Inside Afghanistan’s growing drug problem

Location: Kabul

Paiwandgāh gets a tour of a small private drug treatment center in western Kabul, where addicts are trying to start a new life

We walk down a narrow corridor, arriving at a dim and humid hall. There Is a strange, unpleasant smell that burns my nose and catches in my throat. As we enter the hall, the guide puts a big lock and chain on the door and double-checks to make sure it is fastened. There is a hole in the roof for light, and at the other end of the room there is a door leading to a yard.

The residents have tried to clean everything and everywhere in anticipation of guests. They swept the whole 6×8 meter yard and even improved the smell of the hall itself.

Photo by: Ivan Flores

Photo by: Ivan Flores

There are three rooms opening off the left of the hall, and on the right side are pictures of heads, hands, feet and the naked human body, depicting the stages of recovery. On the pictures is written: before bath, after bath, the golden period, the rebirth, etc.

Inside one room, seven addicts are playing cards.When they see me and my colleagues, they scatter. There is nothing inside the room except some old pictures and some ragged blankets.

Photo by: Ivan Flores

Photo by: Ivan Flores

I ask the first question of the person who has joined the center most recently. He will not say much about himself; his name is Reza, (the names are all aliases) He’s been here for five days and used to work at a fruit market. He putshis blanket over his head and refuses to say anything else. I assumed that because he’s new he is probably in pain and cannot speak.

Hassan, sitting next to Reza, introduces himself as Marco Polo. He is 23, but taking drugs has made him lookolder. Hassan was born in Afghanistan, but grew up in Iran. He spent three years in Turkey, and some time in Greece and Hungary. Hassan has six brothers; four of them are in Europe. He says that he has been dreaming of Europe since childhood, but now here he is, in an addiction treatment center in Kabul. He became an addict three years ago because, as he said, he did not have a job and didn’t know what else to do. Now that he is healthy again, he wants to continue on his way.

Then it was Maisam’s turn. He is 60, the oldest person in the treatment camp, and has been an addict for the past 15 years. He began using opium in Ghazni, after the fall of the Taliban. Despite his drug habit, he was able to keep his family, and educate his only son.

Maisam sent his son to Kabul University to study Chinese Language and Literature; after graduation the boy got a scholarship and went to China; now he is working as a translator.

“Kaka Maisam,” as he is known, because of his advanced age, says his son has asked him to quit.

“My son says ‘it’s because of you that no one wants me to marry their daughter. Quit so I can have a life,’” explains Maisam. “ I have always done what my son asked, so I will listen to this as well to make him happy.”

Next came 33-year-old KhadimHussain, who had a very interesting story. Khadim has been clean for two years, but his face still shows the signs of his long drug use. Khadimis a fruit-seller, and when he has free time, he comes and helps others to quit.

Khadim was one of the first recruits to the Afghan National Army in 2002.

“If Hassan is Marco Polo, then I am just as good,” he laughs. “I was in the army for eight years and served in 28 provinces, from Badakhshan to Helmand and from Fariyab to Kandahar.I fought against the enemies of this country and against drug smugglers, and took part in heavy military operations.”

This former Afghan Army soldier says that during his last years in the south, you could find opium everywhere. “My colleagues were all familiar with it, which is how I became addicted,” he said.

Khadim leans against the wall and his voice drops.

“Then, I was kicked out of the army, and was afraid that I would have no home, no work, no income, no life. That continued for two years. Then I found this camp and was saved. I felt so much pain, contempt and distress, which is why i want to help others get free of such a situation.”

The atmosphere had become so heavy with all of these stories that the workers asked Baqir to lighten the mood.

Baqir seems happy and easygoing, without a care in the world. He introduces himself as “the biggest thief in the neighborhood,” and admits that he has been involved in the drug business and other illegal activities since he was a child. Baqir was born and raised in Pakistan, attended the best military school, and knows Urdu and English.

Baqir sings, and he loves the unique voice of LataMangeshkar, the prominent Indian singer.

He sang for us:


“Don’t turn your head when my eyes ask you a question

Destiny sometimes puts people in these situations…”

All of the addicts cry “don’t forget Mr. Engineer!”pointing to another of their number.

I look at the man, who says the group is joking, and he is not really an engineer. But then he puts on his glasses and I begin to wonder. He confirms that he has a degree in civil engineering from Kabul Polytechnic University. When he was in his third year accepted a job in a company, and has worked with both national and international firms.

“I had a good job and good income,” he said. “Because of my money I had many friends. On weekends and holidays we would go out and have fun and that’s how I got addicted to opium.”

Engineer, who is now 28 years old, applied for an SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) and was accepted. He says he will stay in Afghanistan until he’s clean, but hopes one day to go to America and start a new life far from here.

Our meeting was over, and I came out to wash up. Reza, the first one who didn’t talkmuch,approached me and said that in the morning four of the other addicts beat him severely. When I asked the reason, he said that he never shaved his beard, and this morning four of the menhad shaved his beard dry. He removed the cloth from his face so that I could see the scars. I noticed his left eye was black as well.

Photo by: Ivan Flores

Photo by: Ivan Flores

Kaka Maisam jumped in also and complained about the place and the food. He said they would not give them anything to eat except boiled rice. “There’s no medicine or anything and when we are under a lot of pressure, they take us outside and pour cold water on us,” he said.

Reza complained a lot about the bad behavior of the guards and the personnel, “I came here to be treated, but now I have been hurt,” he says.

Afghanistan is by far the world’s largest producer of opium poppy, the raw material from which heroin is made. Until recently, much of the drug was exported; but now Afghanistan has joined the ranks of drug consumers. A UNODC report in 2014 estimated that nearly 10 percent of the population of 35 million were drug users, making it proportionally the number one consumer of narcotics.

The world’s largest producer of opium poppy, biggest producer of narcotics has become the biggest consumer of narcotic drugs as well. According to the newest statistics from Ministry of Counter Narcotics, near 3.5 million people are addicted to narcotics in Afghanistan.

Recently, the Afghan government transformed Camp Phoenix, a military base in eastern Kabul, into a treatment and professional training center for addicts.Close to 1500 people are currently being treated there, making it Afghanistan’s largest drug treatment center. The government has promised to open such centers in 7 other provinces as well.

But for now, the demand for such centers far outstrips the supply.  Addicts like those at our small private camp will have nowhere else to turn for quite a while longer.


Inside Afghanistan’s growing drug problem

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