Addiction behind the burka: how Afghan women use drugs to cope with legacy of war

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The Independent Online

Halima first smoked opium to dull the nightmares after her husband's violent death. He was shot at a checkpoint in front of her as they tried to flee fighting in Kabul, leaving her a widow at the age of 27 with three young children and a joyless future to look forward to.

Halima first smoked opium to dull the nightmares after her husband's violent death. He was shot at a checkpoint in front of her as they tried to flee fighting in Kabul, leaving her a widow at the age of 27 with three young children and a joyless future to look forward to.

"I don't know who fired the shot," she said. "But I couldn't stop playing back my memories of him bleeding to death in the street and nobody to help." In the twilight half-life of an Afghan widow there was little distraction until a neighbour introduced her to a brown paste.

Soon she needed to smoke opium in the morning, at lunchtime and at night. "It gives me comfort and helps me forget my sorrows," she said. "It is a shameful thing. If my brother-in-law found out he would throw me out of his house."

Since Alexander the Great's troops first arrived with opium in central Asia, it has been widely used as a medicine there. Traditionally, the dry opium was considered an astringent, and was also used as a sedative. Even the husks of the poppy are boiled to make a tea to soothe crying children.

Taking opiates is haram, or forbidden, in Islam. Although Afghanistan is the largest grower of poppies and the leading supplier of opium, heroin and morphine, its use remained mostly medicinal even as the international drugs trade moved in during the 1980s. Farmers overcame their scruples to grow it for export but community disapproval nearly always prevented abuse at home.

Finally, however, the opium trade which caused such misery in the West has rebounded on Afghanistan. Kabul now has an estimated 60,000 drug addicts, their ranks swelled by returnees who picked up the habit in the grim refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran.

Doctors in the Afghan capital fear things are going to get much worse. Dr Ahmad Shah Habib, director of the Nejaf rehabilitation centre, said: "Fifteen years ago heroin was unknown in Kabul. Now traffickers have a free run and you can buy it in any bazaar in the city. Ten years ago when we started there were perhaps 4,000 addicts in the city. Now there are 15 times that number."

The addicts are not difficult to find. They live in the worst of the city's bombed-out ruins - places shunned even by the most desperate homeless families. Known as poderi, the ragged figures crawl out of sight to "chase the dragon" or share filthy needles. Like anywhere else in the world, they pay for it through crime or prostitution.

Afghan women are particularly at risk. The Nejaf Centre knows of around 2,000 female drug abusers and believes there are far more. Most are too ashamed to seek treatment, hiding their habit from their husbands and families. Nearly all have harrowing stories of loss from the war. Most are widows, some are first wives who have suffered the humiliation of their husband taking a second bride. Babies are being born addicted and children working in the carpet trade are allegedly fed opium to numb them through long hours of work; they too become addicts.

While opium and sleeping pills are still the commonest drugs abused here, young women are increasingly turning to heroin. The growth of heroin factories inside the country and the increasing sophistication of the Afghan drugs industry means production is far greater than before. Most of the refined drug is smuggled out to lucrative Western markets, leaving huge amounts of poor quality smack to be sold cheaply in the city bazaars.

In one clinic I visited in Kabul's stinking old city, a roomful of women in stained burkas were receiving treatment for addiction. One had become hooked on opium after using it to numb her fear so she could sleep during the rocket attacks in the civil war, another turned to tranquillisers after her husband and son were killed by a warlord's rocket.

Treatment does not always work. One 60-year-old grandmother picked up a heroin habit from a friend she made in the hospital ward where she was seeking treatment for her opium addiction.

Dr Habib said: "War trauma is by far the biggest factor among those using opiates. Even if they didn't start abuse during the war, the nightmares are still with them years later." Dr Habib has no idea how prevalent HIV is in Afghanistan yet, but with needle sharing increasing, poor hygiene, and many addicts working as prostitutes, he has no doubt that the 300 cases identified so far will increase.

"This is a problem which we will only start to see emerge in another five years," he said.

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