An Afghan Village Of Drug Addicts, From Ages 10 To 60 : Parallels Afghanistan is not just a world leader in producing drugs. It's also a leading consumer. Drug users addicted to heroin, and more recently crystal meth, are everywhere in the western city of Herat.
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An Afghan Village Of Drug Addicts, From Ages 10 To 60

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An Afghan Village Of Drug Addicts, From Ages 10 To 60

An Afghan Village Of Drug Addicts, From Ages 10 To 60

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Years ago, in Afghanistan, I rode a horse-drawn cab through the streets of Herat. The horse was draped in silver bells and red pom-poms that danced, as they moved like roses. Herat is Afghanistan's most graceful city. It's known for exquisite green and blue glass and its many poets, traditions dating to the Persian Empire. Smuggling is also a long tradition.

Opium travels through Herat across the nearby border, into Iran. Along the way, it's made into heroin headed for Europe. In the past few years, that flow has reversed - not the drugs, but the addicts are flowing back: Afghan migrants and refugees, returning to Herat, bringing with them a scourge of drug use.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

ZAHRA: (Foreign language spoken)

AHMAD: So, we have these foil papers? We roll it up...

MONTAGNE: So the heroin's in the foil.

In a dusty ravine on the outskirts of town, a scruffy 20-year-old named Ahmad is striking a match to inhale heroin.

(SOUNDBITE OF INHALATION, COUGHING)

MONTAGNE: This ravine Ahmad calls home has long been a dumping ground for refuse from building sites in Herat. Now it's also a drug village. Hundreds of addicts have dug out small caves to use as dwellings. They honeycomb the hills.

Ahmad's mother, Zahra, leans against some rocks in front of their place, as she tells her story.

ZAHRA: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: I used to weave carpets, she says, and also worked as a maid. Then my husband got cancer and died.

Zahra's life spiraled down, hitting bottom when her sister-in-law, newly returned from Iran, offered her heroin.

ZAHRA: (Through translator) Now I can't do anything except beg on the street.

MONTAGNE: We pull back from the entrance to her place a red cloth, to find another woman - Zahra's sister - blinking up into light. In the center of this tiny space is a cooking area not for food, for heroin. There's also a small figure moaning and moving restlessly under a filthy blue burqa.

ZAHRA: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: That's my daughter, says Zahra. She's 10, and she's on heroin, too.

How did it happen as a very little girl that she became addicted?

ZAHRA: (Through translator) When we had my sister-in-law living with us, she was addicted. I would go out to other homes to do housekeeping. And my little girl, Laila, used to cry a lot. So, my sister-in-law gave her opium to calm her down. That's when Laila became an addict.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

MONTAGNE: In a sparkling clean, white-tiled office, we meet Dr. Ezmaray Hassin. He runs several clinics in Herat. And he says, yes, one serves children as young as four. There are an estimated 70,000 drug users here now, mostly men - he says, a huge shock to the culture.

DR. EZMARAY HASSIN: (Through translator) There's no doubt that Afghanistan is one of the largest producers of poppy, but historically, they have never been drug users. But because of the upheavals of the last 30 years or the wars, and also the displacements that happen, a lot of people travel to the neighboring countries, and they got to know about narcotics. And the one country that's closest to Herat is Iran.

MONTAGNE: Which is bad news, because Iran has long had the highest rate of drug addiction in the world. The drug of choice is heroin, and recently, there's been a dramatic rise in the use of crystal meth.

Sitting on a bed in this clinic in Herat is 25-year-old Saleh. He tells a story we will hear again and again. A few years ago, he crossed the border, looking for work.

SALEH: (Through translator) So I was in Iran, and I was digging wells. Then my legs would really, really hurt bad. Basically, it started with opium first, to kill the pain. And then, over time, I went to heroin. Then the problem became that every time I did not use heroin, my legs even would hurt more. So I had to use it.

MONTAGNE: Saleh is one of the lucky ones. There are 250 beds devoted to drug treatment in all of Herat with its tens of thousands of heroin addicts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

MONTAGNE: In the center of town is the office of the man in charge of fighting the drug war in Herat. To reach Faquil Gul Amini, one of Herat's top counter-narcotics officers, we pass trucks equipped with mounted machine guns. And his challenge is growing with the arrival of a drug he'd never seen before a couple of years ago: crystal meth, known in Persian as shisheh - glass.

Amini told us he just raided meth labs in Herat and arrested, he says a "Breaking Bad" kind of guy from Iran. I put this to him.

This government is facing a lot of challenges, I mean, from an insurgency to a struggling economy. How high on the priority list do you think these addicts are for the government of Afghanistan?

FAQUIL GUL AMINI: (Through translator) I'm afraid to say when it comes to the list of priority for the government to deal with the issue of drug addicts, I'm afraid to say it's below zero.

MONTAGNE: Which is why there is a village full of addicts.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING GLASS)

MONTAGNE: On a hot day, you can see a constant flow of men walking up and down on a path covered in broken glass, and going nowhere. Those who are on crystal meth are easy to spot. They're wired.

One we encounter has the air of a 60-something hipster: trim grey beard, a black leather jacket, a tattoo on his hand spelling Love. His name is Haji Ismatullah and the young men clustered around him call out, he's a writer.

Are you a writer?

HAJI ISMATULLAH: Yeah. (Through translator) A poet.

MONTAGNE: Poet.

At this, he opens up a notebook filled with elegant Persian script in red and black.

ISMATULLAH: (Through translator) I say this poetry for the people here, the pain of these people.

MONTAGNE: Haji Ismatullah carries his own pain. He says he began using crystal meth after his wife and three children were killed in a car accident.

ISMATULLAH: (Through translator) My heart was hurting a lot after the accident when I lost my family. So some people told me that if you take meth, it makes you forget things.

MONTAGNE: And did you forget? Did it help?

ISMATULLAH: Yeah, for one month, two months, three months it helped me. And after, it not help me because it's not a good friend, you see.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: However, Haji Ismatullah would like some meth right now. So we walk with to his place. And as we walk, a young woman who carries herself like a dancer comes toward us. The men see her and laugh. She's lost her mind, they say, she's crazy.

She does in fact, call herself the name of a famous Iranian singer and seems to think she's onstage. Decked out in a magenta cape, turquoise beads, and a turban, she tosses her head dramatically and with a kind of wild beauty. She spins away just as we reach Haji Ismatullah's stone igloo.

ISMATULLAH: This is my house. And you want to see?

MONTAGNE: Very small for two people?

ISMATULLAH: Yeah, for two people it's very small. I smoke this now, you see.

MONTAGNE: So that glass pipe, or that pipe with the glass ball on the end, that's crystal meth.

ISMATULLAH: Yeah. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Having gotten high, Haji Ismatullah is ready to wander again, so we walk to the top of a hill to a makeshift cemetery. He takes us to a fresh grave marked by a small mound of rocks. There lies his friend Baluchi. ...

And what did your friend that you just buried, what did he die of?

ISMATULLAH: He's sick. He's sick. He told me, this night my last night and by morning time, some people come from my house told me, Haji, Haji you come, Beluchi's die. Sure. Right, he's die.

INSKEEP: It's a moment that brings to mind a question we put earlier to a man named Mohammed. Six months he'd lived there high on heroin. And I asked him, what is your future? He replied, look at my life, this life. The end for us is death. That's what we're waiting for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we return to Istalif, a center of ceramics for hundreds of years in Afghanistan we're potters are once again prospering.

It's NPR News.

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