KABUL -- He nudged the needle into his groin and marveled at how his own blood swirled into the syringe. Then, with the precision of a skilled and hungry junkie, he injected himself over and over in an arc between his bony hips until the syringe delivered the last drop of heroin and a peaceful stupor set in. Ikram closed his eyes and wavered, and with his right hand touched his left arm, repeatedly, as if to check that it was still there.
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A metre away from where Ikram eventually slumped against a decaying wall, three men squatted in a cloud of opium-laced smoke. They heated white powder or paste on strips of foil and inhaled it using cigarettes or plastic tubes.
They are silent and methodical. They do not come here, to the ruins of the former Russian Cultural Centre in central Kabul, to socialize or talk. The complex is the pock-marked legacy of the Soviet occupation and more recently a haven for the city's most dedicated drug users. They smoke up and shoot up surrounded by trash and a hush that is less quiet than oblivious.
Afghanistan is the indisputable leader in feeding the world's appetite for heroin and opium. About 90 per cent of what is out there is produced here. It is harvested from fields of poppies that blanket much of the country's troubled south, then processed and transported along smuggling routes that lead to traffickers in Europe, Asia, and North America.
"Supply is a problem but so is foreign demand," according to Dr. Mohammad Zafar, the country's Deputy Minister of Counter-Narcotics. Still, he concedes that "we Afghans are more in trouble."
An Afghan man named Ikram injects himself over and over again in the groin, till the last drop of heroin has left the syringe.
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The lesser-publicized side of Afghanistan's notoriety is the country's own growing epidemic of drug addiction. According to the most recent survey, there are an estimated one million addicts who turn to drugs to soothe the misery of war, unemployment, and poverty.
A hit of opium costs about 20 cents. Heroin is less than a dollar. Getting drugs is a "piece of cake," according to one user. That cheap and wide availability is fuelling a growing number of addicts, and more of them are women and children. Across Afghanistan, entire families are hooked.
Karima leaned to one side and rubbed her temples with half-painted pink fingernails. The smile that was wide and infectious for her visitors had now surrendered to the internal darkness that ruled her addiction.
The day had started like most in her life: With an opium tea that she drinks to "feel happy." On bad days, she needs it three or four times.
Karima is 13.
She is bright, and confident, but left school during fourth grade. From the two narrow rooms they call home in an otherwise abandoned building, she cannot see a future that is either clean or normal -- a hard assessment for a girl who is barely a teenager.
"There is no one but me to support the family and we have nothing to live easily," she said. "I feel sad most of the time and the tea makes me feel better."
Her mother, Najiba, raised five children on a steady diet of narcotics to ease their hunger pains and winter chills and her own grief from losing a son. The whole family has been through drug treatment -- twice -- and Najiba claims to be healthy.
Karima is still addicted. She buys the drugs herself with money from her father and boils the opium tea the way her mother long did for her.
Thirteen-year-old Karima is an addict and will sometimes have opium tea three or four times a day. Her mother raised five children on a steady diet of narcotics to ease hunger pains, winter chills, and the grief of losing a family member.
Her wild-eyed youngest sister, Raisa, is three years old and clicks
her tongue while fidgeting with a red patent purse. Raisa had opium in her veins before she was born. Najiba cut her off months ago, but Raisa remembers the "dizzy" tea and craves it. I asked her why.
"Because I miss it," she said in the tiniest voice. "I like it."
Rehabilitating Afghanistan's addicts is a complex enterprise in a place where hardcore drugs are often cheaper than food. There are only 45 drug treatment centres across the country and too few beds to seriously address the burgeoning population of addicts.
At the Nejat clinic in Kabul, men lay on the floor in varying stages of withdrawal under posters of flowers and waterfalls. They resemble inmates, with shaved heads and uniforms. They spend a month between detox, treatment, and counselling.
It has been four days and Ahmad still has the shakes. Tall and gaunt, he got his first taste of hashish when he was a teenager and quickly graduated to opium and heroin. He said he abused himself for too many years, and hopes the government does more to stop the easy availability of the "poison."
"If it continues it will kill a generation," he said.
There is also now a drug treatment centre for women, who tend to smoke opium or drink it but rarely use heroin. They also almost always use drugs in the private confines of home, unlike men who show less shame by getting their fix openly. Drug counsellors say women in Afghanistan's villages use opium to control the arthritic pain they suffer from weaving carpets, and then share with their children to keep them calm while they work.
Efforts to eradicate Afghanistan's drug fields have been slow and expensive. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, opium production is down in Afghanistan -- about 10 per cent or 6,900 tons -- but farmers are extracting more opium per bulb.
It means Afghanistan still produces nearly twice as much opium as what the world demands. Yet prices have not bottomed out, suggesting drugs simply are not reaching the market.
In a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, the UNODC Executive Director, Antoniao Maria Costa, suggested, "Someone is hoarding 10,000 tons of opium -- enough to satisfy two years of world heroin addiction, or three years of morphine prescription. Where and why? We don't know. But it's strange and potentially dangerous."
Afghanistan's counter-narcotics programs are still woefully underfunded when compared with the multi-billion dollar drug industry here. Officials believe eradication alone cannot work to wean farmers from the drug profits that also finance insurgents. The Taliban apparently take about a 10 per cent cut.
Recent NATO raids have also reportedly recovered enough drug-related equipment, cash, and weapons to suggest more intimate involvement of insurgents in the actual trafficking of narcotics.
"Where there is drug production, especially in the south, there is more violence. The link between security and drug production is direct," said Dr. Zafar, the Deputy Minister.
Nobody in the smoky haze at the Russian Cultural Centre likely cares about those trends, or politics, or even the stench of garbage and urine. At this moment, what matters is that Mohammad has produced a small cloth sack from his vest pocket. He removes a frayed string and lets the cloth unfold in his palm to reveal a tiny packet of powdered treasure.
The men around him are mesmerized. The heroin shooter is still against the wall, still touching his left arm. Police do not bother to arrest the junkies here but occasionally round them up for treatment or just a shower. Yet in time, they are back. They almost always come back.
Janis Mackey Frayer
September 20, 2009