Afghans battle to combat threats of drugs and Aids

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The Independent Online

The men sitting around the room at the Nejat Centre have little left but hope - the hope that one day they will be freed from the drugs that have destroyed their lives and those of their families.

Afghanistan, heroin supplier to the world, now has its own problem with addiction, largely ignored and unreported, but continuing to rise at a ferocious rate. The country has all the classic conditions - grinding poverty, lawlessness, corruption, growing prostitution and an endless supply of heroin - for a drug epidemic on a catastrophic scale and the explosion in Aids that inevitably follows.

The last set of figures, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, shows that around 920,000 Afghans are addicted to narcotics, around 4 per cent of the population. Among adult males the figure rises to 12.1 per cent of the population, or 740,000. Even these figures, compiled in 2005, were regarded as an underestimate.

Yet while Nato meets in Riga for its most important summit since the end of the Cold War, with Afghanistan the main topic, and billions of dollars are earmarked for reconstruction, there is little funding for drug treatment, and even less to fight Aids. The Nejat Centre is one of the few places in Afghanistan to deal with drug addiction. It was started by a doctor, Tariq Suliman, at a refugee camp in Peshwar in Pakistan after he saw how many of his fellow Afghans were hooked on heroin and opium.

Dr Suliman points out, with a wry smile, that while the centre at the refugee camp eventually had 20 beds for patients, here in the Afghan capital it can only afford 10. "Even if we had only minimal facilities we would need around $200,000 [£100,000] a year", he said. "But our budget is $50,000. Obviously we cannot make up the entire shortfall, but we do spend some of our own money."

The centre is funded by Norwegian, German and American charities. There is no contribution from the Afghan government, and Dr Suliman and his colleagues say they would rather keep away from the kleptocracy of officialdom.

It costs just $1 to buy a packet of 10 syringes in Kabul. But for the dispossessed of this city shattered by decades of war, even that is too much. The reuse of needles is, thus, commonplace, and, with it, infection.

The Nejat Centre cannot afford its own blood-testing facilities and patients are sent to a government hospital. For Khairullah, a 27-year-old carpenter, it is too late, as he has already been diagnosed as HIV positive. Khairullah stays with his widowed mother and four brothers and sisters in their tiny home in the north of the city. He seldom ventures out, the result of a combination of physical weakness and fear of the social stigma he will encounter.

"I do not know if the neighbours are aware of what has happened to me. I would like to die before they find out," he says in a barely audible voice. "There is nothing the doctors can do, it is up to the will of Allah. I did not know I would end up like this." Khairullah took up heroin in a refugee camp near Quetta in Pakistan and freely used second-hand needles. "No one told me the dangers", he said.

Sayid Jawed, 56, is waiting to learn of the results of his blood test while on pre-treatment at the Nejat Centre. He too started drugs in a refugee camp, this time in Iran. "At first it was opium and then heroin," he said. "And it continued when I came back to Afghanistan after the Taliban. I was earning good money as a driver, so I could afford this. I used needles, and it was not until I came to this centre that I learnt about Aids. We were not taught these things in the past."

Ahmed Khalid stayed on in Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule and freely admits profiting from drugs with the help of the regime. He himself became addicted. "And now I am here," he said. "Look at me and you will know what has happened to Afghanistan."