- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

CHURACHANDPUR, India — As he’d done several times in the past, Lalchoi, 26, escaped from prison, returned to his father and demanded money for his daily fix of heroin. But this time Thangzathang, a retired soldier, was determined not to give in to his son.

On the pretext of going to the bank to get the money, Thangzathang left his house and returned with four volunteers from a Christian drug rehabilitation center.

Before the heroin addict could escape, the volunteers had overpowered him and dragged him off to the center.

“If I failed to meet his demand he would forcibly sell our household gadgets or burgle neighbors’ houses. One day, he even attacked me with a knife when I refused him money,” said Thangzathang, who has a wife and six other children depending on his pension.

To keep his son away from home and the temptation of heroin, Thangzathang had bribed police to put Lalchoi in jail. The police falsely booked the son as a “drug peddler caught with 7 grams of heroin” and a court sentenced him to 10 years in jail.

“The jailing didn’t help. He managed to get heroin even inside the jail. At least nine times in the past year, he escaped, and every time I had to call police to send him back. … I shall not take him to that jail anymore,” said Thangzathang.

‘Land of happiness’

For drug addicts in India’s northeastern Manipur state, Gamnuam Christian Home offers salvation from drugs. Located at the edge of Churachandpur, a Christian-majority town, the home is called Gamnuam (“Land of happiness” in a local tribal dialect).

As soon as Lalchoi was taken into Gamnuam for 3½ years’ probation, volunteers shackled his ankles with iron manacles and two heavy padlocks. Since he was identified as prone to violence, his hands were shackled as well.

“We needed a tough center for him. He cannot take drugs any more. We are relieved,” said Thangzathang.

Surrounded by a wall more than 16 feet high and topped with barbed wire, Gamnuam is well equipped to stop hard-core addicts from escaping its rehabilitation methods.

The inmates — about 80 mostly young men — are kept chained at the ankles, even at night. Those who commit an offense as serious as planning to escape are forced into wooden cages in the middle of the dormitory.

Inmates who disobey the strict regimen face even tougher punishment, such as canings and forced fasting for days.

Up to 10 hours a day are spent in prayer and other religious activities. The recovering addicts are offered counseling by the home’s director, Dousel Paokholian, and some former inmates who serve as volunteers.

Although the monthly charge for an inmate is 2,000 rupees — about $45 — the cost for some inmates from poor families is reduced by half. The poorest families are charged nothing.

Bible is ‘medicine’

“The Bible and the love chains are the only medicines” used at Gamnuam to treat addicts, Mr. Paokholian, 65, said proudly.

He said the addicts are extremely restless in the early stages of detoxification, and to help them get accustomed to a life of religion, spiritualism and discipline, it is important to keep them in chains.

“Chains are a gift of love from God to the inmates here,” the director insisted.

“The chains prepare an inmate to accept our religious and spiritual training, which finally helps him love his life and hate drugs. When we chain a wild and rebellious addict, he breaks down and finds it easy to accept our treatment.”

Although inmates hate to be in chains, some have later said the chains were a big help in treating their restlessness.

“When my father brought me to Gamnuam and I was put in chains, I found it painful and humiliating. I wanted to rebel, but the chains stopped me from running away, and finally I got a new life,” said Thangtinkhum, a former heroin addict who is now a lecturer at a theological college.

“If I had not been chained at Gamnuam, I might be in my grave by now after returning to heroin and contracting HIV and AIDS.”

Addicts seek alternatives

Located on the fringe of India’s so-called “Golden Triangle,” Manipur state, bordering Burma, is on the route of the international heroin trade and has one of the highest concentrations of heroin users in the Indian subcontinent.

However, with the price of heroin rising nearly threefold in the past five years, more than half the heroin addicts have switched to cheaper substitutes, such as common painkillers.

At Gamnuam, about half of the recovering drug addicts are HIV positive. But Mr. Paokholian isn’t concerned about their medical situation.

“We don’t want to find the medical cause of illness. When they fall sick, we simply present them before God and ask for his mercy and forgiveness. He gives us diseases, only he can cure them,” said Mr. Paokholian, himself a reformed alcoholic and gambler.

Not surprisingly, some inmates are bitterly critical of their treatment at the home. Caught during an escape four years ago, eight inmates were made to lie blindfolded with their hands and legs chained together. Under the sun at the peak of summer, each was kept wrapped in four woolen blankets — without food or water — for an entire day.

Another former inmate, who witnessed the punishment, said: “They sweated so much that, at the end of the day, the blankets appeared as wet as if they’d been dipped in buckets of water. They were dehydrated beyond imagination.

“Their bodies were numb and emaciated, and their fingers and toes resembled dry dates. They were almost dead.”

‘Killer fasting

For trying to break open his manacles last year, another inmate was denied food and water for a week. “I hate such killer fasting,” said the 26-year-old addict, who is still at Gamnuam.

“I could have died if I hadn’t secretly drunk water from the toilet. I knew it was drawn from an open pond and horribly dirty, but I was desperate, I had no choice,” he said.

The center is often criticized by human rights activists for chaining and caging its inmates. Some years ago, AIDS activists urged the state’s human rights commission to shut it down.

In a letter, the activists said the “barbaric and medieval” methods used to combat addiction at Gamnuam were based on “ignorance and superstition” and amounted to violation of international AIDS policy and individual human rights.

But the parents of inmates fought in support of the home.

“My son ran away many times from a jail and from five other conventional detoxification centers,” said Liandinga, the father of a recovering heroin addict.

“If Gamnuam had not chained him, he would have been back to drugs by now. He’s my only son. Can anyone else love him more than I do?

“When I want him to be in chains to save his life, why should others interfere?,” Liandinga asked.

The human rights commission decided that it couldn’t recommend any action against Gamnuam as long as the parents of inmates supported its methods.

“The parents support our way of treating addiction here, and we’re helping their families successfully. We don’t care what others think about us,” said Mr. Paokholian.

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