She has known terrible torment, but talks about it with a smile. Married off at 12 and a mother at 13, Afghan divorcee Laila Haidari now lives to help drug addicts in Kabul, who call her mother.
Thirty-five years old, she was born and brought up in Iran, where her refugee parents lived out war and political instability at home, coming to Afghanistan for the first time only a year ago.
Brought up by a violent mother, she spent 13 years with an abusive husband before being ostracized by her family for daring to divorce a cleric and today rarely sees her three children.
The woman who has spent a lifetime fighting her lot now devotes her energy to drug addicts.
In a country that produces 90 percent of the world’s opium, yet has little public health infrastructure, addiction is an alarming problem.
According to the counter-narcotics ministry, there were 1.5 million addicts in 2010, including 1 million users of hard drugs, such as heroin and opium.
Malnourished, beaten and sick, many gather under the Pul-i-Sokhta bridge over the Kabul River, where dozens of them died in the freezing snows last winter.
Whenever Haidari found herself crossing the bridge, she began to think she could do something for them.
“Even the first day, when I went under the bridge, one man, who was older than me, started to call me mother. The others followed,” she says.
Helped by an associate, who has since pulled out, she built a shelter in western Kabul, known as “mother’s home,” able to accommodate up to 20 addicts a night.
The shelter is inspired by the Narcotics Anonymous method of detox, which uses only group therapy and no medication to overcome addiction.
The type of treatment also has its detractors.
“It’s useless,” one Western expert in Kabul says. “Addiction is mental illness. You need medication to recover.”
However, undeterred and determined, Haidari says she has helped 300 addicts in less than a year. It was not possible to verify the claim, with Afghan authorities saying they have no knowledge of her shelter.
“My real mother tried to take me to some places, but she didn’t succeed. So she left me,” said Ali, 34, a former soldier who became an addict in Iran and says he has been clean for four or five months.
However, beneath the surface, there are lingering tensions.
The neighbors complain about noise at night and resent the presence of addicts in their neighborhood and have even accused Laila, who also lives at the shelter, of being a prostitute.
Several months ago, she claimed to have escaped a murder attempt, but the circumstances and who was responsible remain unclear.
She is also constantly short of money.
However, nothing seems to deter her.
“When I go back to the life I had before, I have the impression I was not living, but what I’ve been doing for nine months with these guys ... that’s beautiful,” she says.