Kristina tapped the veins on top of her right foot and plunged in a syringe filled with cloudy fluid, slowly pressing the stopper down to deliver her dose of heroin. \n"I'm home," the 29-year-old prostitute said, leaning back to let the high course through her emaciated body, satisfying the craving she's nurtured as a drug addict for eight years. The cost: the equivalent of US$2.60. \nThis scene in a dingy backroom in the capital Ashgabat isn't happening -- at least not according to the authoritarian government of this Central Asian nation. Since 2000, Turkmenistan has failed to report any drug seizures to international organizations and President Saparmurat Niyazov has claimed the country -- next door to Afghanistan, source of most of the world's opium -- has no drug problem. \nBut like much in Turkmenistan, behind the new marble buildings of what Niyazov has proclaimed the country's "Golden Century" lies a reality little touched by government riches, where drug dealers and addicts roam potholed streets lined with dilapidated houses. \nDoes the former Soviet republic have a drug problem? \n"We have no problem -- you can go into any house and find heroin," said Kristina, the name she gives clients who find her every night on a central Ashgabat street for US$10 an hour. \nSome estimates say as many as half of all Turkmen men aged 15 to 40 use heroin or opium. The country's borders with Afghanistan and Iran, another major drug transit country, are loosely controlled on both sides, if at all. \nTurkmen authorities "believe there are no seizures because there is no trafficking," Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said during a recent tour of Central Asia. "I would like to be reassured that's the case." \nAny estimate of drug traffic or addiction is simply a guess as long as the government doesn't publicize statistics -- partly because of officials' fears of releasing any bad news that might displease Niyazov. President since 1985, Niyazov regularly fires ministers and bureaucrats in what analysts say is a means to prevent any possible opposition to his one-man rule. \nHowever, there are some signs the government's head-in-the-sand policy on drugs is changing. It has accepted a new UN project funded by the US that aims to give US$1.1 million in equipment and training for border guards to help stop drug trafficking, and foreign diplomats have recently been allowed more open access to assess the frontier. \nTurkmen border guards also recently were allowed to travel to the US for training and the US Drug Enforcement Agency conducted a seminar for them. \n"It's small steps, but it's steps in the right direction," a western ambassador in Ashgabat said on condition of anonymity. \n"They are concerned but do not recognize the extent" of the drug problem, said Paraschiva Badescu, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's ambassador to Turkmenistan. "They're not ready to discuss the causes of drug consumption." \nThe level of government control over every aspect of life here has led some exiled opposition critics to accuse the regime -- up to the president himself -- of involvement in drug trafficking. No proof of such a connection has ever been documented. \nDrug addicts say they are afraid to seek treatment from authorities for fear of being shipped to work camps where doctors and nurses meant to be treating their addiction actually fuel their habit to make money. \nOne 31-year-old former addict, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was introduced to opium while serving a five-year prison sentence for assault. He quit when he was released from prison, but then started again after coming to live in Ashgabat, which he said was awash in drugs. The addict quit cold four years ago, telling himself "either I'll die or go to jail." \nKristina said she was introduced to drugs by her husband, whose bank salary allowed him to indulge. He eventually lost his job, and sold their apartment and car to get money to support the habit. \nWhen that money ran out four years ago, Kristina started working as a prostitute, seeing clients in one room while her husband waited for the money in the bathroom. \nKristina avoids a city AIDS center where she could get syringes for free, saying the employees would turn her in for being an addict. She buys them instead at a drug store, using each twice and insisting she doesn't share needles. \nAt age 25, Kristina was sent to prison for two years on drug charges. She was jailed again in April for prostitution but said authorities released her after two weeks, when she started showing withdrawal symptoms and they feared she would die in custody. \nDespite her ordeal, Kristina said she has no desire to give up drugs. \n"I don't want to stop, I live for heroin now. I have no other life," she said.
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