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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. What most people in Afghanistan say they long for most is to escape the pain of war and poverty. And a growing number of them — including children — are doing that by using opium or heroin. It costs as little as a dollar a day.

A United Nations survey begun this month is expected to show that at least one out of every 12 Afghans abuses drugs. That is double the number from the last survey just four years ago. The trend is largely ignored by the Afghan government and its international partners. Even though most of these officials acknowledge that any hope of a lasting stability in Afghanistan is at stake, there's not much they've done about it.

In the first of two stories on the explosion of drug abuse in Afghanistan, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson explores the hidden world of addicts in Kabul.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Like most of life in Afghanistan, drug abuse is strictly segregated by gender. Here in Kabul, men gather daily at what used to be the Russian cultural center to get their heroin fix. At least 1,500 of them huddle in the darkened ruins guarded by policemen in riot gear. They use lighters to heat heroin paste on foil, then inhale it through thin plastic tubes or empty cigarette casings. Heroin-laced smoke surrounds the men like a thick blanket.

Some are lying on the ground. There's trash everywhere - feces, urine. And they're all smoking, everywhere, every corner they're smoking, and they're all asking for money.

Most say they started using drugs while living as refugees in Iran, but they use them a lot more now that they are home. They can't find work, which leads to hunger and desperation. Heroin, they say, is a cheap way to forget their miserable existence.

Women addicts like Karima, who invites a visitor into her home, offer the same explanation for why they spend their waking hours using opiates. But they feed their habit in secret inside walled family compounds, like this one Karima shares with her addicted parents and other relatives in a poor hillside neighborhood in Kabul, a neighborhood that local drug counselors say is home to thousands of addicts.

Her hands shaking, Karima draws the curtains shut on the window of the room she shares with her six children. She pulls an envelope out from underneath a plastic mat. Inside are opium pellets, which she smashes into an emptied cigarette casing and lights up.

KARIMA (Addict): (Through translator) When I smoke this, I don't experience any unhappiness. My nerves calm down. If I don't do this, I go crazy.

NELSON: And her young children suffer. None of them go to school. The oldest is Fahima. At 12, she is the size of a child half her age. She has big brown eyes and bald spots from malnutrition. Fahima is the one her mother sends out to buy drugs.

FAHIMA (Daughter): (Through translator) My mom nags me to go get hashish and opium so she can be happy. If she doesn't use it, she gets angry and hits us all.

NELSON: Fahima says she hates drugs and that she'll never use them. But data collected by Western and Afghan experts here shows that heroin and opium use is skyrocketing across the country. And not just because of widespread unemployment and desperation. One reason is the flood of returning Afghan refugees from Iran, many of whom became heroin addicts there. Another factor is an overabundance of opium and heroin in Afghanistan, the largest cultivator of poppies in the world.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu calls it the Coca-Cola effect. He is the representative here for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Mr. JEAN-LUC LEMAHIEU (U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime): And what people always forget is that not only demand creates supply, but supply creates demand. Nobody needed Coca-Cola 200 years ago. Coca-Cola is at this moment to be seen from China up to Papua New Guinea and as well in Afghanistan. So that's the same for the drug issue. I mean, the moment that you have the drugs available, you see consumption.

NELSON: But even at one to two dollars a day, an opium or heroin habit in Afghanistan can easily become unaffordable.

Back in the hillside slum in Kabul, Karima starts to cry.

KARIMA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: She says last month she took her five-year-old daughter, Raisa, to the market to sell her because she was desperate for cash. But she couldn't find a buyer. Saeeda, a counselor from the Nejat, or rescue drug treatment center, is aghast. For two months she has tried to get Karima and her family into treatment.

SAEEDA (Counselor): (Through translator) How could you be so selfish? Don't tell me you would have used the money to feed your family. You would have spent that money on drugs and then gone out and sold another one of your children.

NELSON: Saeeda and her colleagues' visit to the compound a few days later leads to an even nastier surprise.

SAEEDA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: They react with shouts of horror when they catch 12-year-old Fahima taking a deep drag off her mother's cigarette filled with heroin, opium and hashish. The women ask, Why did you do that? Do you like the taste? Fahima admits that she does.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

INSKEEP: You can view photos of Fahima and her family at npr.org. And tomorrow, NPR reports on the uphill battle to curb drug addiction in Afghanistan.

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