101 East

Drugged up Pakistan

With more than six million drug users and rising, can Pakistan win its fight against the billion-dollar narcotics trade?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Pakistan has 6.7 million drug users. More than four million of them are addicts, amongst the highest number for any country in the world.

Abuse of cannabis and heroin is so rife that experts say it is cheaper to buy narcotics in Pakistan than food. It costs just 50 cents to get a high.

“The way you place an order with Pizza Hut for pizza, it’s even easier than that to place an order for drugs,” says Dr Mohammad Tariq Khan, who has been researching narcotics in Pakistan for more than 20 years.

Pakistan’s government and law enforcement blames the crisis on the endless flow of narcotics from neighbouring Afghanistan.

The war-torn country is the source of at least 75 percent of the world’s heroin, according to the UNODC, and much of it is trafficked through Pakistan on its way to lucrative foreign markets. Of the 150 tonnes of heroin that enters Pakistan each year, 44 tonnes is consumed locally.

The human cost of this flood of drugs making its way through Pakistan is extreme. On a sweltering Sunday inside a suburban bungalow in Karachi, 14-year-old Mohammad Shehzad is fighting an internal battle.

Shehzad started using hashish when he was nine. When he began detox three months ago, the withdrawal would send him into fits of rage.

Shehzad is living in Karachi’s only drug rehabilitation centre for children. It is run by the Alleviate Addiction Suffering Trust, a private NGO that cares for up to 25 boys at a time.

He says he is committed to staying clean, but his neighborhood is so rife with drug abuse that he has already relapsed several times.

“I tried twice at home to leave drugs but I couldn’t leave it,” he says, sitting on the roof of the drug rehabilitation centre. “I want to go to all those people whom I have hurt, people whose hearts I’ve broken. I want to ask for their forgiveness.”

Most, like Shehzad, are hooked on hashish or glue. But increasingly the staff is seeing children addicted to heroin.

“I can’t even count how many people do drugs in this city,” says Aftab Alam, 21, a former heroin addict who is now an outreach worker with the Trust. “There are so many addicts now. Their lives are destroyed, there are so many who have died.”

Is Pakistan doing enough to stem the flow of narcotics from neighbouring Afghanistan? Share your thoughts with us @AJ101East #PakistanDrugs

Reporter’s blog

By Karishma Vyas

“If you don’t talk to me today, I’m going to slit my wrists.”

It was my third visit to the children’s drug rehabilitation centre in Karachi and 14-year-old drug addict, ‘Tariq’ (not his real name), would not let me leave until we talked.

I was interviewing some of the boys in a quiet room to find out about their addiction. Tariq wanted to know why I had not chosen him; why he was not special enough.

It was an emotionally charged atmosphere inside the centre run by the Alleviate Addiction Suffering Trust. Dozens of boys, some as young as eight, were fighting withdrawal and emotional turmoil after giving up their addiction to cannabis, glue, heroin or methamphetamines.

It’s difficult to do justice to children who have so much potential, yet are trapped by a cycle of addiction. It was equally hard to adequately convey the dedication of a handful of men and women who believe in these children so completely.

by Karishma Vyas

Many fled physical and sexual abuse at home only to be victimised again on the rough streets of Pakistan. One boy had been sold by his parents to a fish monger who sexually abused him for years. Another child told me his father would pass out, exhausted after beating him.

Many of these children used drugs to suppress their trauma, but now in rehab and stone sober, they had no way to escape their past.

My first day at the centre was overwhelming. About 20 boys were undergoing three months of live-in rehabilitation. Some were still in the initial throws of detox, while others were just beginning to rebuild their lives.

But the boys were not the meek victims of drug abuse I had expected. They were tough and rowdy, running circles around me and the staff with practical jokes and silly stories. Some of them drew pictures of colourful houses and gardens for me.

They could also be unpredictable, playing foosball one minute and collapsing into desperate sobs the next. Some of them would secretly disappear to scratch their arms until they bled. Other boys had violent outbursts, physically attacking the staff and other children over small disputes.

I didn’t know how to begin to tell their stories as a filmmaker, or how to do it without harming them. So when Tariq, the 14-year-old hashish addict, threatened to slit his wrists, I was terrified.

The staff at the centre were remarkable at navigating these emotional minefields. Counsellor Shehla Mazardar told me a boy once stood in front of her with a knife to his own throat, threatening to kill himself if she moved.

From the beginning she told me to be kind but firm. With her endless patience and calm, Mazardar had earned their respect. Many of the boys treated her as an older sister, someone to poke fun at but ultimately to be obeyed.

For six days a week staff like her work with child addicts at the centre, knowing that even after all their effort there is a 70 percent chance that they will relapse into drug abuse. The children were never judged or scolded for this. After all, some of their own parents were drug addicts.

On every level, this story was tough. It’s difficult to do justice to children who have so much potential, yet are trapped by a cycle of addiction. It was equally hard to adequately convey the dedication of a handful of men and women who believe in these children so completely. But that is why this was an important story.

To find out more about the work of the children’s rehabilitation centre run by the AAS Trust, click here to visit their website.

In pictures

101 East  airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.    

Click here  for more  101 East