- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan — With her grandfather, father, mother and a brother all addicted to opium, it’s little surprise that this Afghan family’s youngest member has also fallen under the drug’s spell.

Except for one thing: Aria is just 15 months old.

“All the time she is crying, so I give her just a little bit of opium to go to sleep,” said her mother Suhaila, 30, who goes by one name, cradling Aria in a squalid apartment block in eastern Kabul.

Opium use among all age groups is on the rise in Afghanistan, which produces more of the drug than any other country, according to the United Nations. But in a poor nation where anti-narcotics efforts are focused on combating supply, not demand, there are few places to treat addicts who need help.

“It’s a big problem here, there aren’t many places to go,” said Mohammad Stanekzai, program manager at the Nejat rehabilitation center in Kabul, the only aid agency in the capital established specifically to help addicts. “We have 130 people on the waiting list [for in-house care], but we’ve only got 10 beds.”

The government’s equivalent, the Drug Dependency Treatment Center, has just 20 beds adjoining a mental hospital.

Afghan authorities, busy trying to rebuild a war-ruined nation and fending off attacks by insurgents, are trying to get a handle on how big the problem really is.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime is carrying out a study in Kabul to determine the number of addicts in the capital. The report has yet to be completed, but the UNODC deputy representative to Afghanistan, Adam C. Bouloukos, said one trend is clear.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in opium use — eating, smoking, injecting — particularly among refugees [in Pakistan and Iran] and returning refugees,” he said.

“It’s understandable in the sense that you’ve got depressed populations. They’ve lost everything, they’re living in refugee camps with thousands of other people with no sanitation, no food, no water, bad conditions,” Mr. Bouloukos added.

Before returning to Afghanistan last year, Suhaila, too, was living with her family in a refugee camp near Peshawar in neighboring Pakistan. Conditions in Kabul are not much better. Suhaila lives in a ruined building that was never completed because of a 1990s civil war.

Her husband has been an addict since birth and has smoked regularly for most of his adult life. When he married Suhaila, he offered her pieces of raw opium, a dark gooey substance, to cure minor ailments like coughs or headaches.

Opium has long been used as a traditional medicine in Afghanistan, particularly in remote regions with little or no access to health care. It can fight off the cold, even curb appetite, but it is addictive.

“I first ate it two or three times a week, whenever I felt bad,” Suhaila said. “But after two to three years, I ate it every day.”

While opium can kill if taken in excess, it rarely does. Economically, however, it can be devastating to people who are jobless, in need of food, and virtually broke.

Mr. Stanekzai, the program manager at the Nejat rehab center, says addicts can spend as much as 50 afghanis, or about $1, on the drug per day — a day’s pay for civil servants and day laborers.

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