Afghans hand down addiction to heroin
KABUL, Afghanistan — Sabera came to the new treatment center for female drug addicts with a plan. In five days, she would check in along with her daughter, and this time she would leave heroin forever.
And then Sabera went home. Within minutes she started smoking the brown powder on a small canoe-shaped piece of foil. So did her two children. Her son, Zaher, is 14. Her daughter, Gulpari, is 12. The family slumped on cushions against a wall. Zaher barely held his eyes open, rubbed his stomach and muttered, "God, God." Gulpari cuddled against her mother. Their fingers were black with tar.
"I feel very sad about it," said Sabera, who has no last name, like many Afghans, and guesses she is about 45. "It's my fault they're addicted. It's my fault they can't quit."
In this land where more opium and heroin are produced than the entire world consumes, Afghans are increasingly hooked on their own product. And now, Afghan doctors say, more and more women are using the drug, desperate to escape depression or pain. The women suck on pea-sized pieces of opium beneath their tongues, chew it or drink it with tea. Like Sabera, some have started to smoke heroin, which is more refined than opium and considered much more addictive.
Often, mothers take their children with them. They give the skin of the addictive poppy fruit to hungry babies to make them feel full, the mothers say. They blow smoke in the mouths of crying toddlers to quiet them — a practice that public-service warnings try to discourage. Or, as Sabera says she did two years ago, they say yes to children who wonder what their mother is doing and want to try it.
In July, responding to the capital's growing problem, a new drug treatment center opened for women in Kabul. It is the city's eighth treatment center to open since the fall of the Taliban, which largely banned poppies, and is the first inpatient clinic that treats only women.
"There are families where the whole family is using heroin," said Dr. Shaista, the coordinator of the government-run Sanga Amaj Drug Treatment Center, which keeps patients for a month and then gives follow-up treatment.
"Nobody stops it. Nobody bans it. The police are there, but they do nothing. In every corner of the city, people are selling heroin," Shaista said.
For generations Afghans have grown poppies in the country's arid climate, but they traditionally didn't use heroin. Instead, raw opium was exported and refined into heroin for sale in the West.
Since the Taliban was toppled in 2001, poppies have threatened to carpet much of Afghanistan's agricultural land, especially in the south. And increasingly, heroin is being processed inside the country, according to the United Nations and local authorities.
The annual poppy survey by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, released last month, showed yet another record-breaking year for poppies in Afghanistan, which now is nearly the world's exclusive supplier of heroin. No other country has produced narcotics on such a scale since China in the 19th century.
Opium production in Afghanistan exceeds the world's demand by more than 3,000 tons, the report said, adding that this year's harvest may kill, directly and indirectly, more than 100,000 people worldwide.
As the amount of poppies has skyrocketed, more Afghans have started using the drug.
Almost 1 million Afghans use drugs, from illicit prescription drugs to heroin, according to a recent study by the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, or 1 in 32 Afghans.
About 7 percent are children, and 13 percent are women, ministry spokesman Zalmai Afzali said. Last year there were 13 treatment centers in the country. Now there are 27.
"And still these are not enough," Afzali said.
The situation has gotten so bad that the head cleric at the Shrine of Ali in Kabul has started lecturing against drug use at Friday prayers and allowing treatment centers to advertise over mosque loudspeakers.
"The problem is increasing every day," said Sayed Yasin Alawi, the cleric. "If you sit on a bus, if you go to the mosque, people are talking about it. It's just getting worse and worse."
The reasons are varied. Drugs are everywhere here, and they're cheap. Sabera or her son has to walk only 20 minutes and spend only $2 to get the family high.
Many returning refugees from Iran and Pakistan also have come home as addicts, doctors say. In remote areas opium may be the only medicine available. In cities a doctor's visit costs more money than opium or heroin.
"My husband always told me not to take it," said Zahra, 45, a handkerchief vendor at the Shrine of Ali who started treatment for opium addiction Aug. 18. "I told him, 'You don't make enough money for me to go to a doctor. What am I supposed to do? This is the only thing that makes my pain go away.' "
Sabera said she started using opium after her husband, a cleric, died of a heart attack four years ago. She was depressed, poor, in pain. She moved on to heroin.
Her daughter, Gulpari, started smoking when she was 9 or 10. "She just came and sat beside me and said, 'What are you doing?' " Sabera recalled. "I said, 'It's not a good thing.' She said, 'If it's not good, why are you doing it?' Finally I gave her some, and day by day, she got addicted."
Then her son, Zaher, started. The family now lives for free in a tiny storage room at the home of a family friend who took pity on them. Sabera begs, sometimes with her daughter's help. Zaher is too weak.
The two children are skinny, wasted, high. They said they want to quit, but one attempt a year ago failed.
"I hate this habit I have," Gulpari said. "I hate this life."
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company