Heroin from Home – Afghanistan's Double Dilemma
Putting the viewfinder to my eye became not just the way to make pictures – it offered a momentary escape from the macabre scene playing out right in front of me. Sitting cross-legged in the bloodstained dirt was a young Afghan male, mid-30s perhaps, dressed raggedly and prone to sluggish movements. Bent silently over a torn soda can, he cooked his evening fix of heroin.
It's nearly 6 p.m. in Bagh-e Ali Mardan, a war-ruined and neglected neighborhood of Kabul. It's an area I've walked through and photographed many times before. This was really the first, however, that I'd ventured beyond the crumbling façade of its main street – ventured from the smell of open sewer, the dust, potholes and line of small, cluttered kiosks – to see what lay behind.
A hole knocked through the thick clay bricks gave access. The entrance brought a maze of rooms without roofs. In almost every corner of the complex huddled a small group of men, faces to the wall. I counted 50 or 60 that first afternoon, more as time went on, heroin users crouched to the ground, each silently wrapped in his effort to get high.
Continuing to look around, I walk cautiously, quietly, not to disturb. Some of the faces are young, others maybe in their 60s or even 70s. A lot are meek; a few have angry looks that aren't necessarily directed toward me. All are "glazed over" and their silence is eerie.
I've been returning to this place of refuse and rubble for a few days now. A simple gesture with my camera sometimes brings a nod and I go on working. There are weak flips of the hand too, a sign to just "let me be." Minutes later the rebuff evaporates, the man lost to the hot, dry Kabul air and the power of drug. It no longer matters and I compose my shots freely again. Infrequently there's a hint of a smile – a vague recognition that I've been here before. I walk slowly toward it and we clasp hands, then place them to our hearts.
In Kabul a fix can weigh from 50 to 100 grams. It comes wrapped in tinfoil and costs something like 80 Afghanis ($1.60 US). Shopkeepers in Bagh-e Ali Mardan are said to sell it. Better-heeled passersby sell it too. For the majority of heroin addicts here such a sum is a real challenge to come up with on a daily basis – several times a day. Petty thievery and manipulation is often the answer. It takes place in bazaars among friends and with members of one's own family. I took care never to be a part of it. I used fruits and nuts as entrée to making the pictures I wanted and they were always well received.
According to Afghan government figures from 2005, over a million of its citizens are addicted to heroin. Many became so as refugees in Iran and Pakistan during the Taliban years from 1996 to 2001. Sixty-thousand of these addicts live within the capital. The majority are males, some as young as 12 years old. Women and children are also among the ranks and the newborns of addicted mothers are particularly sad to witness.
The front line of Afghanistan's own fight against heroin's wide grip lies on the outskirts of Kabul. Not nearly sufficient, the 10-bed detox facility goes by the name "The Nejat Center," meaning "rescue" in Dhari. Each Saturday new "intakes" are welcomed, sent by outreach officials from the country's 34 provinces. For 15 days they stay here going "cold turkey" through the process of ridding heroin from their bodies.
A call to the Center's director, Dr. Tariq Suliman, brought me the opportunity to make pictures. The need for positive publicity was paramount, he said, and explained that it was in Pakistan – Peshawar – where the seed for this effort first was planted. The operation was moved to Kabul shortly after the Americans came and the city was secured. I arrived on a Wednesday with an Afghan photographer and equipment. We introduced ourselves to the staff of five and were presented to a gathering of 40 or more who had come to hear anti-drug lectures, socialize and receive a midday meal. Looking around, I was certain that I'd seen some of these faces at Bagh-e Ali Mardan before.
At first, my colleague and I were met with the usual Afghan suspicion, largely cultural, part circumstantial. We stated our reason for being there and requested permission to make pictures. There were no declines.
Though humble in capacity, the patient ward on the Center's second floor was filled with hope. Here were housed those currently fortunate enough to receive treatment.
"Salam ali kum," I offered, without response from a man held firmly to his bed in the corner of the room. Beside him stood an infusion stand, its bottle of saline solution supplying hydration to his body. A physician looked on but it was the hand of a fellow patient steadying him – comforting him – in this second day of withdrawal that drew my photographer's eye.
For the problem of heroin addiction in Afghanistan – a land producing over 90 percent of the world's opium – the international community shows little to no sympathy. Yet the photographs I took in that nation's capital wouldn't be all that different if they had been made in cities throughout the western world. Raw or refined, Afghanistan's number-one moneymaker sends misery to millions beyond its borders and – these days – keeps a growing amount of it within them, too.
© David Bathgate
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