Pubdate: Mon, 28 Dec 2020
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company
Author: David Zucchino


MIR ALI, Afghanistan - On the barren high plains of western
Afghanistan, along a roadway south of Herat city, is a collection of
sturdy earthen huts known as Qala-e-Biwaha, or "village of widows."

Most of the village's men have disappeared - killed while trying to
smuggle opium across the desolate frontier into neighboring Iran. The
widows have been left to fend for themselves and their children, some
of whom have also died while transporting drugs over the border from
Herat Province's rugged Adraskan district.

The area is so destitute that men seeking work here have two choices,
said Mohammad Ali Faqiryar, the district governor: "They can smuggle
drugs or join the Taliban."

Those who agree to smuggle opium, heroin and methamphetamines into
Iran can earn $300 or more per trip, a fortune for such a poor
village. But they risk arrest, prosecution and execution in Iran's
Islamic courts - or being shot and killed by Iranian border guards.

As of 2018, Afghanistan was the world's largest producer of opium, and
poppy is the country's most lucrative cash crop. The profits fuel the
Taliban's financial networks and for years have undermined sustainable
reconstruction and security efforts by the United States and its allies.

Afghan officials seem powerless to stop the lucrative trade; many have
grown wealthy through their complicity in facilitating the
trafficking. What results is an enduring cycle of opium cultivation,
processing and trafficking that often leaves Afghanistan's most
vulnerable to bear the dire consequences of the illicit trade.

Mr. Faqiryar said he has tried and failed to get government money for
programs to help people raise livestock and grow wheat, rice and beans
in the arid, unforgiving landscape.

"We get no help from the central government - they don't care about
the people, even if they're starving," he said.

The widows survive on food bought with their earnings from the
wool-processing trade, and on donations from relatives and
international aid groups. Some children attend a madrasa, or Islamic
school, run by a mullah at a tiny mosque in a nearby settlement. The
nearest population center is Herat city, the provincial capital, 45
miles north.

"For a long time, life was very good and my three sons earned a lot of
money carrying opium," said Nek Bibi, a widow who said she was about
50 years old. She spoke outside her dwelling, fashioned from dried
packed earth, as a grandchild clung to her robes. "Then they were all

Her oldest son, Ghulam Rasul, 20, was arrested several years ago and
later hanged in Iran after he was convicted of smuggling opium, she
said. Three years ago, she said, two more sons - Abdul Ghafoor, 15,
and Abdel Zarif, 14 - were shot dead by Iranian border guards as they
tried to transport opium from Afghanistan.

Ms. Bibi said Iran never returned her sons' bodies, a complaint shared
by other women in the village. "I don't know if they were buried in
Iran or their bodies were just thrown in the desert," she said.

Her husband, Mohammad Sadeq, recently died of illness, Ms. Bibi said,
leaving her to care for her sons' widows and her eight grandchildren.
She earns a meager living processing raw wool by hand into fibers for
carpet weaving.

These days, the village is whipped by frigid winds that drown out the
bleating of sheep in rough pens next to the widows' huts, which seem
to rise up from the dun-colored soil to mimic the shape and texture of
the surrounding hills. There is no electricity or running water, and
no heat except from the dry brush that families buy or collect to
burn. Some widows, like Ms. Bibi, light a single bulb at night with
power generated during the day by tiny solar panels.

Conditions were so severe this fall that many women fled the village
for the homes of relatives or for displaced-person camps run by aid
organizations. Until recently, the village was home to 80 widows and
their families, said Mohammad Zaman Shakib, the district council's
development director. Today, there are just 30.

"The cold and the hunger drove them away," Mr. Shakib

As he spoke, several widows and their children squatted beside their
huts, warming themselves in the brittle winter sunshine that emerged
after a morning of snow squalls. Most of the women wore long black
robes that concealed all but their eyes. Some spoke of leaving the

"There's nothing for us here - we could starve this winter," said
Fatima, who goes by one name and said she was about 40 years old.

Fatima said her husband, Fazel Haq, had struggled to earn a living
collecting and selling brush for cooking and heating. Desperate, he
accepted an offer to smuggle opium for $200 per trip, she said.

He trafficked drugs for three years until, five years ago, he was shot
and killed by Iranian border guards, Fatima said. Now she cares for
the couple's five sons.

The paucity of men in the village has not liberated the women from the
harsh confines of Afghanistan's patriarchal culture. The area around
Qala-e-Biwaha is home to several white-bearded men, who interrupted
some of the widows and talked over others as they spoke about their

Herat is one of three western provinces that provide a regular export
conduit for drugs, Afghan officials say, with Iran a primary
destination for Afghanistan's opium.

Mr. Faqiryar, the governor, said the village emerged as the area's
center of drug trafficking after a local man started an opium
smuggling operation there three decades ago. The same man now commands
a pro-government militia in Herat, he said.

Drug smuggling in the area is so pervasive that Iran deploys vehicle
patrols along the open border with Adraskan district, the governor
said. Yet traffickers, known as quchaqbar, are able to transport
enough opium - much of it from Helmand and Farah Provinces - into Iran
to absorb the loss of drug shipments intercepted along the roughly
135-mile border the province shares with Iran.

As recently as 2016, Iran executed hundreds of people a year, most of
them for drug offenses, Amnesty International reported. The pace of
drug crime executions has slowed since a 2017 amendment to Iran's drug
law raised the threshold for the death penalty.

The United States spent $8.62 billion on failed counternarcotics
efforts in Afghanistan from 2002 through 2017, the Special Inspector
General for Afghanistan Reconstruction concluded in a 2018 report. And
yet opium production rose from 3,400 metric tons in 2002 to 9,000
metric tons in 2017.

For the widows' village and other settlements in Herat Province, the
war is never far away. The Taliban regularly attack government
outposts nearby. Every day, police patrols clear the highway to Herat
city of roadside bombs planted by militants at night, Mr. Faqiryar

Recently, he said, a small border outpost was shut down by the
government after it was attacked and damaged - not by the Taliban, but
by drug traffickers aligned with the militants to clear the way for

So the widows endure, most of them earning a pittance in the
wool-processing trade, which leaves their hands calloused and
discolored. As they struggle to raise their children, many fear their
sons will follow their dead fathers into the drug trafficking business.

"I won't let them - they'll be killed just like their father," Fatima
said of her five sons. "I would forbid it, even if it meant we starved
to death."

Asadullah Timory contributed reporting from Herat, Afghanistan.