Pubdate: Thu, 03 Jul 2003
Source: Daily News, The (South Africa)
Copyright: 2003 The Daily News.
Author: Todd Pitman


KABUL -- With a grandfather, a father, a mother and a brother who have 
spent much of their lives addicted to opium, it is little surprise this 
Afghan family's youngest member has also fallen under the drug's spell.

Except for one thing: she is 15 months old.

"All the time she is crying, so I give her just a little bit of opium to go 
to sleep," said 30-year-old Suhaila, cradling her daughter in a squalid 
block of flats in eastern Kabul.

Opium use among all age groups is on the rise in Afghanistan, which, 
according to the United Nations, produces more of the drug than any other 
nation, despite a ban on cultivating opium poppies.

But in a poor country where the anti-narcotics effort is focused on 
combating supply, not demand, there are few places to treat addicts who 
need help.

"It's a big problem here; there aren't many places to go to," says Mohammad 
Stanekzai, programme manager at the Nejat drug rehabili-tation centre in 
Kabul, the only aid agency in the capital established specifically to help 

"We have 130 people on the waiting list for in-house care, but we've only 
got 10 beds."


The government's equivalent, the Drug Dependency Treatment Centre, has just 
20 beds adjoining a mental hospital. Afghan authorities - trying to rebuild 
a war-ruined nation - are trying to determine how big the problem really is.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul is carrying out a study to 
determine the number of addicts in the capital.

The report has yet to be completed, but the UNODC deputy representative to 
Afghanistan, Adam C Bouloukos, said one trend is clear.

"We're definitely seeing an increase in opium use - eating, smoking, 
injecting - particularly among refugees in Pakistan and Iran and returning 

"It's understandable in the sense that you've got depressed populations. 
They've lost everything, they're living in refugee camps with thousands of 
other people with no sanitation, no food, no water, bad conditions."

Before returning to Afghanistan last year, Suhaila, too, was living with 
her family in a refugee camp near Peshawar, in neighbouring Pakistan.

Conditions in Kabul are hardly better. Suhaila lives in a ruined building 
that was never completed because of civil war in the 1990s.

Her husband has been an addict since birth and has smoked regularly for 
most of his adult life.

When he married Suhaila, he offered her pieces of raw opium, a dark 
substance, to cure minor ailments such as coughs or headaches.

Opium has long been used as a traditional medicine in Afghanistan, 
particularly in remote regions with little or no access to health care. It 
can also fight off the cold and even curb appetite. But it is addictive.

"I first ate it two or three times a week, whenever I felt bad," Suhaila 
said. "But after two to three years, I ate it every day."

While opium can kill if taken in excess, it rarely does.

Economically, however, it can be devastating - especially to families which 
are jobless, in need of food and virtually broke.

Stanekzai says addicts can spend as much as 50 afghanis, or $1 (about 
R7.44), on the drug a day - a day's pay for civil servants and day 
labourers alike.


Another mother living beside Suhaila, 27-year-old Kamela, says her soldier 
husband funds his habit - he smokes as many as 20 times a day - by endless 

"All the time he's thinking of opium. He's not thinking of our family," 
Kamela says.

"He comes home and says he'll buy opium first and then try to buy us bread."

Like many refugees, she relies on a tightly knit community of neighbours, 
including close relatives, to ensure that nobody starves.

A few months ago, nurses from Nejat arri-ved at Suhaila's sprawling complex 
of flats and offered help.

They gave medicine to her and her husband to beat back the craving for 
opium and ease the pain of withdrawal. A similar regimen will soon be 
administered to her daughter, but she has yet to stop feeding her the drug.

It's unclear what effect opium can have on a child that young, but 
Stanekzai says the drug could stunt mental development and growth, and make 
a child exceedingly lethargic.

"Some mothers just don't know what effect it has on a baby," Stanekzai 
said. "Others know it's dangerous, but they just want to remove this 
problem - a baby crying, disturbing their work - from the present."
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