One morning, three individuals in white lab coat go down to the Afghan capital . They make their way through rubbish and hundreds of men huddled there, lit by matches.
The doctors were going to a solitary shop near the river, where they knew there was an addict named Marzia who slept alone. They creep in, tell her they came to help her. They shouted, “Go away! Leave me alone!” Suddenly, she opened the door and threw several debris.
Drug addiction in Afghanistan was very limited to men who participated in or were refugees in the Iranian war . It has now become a national problem affecting millions of people, including an increasing number of women and children.
Over the past five years, crop eradication and substitution programs have been ending due to lack of external funding and increased insurgency attacks. As a result, tens of thousands of farmers have returned to the lucrative business of opium poppy cultivation . Last year, 420,000 hectares were destined for poppies; opium production increased by 43% in 2015, to 4,800 tonnes, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Most of the Afghan opium is sold for export and trade in heroin in Europe and Russia, with an estimated value of nearly USD 1,000 million . The boom, however, has led to a sharp fall in drug prices, while unemployment and anxiety in recent years have led to an escape into drug addiction.
In 2010 a group of experts from the University of Los Angeles estimated that in Afghanistan there were about one million people who used drugs on a regular basis. Most of them used opium as a “kind of self-medication against the difficulties of life.” The researchers warned that the addiction was “following the same bulging growth as opium production.” By 2015, the number of addicts had skyrocketed to three million, accounting for 12% of the population, and many of them used heroin.
This problem has reached the police and public health agencies . You can see fainting men on any sidewalk in Kabul. The few treatment centers are constantly full.
However, the most surprising aspect of the drug boom remains hidden. Tens of thousands of Afghan women, confined to their homes by tradition, depend on addicted men and, therefore, also end up succumbing . This has created a growing phenomenon in many households revolving around drugs, where family relationships, economic stability and social traditions hang in the balance.
” It is a silent tsunami and, if left unchecked, in a few years it will be a disaster, ” said Shaista Hakim, a physician and drug rehabilitation specialist working at the National Center for Addiction Treatment for Women and Children in Kabul , recently opened.
During the time of the Taliban, when the drug was banned, “it was hard to find a woman using hashish and, much rarer, opium,” Hakim said. But in the last five years the number of women has tripled. “They are so vulnerable that their addiction involves the whole family, so all members should be treated, ” he says.
According to experts, most of the Afghan addicts are introduced into the world of drugs by their husbands or male relatives. Muslim traditions and daily routines, including the role of women as dedicated wives and mothers , make these women enveloped by the drug frenzy.
Some of them become prostitutes and others in thieves. Children are given opium to keep them quiet and to beg. They are also given to orphanages or sold to buy drugs . On their most desperate side, the youngest girls wander through the infamous Pule Sukhta Addict Colony, southwest of Kabul, where they can share a pipe, buy a bag of heroin for a few cents and hide from the world.
” Addicted women feel safe there, surrounded by men, although it is dangerous and some abuse them, ” says Hakim, who regularly visits that area with some of his co-workers. “If they come with us, we can help them recover, but then they have to go through the embarrassment of being identified as addicts. For a woman in our society, that is much worse,” he says.
The new rehabilitation center, administered by the Ministry of Public Health but funded largely by the United States government, houses and subjects women to a detoxification treatment for 45 days at no cost. The facilities are closed and protected. No woman is allowed to leave and no man can enter except limited visits . Children are welcome if they stay, but are separated from their mothers so they can play and study, although some are also under treatment for addiction.