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Addicted and hopeless in Afghanistan's Herat

Cheap drugs and corrupt police blamed for high levels of addiction in country's western province.

Last updated: 06 Dec 2013 12:07
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Massood, a drug dealer, lives in the shantytown of Kamar Kala [Ali M Latifi/Al Jazeera]

Herat, Afghanistan - When Mariam's sister-in-law told her to place her hands on the Quran, she felt a sense of calm that only faith and family could provide.

Her sister-in-law looked her in the eyes and told her: "What I'm going to show you can't tell anyone."

Mariam had put on weight after migrating to Iran, and she was relieved to discover something that would lessen the mental and physical anguish this was causing her.

"Here," her Iranian sister-in-law said, holding up a powdery white substance to Mariam. The substance was podar, or heroin. Within four days of trying it, Mariam said she found herself hooked. More than three years later, when she was deported back to her native Afghanistan, Mariam still couldn't shake the habit.

In Afghanistan's western Herat province, Mariam - now a skinny and frail woman whose rough, dark skin belies her 37 years - soon found herself amid a community of fellow drug users. The province, which shares a border with the Iran, is home to an estimated 60-70,000 of Afghanistan's 1.6 million drug users, according to Afghanistan's anti-narcotics ministry.

Mariam's story is anything but unique to the nearly 400 other people roaming around the squalid shantytown of Kamar Kala, located just one kilometre outside Herat City. Like Mariam, many in the makeshift community became addicted to drugs while migrants in neighbouring Iran.

Afghanistan's forgotten drug addicts

For Nasir, 37, it was the fatigue from his work as a day labourer on Iranian construction sites that led him to drugs. "If you give me a blueprint I, could erect the entire building from top to bottom on my own," Nasir said proudly of his 21 years of experience.

Despite his aptitude, Nasir, like the rest of his Afghan compatriots, was quickly relegated to manual labour. After months of hearing Nasir complain about the exhaustion and physical pain he suffered at the end of each day, his Iranian friends introduced him to tariyak, or opium. Soon he became dependent on the narcotic, but as the years passed it wasn't enough. Nasir moved on to using crystal methamphetamine and eventually heroin.

Though Afghans often complain of ill-treatment while in Iran, Nasir was more positive about his time there. He said in the year that he has returned to Afghanistan his addiction has only intensified. "In Iran I wasn't on a constant 24-hour search for the next high. I had a job that kept me busy, but here, what do I have?"

A dangerous combination of low prices, both Nasir and Mariam said they could feed their habits on less than two dollars a day, Afghanistan's double-digit unemployment rate and the Afghan police's relatively lax stance towards drugs prevent many Afghan migrants from weaning themselves off drug use.

Though many of the Kamar Kala residents are from other Afghan provinces, shame, a lack of economic prospects and the threat of attack mean most of the residents are stranded in Herat.

"I would give anything to return to Kunduz, but how would I?" asked Massood, 25, who says the three-day journey would involve passing through areas where the Taliban is very active. Massood's re-integration into Afghan society is further complicated by the fact that he was born a refugee in Iran.

Massood echoed complaints often lodged against Afghanistan's Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, saying not only have they done little for returnees, but that they have also not made their presence known. "I wouldn't even know where to go to get a tazkireh [Afghan national ID]. I'm Afghan, not Irani, but who do I tell that to?"

[My family] would disown me if they saw me in this state.

- Massood, 25, drug dealer

Aside from the journey's dangers, Massood has another reason not to return to his home province. Sitting outside one of the makeshift homes that dot Kamar Kala - made of sandbags stacked atop one another and covered by a cloth tent - Massood is approached by other addicts who ask him for money to buy food.

Asked how he makes money, Massood only says that he has "a job" in the community. As his visibly disoriented visitors venture back into the house where they get high, Massood becomes increasingly forthcoming. He says he has become a drug dealer, taking advantage of lax enforcement: Kamar Kala residents say police often leave them alone after paying a bribe of 50-100 afghanis ($1-2).

With tens of thousands of addicts in Herat alone, Massood stands to make swift profits from the sale of narcotics.

Still, for Afghan migrants who went to Iran in search of economic opportunity, the community they have formed in Kamar Kala does little to counter the shame many feel for not only "failing" in Iran, but returning as addicts.

"There were no drugs in Bamiyan before. The most anyone would do is naswar, chewing tobacco, or a little tariyak from time-to-time," said Nasir, the construction worker, about his home province.

Though he is one of the few Kamar Kala residents with an income and a sense of authority, Massood is glad that his Iranian wife and children are staying in Iran along with his mother. "They would disown me if they saw me in this state," he says, looking at four of the unmarked graves where addicts from the slum have been buried. 

Follow Ali Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

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Al Jazeera
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