Wed, Jul 09, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Afghanistan's poppy fields cultivating a new crop of addicts

A UN official says Hamid Karzai's government will have to face the fact that the number of heroin addicts in the nation is rising -- as is the use of needles

By Mike Collett-White  /  REUTERS , KABUL

Tall and painfully thin, Homa sits in a tiny, windowless room in a Kabul hospital and tells the story of her heroin addiction.

Afraid of being disowned by her husband for talking to the press, she insists reporters use a false name to protect her identity and refuses to be filmed or photographed.

The 25-year-old has been smoking heroin for 10 years and wants to kick the habit for the sake of her three children.

She is one of thousands of Afghan drug addicts, who, in a country that dominates global output and trade in poppies, opium and their potent derivatives, are virtually ignored.

With the influx of 2 million refugees into Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 the number of drug addicts has risen sharply, and worrying new trends, including the use of needles to inject heroin, are emerging.

"It is forcing the Afghans to wake up and acknowledge that drug use is a problem internally as well as externally," said Adam Bouloukos, deputy representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan.

"They had a sort of head-in-the-sand approach that: ``Hey, we make these things here, we grow this poppy but it's all exported. The real problem is all those junkies on the streets of London.' But there is quite a lot of drug use here," Bouloukous said.

On a recent visit to Gardez, 110km south of Kabul, UN staff found many intravenous heroin users, a new development in a country where the drug is traditionally smoked through improvised pipes.

"That's kind of a first and is horribly dangerous, because with that [needle sharing] comes HIV and AIDS and all the other problems that this medical service here in this country cannot accommodate."

Cold Turkey

Homa is having a tough time kicking a habit she has had since getting married at the age of 15.

"I can't sleep, there is pain all over my body, especially in my head, and I feel cold sitting here," she said, huddled on her bed under a black cloak and headscarf.

Next to her is her eight-year-old daughter who plays with a plastic pistol as her mother talks. Homa also has two young sons.

"I don't know how long it will take. All I know is that I need to give up. The doctors have been giving me medication but it doesn't have any effect," she said of her treatment, which has lasted 10 days so far.

Part of the problem is the social stigma attached to her addiction, particularly because she is a woman in this deeply conservative Islamic country.

Homa has kept her dependence on heroin a secret from everyone except her husband, brother-in-law and two cousins.

Her sad, dark eyes light up momentarily when she speaks of her "love marriage," a relative rarity in a country where so many weddings are arranged. But her husband, himself a reformed addict, does not come to visit.

Downstairs in the men's ward, 10 drug addicts are crammed into three small rooms and share the dusty, fly-ridden common space outside with 11 mental patients.

Mohammad Nasser, 27, is finding the treatment more effective than Homa, and says he is through the worst.

Ahmed Khetab Kakar, mental health director at Kabul Central Hospital and a specialist in neuro-surgery, said his facilities were too small to accommodate the number of addicts seeking treatment.

"Before the war we had facilities in all the provinces, but they were all destroyed and so they have to come here," he said.

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