"I feed him opium, [otherwise] he cries all the time," says his 25-year-old mother Bolde Jamalgate as she holds him. The mother of four refuses to look up or unveil herself from her pristine white burqa.

Bolde feeds the youngest of her four children opium each morning and evening by placing tiny pieces of the narcotic into his mouth or mixing small quantities into milk or water, a daily ritual which has continued since he was born.

Giving Kheyamadin the drug gives her time to tend to the housework and care for her other sons, now four, five and seven, all of whom she fed opium to when they were babies.

She lives with her husband, 37-year-old Mola Hiyaruddin and her brother-in-law's family in a three-room home, on 60 hectares of land divided equally between the two brothers growing wheat, cotton and vegetables.

Around 200 Turkmen families live in the isolated farming community of Labjartara, a two-and-half hour drive from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which straddles Afghanistan's borders with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Parched scrubland dots the flat, dry plains as far as the eye can see. Shepherds keep a careful eye on goats and sheep while camels and mud brick homes help paint the panorama dust brown. The occasional tree blossom punctuates the vast, cloudless sky like candy floss while burnt-out Soviet tanks hint at the region's volatile past.

Opium province

The village lies on the northern edges of Balkh province, one of Afghanistan's largest producers of opium according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Kheyamadin and his 25-year-old
mother
Bolde Jamalgate

Although the area is renowned for its cultivation of opium, Bolde's brother-in-law Abdul Karim pleads ignorance when asked where the drugs given to Kheyamadin come from.

Feeding small children opium is a practice which stems back centuries in Afghanistan, particularly among Ismaili communities in the northeastern province of Badakhshan and Turkmen families in the north of the country.

Afghan Turkmens, who form around 1.8 million of the country's 30 million people, are also renowned for their elaborate carpets.

"Whenever babies cry, we feed them opium, it's usual, just to make them calm and quiet. If you give it too often you get bad side effects like vomiting," says Abdul, a 46-year-old farmer who seems oblivious to the fact that feeding children opium could cause long-term harm.

Figures obtained from the UNODC reveal that as many as 60,000 children in Afghanistan regularly use drugs, including opium. Anecdotal evidence from doctors at a clinic in the southern city of Kandahar indicates that at least 25 children at the hospital died of opium overdoses in the last several years.

Opium-carpet link

In its latest report, the UNODC said 86% of the world's opium comes from Afghanistan.

Some women feed their children
opium so they can weave carpets

And there is also a strong link between opium growing - and consumption - in the country and its third largest export industry: Carpet weaving.

For many carpet-weaving women, opium has become a tool as vital as the looms they weave with; a narcotic they take not only to relieve the pain and physical discomfort of hours of carpet-making but also a drug they give to their children so they can weave and do housework.

Carpet-seller Abdul Hakim is one of scores of merchants to buy carpets from Turkmen communities which he then sells in his shop Qalinfroshi, in Mazar-i-Sharif, a commercial hub second only to Kabul for the scale of its carpet-selling industry.

Piles of lambs' wool rugs and carpets compete for attention in his tiny shop, huddled in the centre of the city among clusters of other carpet-sellers. He sits cross-legged on the floor sipping Afghan tea.

"Maybe some people placate their babies [by feeding them opium] because we have lots of opium growing in our country," says the 32-year-old father of two.

Jehanzeb Khan, drug demand reduction expert at UNODC Afghanistan which has joined the Afghan Government to run drug treatment and prevention programmes in six of the country's provinces, says identifying how widespread the practice of feeding opium to babies is, is proving to be a challenge.

"I have to do the housework and have other children to look after so I do this. My mother did it to me, it's no big thing"

Bolde Jamalgate,
Kheyamadin's mother

"If proper health facilities are not provided and people are not educated about the bad effects of this practice, it will certainly increase ... drug abuse treatment is not an easy task," he told Aljazeera.net.

But he believes the custom can be changed by raising awareness and providing families with access to adequate healthcare.

"We are trying to establish ownership of the problem by the communities and they should do this themselves. We will train them in skills in drug abuse prevention and treatment."

Tradition

But until then, it is unlikely Bolde will refrain from feeding opium to any other children she may have.

"I have to do the housework and have other children to look after so I do this. My mother did it to me, it's no big thing," she says.

Cradled in her arms, the deep emerald silk of Kheyamadin's skullcap frames his round face and his eyes appear glazed.

Outside the winds that plague the far-reaching plains of northern Afghanistan rage on, but the child seems oblivious, in his own private world.