6 Feb 2012

Fighting drug addiction in the midst of war

Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson reports from the streets of Kabul on Afghanistan’s spiralling drug addiction – and the difficulty of tackling it in the middle of a war.

Warning: the film report above contains some very distressing images

Every city in every country has an issue with abusing one substance or another. But in most it is behind doors. In Afghanistan right now the problem is so vast, and spiralling further out of control every day, that the addicts are obvious to everyone.

Down by the Kabul River, even in a winter blizzard, you will see them there. Huddled in groups sometimes up to a hundred strong, crouching along the frozen riverbanks. Or under the arches of the bridges spanning this evil-smelling open-sewer, masquerading as a river.

Under one arch of a bridge Mohammad explains how he was deported from Iran back to Afghanistan and found himself in Kabul, without a job. Soon he was on the streets and smoking opium, then heroin, and here he is now, pupils dilated, filthy and half-frozen, crouching with perhaps twenty more addicts, desperate to get a hit from their makeshift pipes.

“Look at us, “he says, “this is no way to live, this is not an existence.”

Another addict staggers across and says:

“Everyone beats us – the police, the kids here, women, men from the neighbourhood – we get attacked all the time.”

They make another addict crouched close by and inhaling deeply on his pipe sit up so we can see his face. His right eye is closed, swollen from a beating. His right ear swollen and bloody. They say it was the police – but it could have been any of the above named groups.

Read more: Hope on the streets of Kabul
Kabul has a serious drug problem.

The statistics are terrifying. There could be two million addicts in the country as a whole. In the past five years of Nato occupation and supposed anti-poppy policies, the number has increased three-fold.

According to the last UN survey in 2010, a staggering eight per cent of the total population is addicted to drugs of one kind or another – but mostly opium and heroin. The west may be concerned from time to time about Afghan poppy cultivation – but it is the Afghans themselves who are by far the worst victims of it.

At a small unit where they have a few precious beds for addicts in west Kabul, the doctor in charge sets out the perfect storm for a national drugs epidemic of addiction.

Afghanistan, already the world’s poorest country, has of course been plagued by war and displaced people for the past decade of western occupation. That has also been coupled with large numbers of refugees also coming back into the country from Pakistan and Iran – many of them addicted.

Such is the extreme poverty – in rural and urban areas, that opium is often the only drug available to deaden the pain for a whole gamut of conditions – not least pregnancy complications. As a result the number of babies born addicted is also spiralling out of control.

Dr Hamid Azimi looks around at the few beds his clinic has and says to us: “They spend perhaps a month here cleaning up and then they are out again. For most that means out onto the streets with no hope of a job or training. That means most will simply become re-addicted.”

Picture gallery: Channel 4 News in Afghanistan
A drug addict on the streets of Kabul.

Acting on complaints from neighbours, the Afghan National Police (themselves plagued by addicted officers) can do little more than escort these bedraggled, frozen, lost people, from place to place around the city. From one part of the riverbank to another derelict building, back to another bridge under which they will sit and smoke into oblivion.

Every day some die of the intense winter cold here. In summer the filthy river will infect them with disease. They will be attacked and beaten by any number of groups in and out of the forces of “law and order” who do not want them around.

Wadan Drug Rehabilitation Clinic is Kabul has around 100 beds and is the largest of its kind in the city. Kabul plainly needs twenty, fifty times that number of beds and that still would not touch all the thousands of addicts struggling here.

Afghanistan is no different from anywhere else in that getting off heroin or opium addiction is the easy part. Giving someone a reason to stay off is far more difficult in this tough land, now lacerated by the long years of war, dislocation and demolition.

Put that alongside the cheapest heroin prices on planet earth at one or two dollars a gram and you have a vast problem nobody can begin to get to grips with – least of all in the current conditions of war and insurgency.

And under the bridges and the riverbank of Kabul tonight, a few more addicts will quietly freeze to death.

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