Lost souls of Kabul's heroin trade

By Benga · Dec 22, 2008 · ·
  1. Benga
    A new entry has been added to File Archive

    Lost souls of Kabul's heroin trade
    Clancy Chassay investigates how women are falling victim to Kabul's burgeoning heroin problem

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  1. FuBai
    Similar stuff in the Financial Times a little while ago:

    [h2]Kabul’s lost tribe[/h2]
    Words and photographs by Guy Smallman
    Published: December 6 2008 00:27 | Last updated: December 6 2008 00:27


    The Afghan man squatting in front of us in the former Soviet cultural centre in Kabul was oblivious to our presence. In his right hand he clung to a scorched piece of tinfoil. He was about 20, and rocked slowly backwards and forwards, not registering the questions being put to him by Khalid, my interpreter. Eventually we gave up, leaving him to his heroin-induced daze amid the rubble and used syringes. Lenin looked down from a decaying mural behind him.
    I had come to the once imposing building in the Afghan capital after a job photographing the work of a charity trying to provide alternatives to opium farming. Local guides had told me that increasing numbers of Afghans were using heroin – unemployment is high, and the drug cheap – and that one of the most potent symbols of that was a ruined landmark dating from the Soviet occupation of the country. The building was all but destroyed during the subsequent civil war by a barrage of Mujahideen shells, missiles and mortars, and is now home to hundreds of drug addicts, who are rarely troubled by officialdom. The ruin is still the property of the Russian embassy in Kabul, though no official body has laid claim to it for years. Khalid had agreed to accompany me there.
    As we made our way further along the front of the building, we looked out for someone who could tell us if it was safe to enter. Near one of the ruined walkways at the main entrance four scrawny men in traditional Afghan dress were embroiled in a bitter row. Three of them were attempting to empty the pockets of the fourth, who was struggling to hold on to his bundles of worn banknotes.
    We interrupted their dispute to try to persuade them to show us around what remained of the building. They warned us that parts of the centre were literally falling down, and the man who finally agreed to accompany us wanted money for guiding us around the more dangerous areas. But the hazards turned out to be more than those posed by a devastated building. Upstairs, the first corridor could be smelled from many yards away. A large blast hole gave access to the first two rooms, where clouds of flies swarmed around vomit, human excrement and soiled underwear. Further along, the aroma was replaced by the distinctive stale odour of heated-up heroin.
    [​IMG]In the countless ‘shooting galleries’, heroin addicts remain unmolested by the authoritiesSo-called “shooting galleries” where intravenous drug addicts congregate to inject themselves and “chase the dragon” exist in many European cities, but not on this scale. About 40 addicts, all smoking or injecting in huddled groups, were gathered in the first room. A further 50 were in the next one. Finally, towards the end of the corridor, in the largest gallery, I made out about 80 men through the haze of smoke. We had only entered one small part of the complex and we had already seen more than 150 addicts getting high on cheap Kabul heroin. There are more than 90 other rooms in the battered cultural centre and the crowded and filthy conditions are perfect for the spread of hepatitis and HIV.Before we could press on any further into the building I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned round to come face to face with two Afghan policemen. They spoke hurriedly and were clearly irritated when Khalid delivered a slow and methodical translation.
    “They are saying that the Ministry of the Interior forbids journalists to come here, that speaking to the addicts or taking photos is illegal. They want you to come with them,” Khalid told me. He paused, then continued: “What they are saying is bullshit, there’s no such law, they can’t stop us.”
    Firmly and politely, Khalid tried to argue our case with the officers. All the while, addicts using the corridor brushed past the policemen as though they were little more than fellow users. There was clearly no expectation of any intervention by the authorities. After a few minutes of nervous debate, the officers became increasingly impatient. Khalid pointed out that, had they not intervened, we would have got our pictures and interview and been gone by now. Leaving us, the taller of the two threw some parting comments over his shoulder.
    Khalid translated for me: “He said that we’re here at our own risk. He warned us not to go into the basement – he says there are men down there with worms in their sores.” Before I even had time to take this in, the light caught a boy as he shuffled past. He was about 13. His pupils were pinheads beneath drooping eyelids. His spotty and expressionless face was blank as he hitched up the bloodstained seat of his filthy trousers and disappeared into the gloom beyond. We never got to decide whether we would follow.
    In an instant, half-a-dozen youths surrounded us. We calmly tried to retreat but all ways out were blocked. There was no sign of heroin use on these alert, angry young faces. They were probably the runners and lookouts for the dealers supplying this place, and we were on their turf.
    Khalid told me that they wanted to examine my camera to see what pictures I’d been taking, and they also wanted money. The temperature quickly rose and before long the living dead began to lurch from the rooms to our left and right to see what all the shouting was about.
    We were now back in the centre of the corridor with maybe 20 people barring both exits. The addicts showed little enthusiasm for the row, despite the youths’ attempts to draw them into it. Most stood there, glassy eyed, waiting for the commotion to end. My main concern was that at least two were still holding the needles they had just injected with. My hat was pulled off from behind. Grubby hands began to tear at my *camera. Khalid looked me in the eye and ordered: “You go, I will keep them busy.”
    [​IMG]The former cultural centre, which was largely destroyed in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawalDucking into one of the toilet rooms, then through a hole in the wall –without even looking at what I might be treading in – I emerged further down the corridor. Only two of the boys saw my move in time to intercept my exit. They screamed at me in Dari but didn’t stop me when I pushed past. I tore outside into the light and air that was so conspicuously scant within. Leaving Khalid behind felt wrong but I knew that he could more than handle himself. He emerged within a couple of minutes, still arguing with our teenage persecutors.Outside, things calmed down. My hat was returned and the youths’ anger seemed to dissipate now that we were no longer trespassing. They gave up trying to get hold of my camera. As we left, Khalid told me why our presence had provoked such a reaction. He said that an informal arrangement existed whereby the police and government stayed away from the complex, leaving the addicts safe from official harassment. The only condition was that the media should never set foot inside.
    It must have been painful for Khalid to witness how low so many of his countrymen had fallen inside the old cultural centre. “They are like animals,” he concluded, grimly. “If the Americans bombed that place, it would be an act of mercy.”

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