pure Opium: In a far flung corner of northern Afghanistan, Aziza reaches into the dark wooden cupboard, rummages around, and pulls out a small lump of something wrapped in plastic. She unwraps it, breaking off a small chunk as if it were chocolate, and feeds it to four-year-old son, Omaidullah. It’s his breakfast — a lump of pure opium. “If I don’t give him opium he doesn’t sleep,” she says. “And he doesn’t let me work.”
Aziza comes from a poor family of carpet weavers in Balkh province. She has no education, no idea of the health risks involved or that opium is addictive. “We give the children opium whenever they get sick as well,” she says, crouching over her loom. With no real medical care in these parts and the high cost of medicine, all the families out here know is opium. It’s a cycle of addiction passed on through generations. The adults take opium to work longer hours and ease their pain.
Aziza’s elderly mother-in-law, Rozigul, rolls a small ball in her fingers and pops it into her mouth with a small smile before passing a piece over to her sister. “I had to work and raise the children, so I started using drugs,” she says. “We are very poor people, so I used opium. We don’t have anything to eat. That is why we have to work and use drugs to keep our kids quiet.” The entire extended family is addicted.
Carpet weaver Rozigul, 30, is in the detox program with her three-year-old son Babagildi, his pudgy face covered in blemishes. She started using six years ago. “When I was pregnant with this baby I was using drugs. So he was born addicted and was always crying. I would try to keep him quiet and make him sleep, so I just kept feeding him opium,” she stated. Her addicted mother-in-law shares the bed next to her, curled up in a ball and mumbling to herself. Three generations from one family, all struggling with a curse that afflicts well over one million Afghans.
The health dangers from opium: “Opium is nothing new to our villages or districts. It’s an old tradition, something of a religion in some areas,” stated Dr. Mohamed Daoud Rated, coordinator of the center. “People use opium as drugs or medicine. If a child cries, they give him opium, if they can’t sleep, they use opium, if an infant coughs, they give them opium.”
The center is running an outreach program to the areas that are most afflicted. Most Afghans aren’t aware of the health risks of opium and only a few are beginning to understand the hazards of addiction.
“I was a child when I started using drugs” 35-year-old Nagibe states. She states her sister-in-law first gave her some when she was a young teenage bride, just 14 years old. Her children grew up addicts as well. When her husband died, she remarried. She stated: “My new husband doesn’t use drugs, nor does his family. Because of that I was able to come here and get treatment. Now as an adult I understand and I want to leave this all behind.”
It is very tempting for Afghan farmers to cultivate opium, which commands a price that is 7 times higher than wheat and for which the demand is seemingly insatiable. The high profits from the opium trade also enable the local drug lords to corrupt the local anti-drug agencies.The problem has been exacerbated by the return of exiles from Iran who have brought back heroin, the hard core drug which is the processed version of opium.
A contributing factor to the drug epidemic is the Taliban insurgency. First, it creates a conflict over what to prioritize -the security dimension or the anti-drugs campaign and raises serious dilemmas: Does one crackdown on the poppy growers at the risk of alienating them and pushing them into the arms of the Taliban?
While poppy farming has been under some form of control in the relatively secure northern and eastern provinces, production has shifted precisely to the Southern provinces, the area of responsibility of American and British troops and where the fighting is still heavy. The Taliban protects and rakes in profits from the opium crop to finance the war. It is therefore a military objective to push the Taliban outside of the arable areas to cut down on its sources of income.
At present, it seems that the Mexican drug trade is in no danger of being halted. Nor will anyone change the way Aziza deals with her problems. Afghanistan’s opium problem is not confined to Afghanistan. it is a thriving export, and in fact, 90% of the world’s heroin supply comes from Afghanistan. Given the globalization of the drug trade, the Mexican drug cartels have emissaries in the country. The opium processed into heroin makes its way from Mexico to the United States and Canada.