Page last updated at 17:21 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 18:21 UK

Opium addiction fuels Afghan chaos

A new survey of drug addiction in Afghanistan is expected to show a major rise in drug consumption in the country.

The BBC's Ian Pannell visits northern Afghanistan to survey the damage wrought by opium addiction.

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Audio and images by Ian Pannell and Richard Colebourn
Slideshow production by Phil Coomes. Publication date 17 May 2010.

Shasana had just come home from school. It was midday, and she crouched on the floor of her family's mud hut, waiting patiently for her lunch and her opium.

Her small head, cloaked in a bright green scarf, ducked towards the floor. She put a long wooden pipe to her lips and sucked. The far end glowed and bubbled before her head disappeared in a haze of smoke.

At just 10 years old, Shasana is already an opium addict. Her mother is too. In fact, most of the people she knows in this windswept village are.

They all live in a tiny cluster of mud buildings in the middle of the Turkmen desert in Afghanistan's far north.

Three times a day, they stop work to smoke, and for a while the pain eases and the misery of life floats away

The land they occupy is as barren as it is wild; too hot in the summer and stranded by mud in the winter.

There are no fields or forests, no rivers or streams, so the men spend the day gathering brushwood while the women go to work on one of Afghanistan's most famous exports: carpets.

But it is back-breaking work and the women complain that they ache all over.

On average, it takes three months of 10-hour days and seven-day weeks to create one of these beautiful rugs, and it is opium that keeps them going.

Three times a day, they stop work to smoke, and for a while the pain eases and the misery of life floats away.

The carpet-weavers give it to their children to treat them when they are sick or to pacify so they can go to work, and so the cycle of addiction starts from birth.

Universal remedy

Opium is a panacea for hundreds of thousands of people in Afghanistan.

In many areas, there are simply no doctors or modern pharmaceuticals available, so the brown, sticky opium is smoked and ingested by men and women, boys and girls - and even babies.

Afghan village girl Shasana smoking opium
Where there are no doctors or medicine, opium is smoked

It is used to treat headaches, pains, sickness and the psychological scars of three decades of war and poverty.

The last research on drug addiction in Afghanistan was published five years ago.

A new survey is being finalised now and is expected to show a 50% rise in the number of addicts to about 1.5 million.

In a country of just 30 million, that would mean Afghanistan has the highest relative rate of addiction of any country in the world.

Afghans sit at the wrong end of many league tables: it is one of the poorest countries in the world, also one of the most corrupt and violent, and it sits right at the very top in terms of opium production. More than 90% of opium and heroin originates here.

It is not surprising that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) leapt on the recent news that a mystery fungus may have destroyed as much of a quarter of the opium-producing poppy harvest, because in absolute terms drug demand reduction and poppy eradication has failed.

While there is evidence of a decline in production in the last two years and some provinces have now been declared "poppy-free", the overall trend for the last 10 years is of a massive increase in opium production and addiction.

Holding back the tide

Those who do work on front-line services are struggling to cope.

A tiny 20-bed clinic in Mazar-i-Sharif is the only facility for tens of thousands of addicts in the north of the country.

When my son was born, he had earache; we couldn't get to a doctor, so I gave him opium to help him get rid of the pain
Izat Gul

The handfuls who are admitted are forced to go "cold turkey" and receive stern lectures from former addicts.

We met three generations of one family on the women's ward: a grandmother, her daughter and grandchildren, including a two-month-old baby boy, all addicted to opium.

The baby's mother, Izat Gul, explained how her children had become addicts.

"When my son was born, he had earache. We couldn't get to a doctor, so I gave him opium to help him get rid of the pain. After my daughter was born, she got stomach aches, and I only had opium to give to her for medicine, so now they're both addicted."

Dr Mobeen helps run the clinic and struggles valiantly to hold back the tide, but with just 20 beds for nearly a 100,000 addicts, he admits it would take 100 years to help them all.

And that assumes it is possible to stop the demand as well as the supply.

Fuelling war

At the same time, in the west of the country, a long convoy of tractors and diggers moved through the lush fields of Shindand District near Herat.

Police officers destroy poppy crops in Badakhshan province, Afghanistan, July 2009
The international community wants to persuade farmers to grow other crops

The vivid purple and white flowers mark out the beautiful and deadly poppy. More than 90% of the world's opium and heroin comes from here and the south of the country, in particular Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

The drugs are taxed by the Taliban, the police and corrupt government officials. The smuggling routes bring weapons and the precursors for roadside bombs into the country too.

As the tractors set to work, ploughing up field after field, one farmer tries in vain to halt the work, standing in front of the giant wheels, waving at the driver and trying to force him to stop.

His anger is palpable and unsurprising. This one small field, about 25 metres squared (270 sq ft), represents the entire annual income for his family, and it has just been wiped out.

When this kind of eradication has happened elsewhere in the country, it has turned largely peaceful areas into insurgent strongholds.

The latest plan by the international community is to try and persuade farmers to grow other crops and to go after some of those who really profit from this instead, in particular drug-traffickers.

But it is slow, under-resourced work that has yet to show convincing results.

And until it does, the flow of money for insurgents and corrupt officials will continue, and the number of addicts will rise. Perhaps more than any other single factor, opium fuels the chaos that keeps Afghanistan at war.

Increasingly, people are now moving from opium to heroin. The drugs they smoke and inject fuel crime, corruption and insurgency, the very targets of the international community's war in Afghanistan.

But these addicts are simply not a priority, and it is slowly pulling apart an already fragile nation.

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