Lost Childhoods: Opium Addiction in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan, a country torn asunder by decades of war, is today one in which large parts of society – and most worryingly, the youth – are being torn apart by hard drug addiction. The country has been the world’s biggest heroin producer for over two decades, but addiction itself is a more recent phenomenon. The epidemic is partly down to the return of migrant workers from neighbouring countries like Iran, where opium addiction affects as many as five million people, or six per cent of the population. Often, when a family member returns to Afghanistan, laced on opium, they give the drug to their children to sedate them during a long workday, or to cure simple body aches. The fate for street children is even worse. More must be done to tackle this epidemic and finally offer some hope to the next generation in this benighted country.

Even with the best will, protecting the youth from this scourge can be made impossible by societal legal structures which endorse the debasing phenomenon of ‘opium brides’. Indeed, an indebted farmer from Laghman province, whose opium fields were destroyed by a government crop-eradication team, pleaded his case in front of a council of tribal elders, only to be told that he would have to pay his debt by selling his daughter to the drug-trafficking creditor. This is the ugly, and mostly unreported side of such opium eradication programmes, which too often fail to offer alternatives to families already living hand to mouth.

Beyond the selling of ‘opium brides’ as young as five to pay debts, the narcotics trade has also generated a worrying number of child addicts. More and more children are being lured into Kabul’s drug scene, where the city’s depressed, desolate and dangerous smoke and inject heroin on a daily basis. The young boys drawn into this are often war orphans, but risk being subjected to more physical and psychological abuse as some of them resort to prostitution to fund their habit.

Despairingly, even intact families are not spared from the narcotics trade. A particularly alarming trend has been the return of drug-addicted fathers from Iran and Pakistan, where drugs are used to help the men work longer hours. Back in Afghanistan, there is a fair chance the addiction will be passed on. According to the UN, half of all drug users give opium to their children. For the poorest in Afghanistan, the figures are without doubt higher. In many regions lacking the basics (running water, electricity, access to healthcare), opium is cheap and readily available. It also kills the appetite. Feeding a family of nine in Badakshan province in the northeast costs less than $4.50 per day, whereas a daily supply of opium for the same amount of people costs around $3. Opium has become the paradoxical remedy to the woes of Afghan people: depression, hunger, lack of medicine, and the list goes on.

Dealing with child drug addiction in Afghanistan is problematic due to the opacity of the problem. Few reliable statistics exist, and this is testament to a national and international failure to engage seriously with the issue. What we do know is that there are more than 1.6 million drug users in Afghanistan, and it is believed that as many as 40 per cent are women and children. This already makes Afghanistan the world’s most addicted country per capita, and yet on 2014 estimates, there was only room for some 10,000 addicts in the country’s underfunded treatment centres.

Efforts are underway to treat the epidemic, yet given its scale, these efforts currently look more like baby steps. Organisations such as the NEJAT Centre, based in Kabul, are doing the lion’s share of the work, and at great personal cost. Drug addiction in Afghanistan, despite its prevalence, is widely viewed as haram and it is this very stigma which often prevents families from seeking treatment. The NEJAT team makes home visits, but its workers are frequently subjected to harassment and even attacks at the hands of angry locals. The Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan (WADAN) has opened rehabilitation centres throughout Afghanistan, but in one of its centres in Jalalabad – devoted to women and children – only 20 people can be admitted at a time for the 45-day intensive programme.

It is often said that children are the future. What happens to them today, good or bad, will determine the future of humankind. So simple and so obvious a statement, you might believe it goes without saying. Yet it is a truth that has mostly eluded the Afghan government (of which corrupt officials are the very worst kind) and the international actors who will remain heavily invested in the country for years to come. Despite promises to tackle the Afghan narcotics trade since the NATO intervention in 2001, most money and effort has been concentrated on fighting the Taliban insurgents for fear of alienating rural communities who depend on opium cultivation. But when the consequences of such a strategy involve mothers lacing their children with opium to stave off hunger or calm them down, it is clear that a major rethink is needed. Far from being a purely sovereign issue, helping tackle opium addiction in Afghanistan is a moral imperative for the international community whose colonial wars, historical support for the mujahideen, arms dealings and interventions have nurtured today’s destructive epidemic. If the 9/11 terror attacks are the cited justification for forced regime change and NATO occupation since 2001, then we must view drug addiction as another kind of terrorism, ravaging Afghanistan’s most vulnerable: the youth.

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