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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 08:15 GMT 09:15 UK
Afghanistan in the grip of opium
The beginning of the poppy harvest in Afghanistan has revealed the extent to which the country is now in the grip of opium production.

Herat
Herat alone has 70,000 heroin addicts
Many of the country's farmers are dependent on opium for income - but now there are vast numbers of people in the country dependent on it as addicts.

In both cities and rural areas, the drug has drawn in men and women, old and young, both as producers and - almost unnoticed until now - as consumers as well.

"My family are drug smugglers. My dad used to take drugs to Iran," 14-year-old Araf, who has been part of drug smuggling since the age of six, told BBC World Service's Analysis programme.

Araf said his father often made the short journey into Iran from the family home in Herat, near the border.

"Before he set out we all helped him clean the plants and sort out the packages.

"We used to watch dad take heroin himself - then one day, when he was away, we tried it ourselves," he explained.

"I enjoyed it a lot - it was a sleepy feeling, and I dozed off.

"I took it for eight years. I am an addict, and so are all my brothers and sisters."

Family collapse

Araf's experience was little different to that of a stereotypical drug user anywhere in the world.

"We spent everything we had on heroin - all our possessions are gone," he said.

Tony Blair and Hamid Karzai
It is in the direct interest of the people in the UK to help Afghanistan do well, so that people in the rest of the world can do well
Hamid Karzai
"Our parents sent us out to beg in the streets."

Araf's family eventually collapsed, with his parents being sent to prison.

Other families in the country struggle on - one woman in Kapisa, north of Kabul, told Analysis how she had to live off scraps after her husband became an addict.

Her daughter, aged 12, would have abuse shouted at her in the street.

Although it is usually women who keep the households together in the country, they too are now heavily involved in the heroin trade.

Some, such as Mariam - whose addict husband died 16 years ago - make their living as dealers. They sell only to other women, such is the nature of respectability in Afghanistan.

"[My husband's] mother was an addict - I didn't know that at first - and his father was an addict," Mariam explained.

"My husband used to even sell my clothes to find drug money."

Refugees

Afghanistan has just one drugs rehabilitation centre - in Herat, where there are estimated to be 70,000 addicts.

Poppy harvester
Farmers are reliant on poppies to avoid starvation
A great number of the people there are returned refugees, deported from countries in which they sought asylum during years of conflict.

They become addicts when they are forced into refugee camps on their return.

In turn, this further increases heroin demand in the country.

This year's crop is predicted to be the best ever for farmers - who maintain they simply rely on opium through necessity.

"I grow poppies on part of my land - most people in this province grow them," explained farmer Hadji Mohammed.

He said that about a third of the land was usually used for opium production, with the rest put aside for wheat.

"That one third generates far more money than the rest put together," he said.

"Nothing but poppy-growing can pay for my costs - the labour, the fuel, the water.

"We grow poppies out of need. If I didn't grow them, tell me - how would I feed my family?"

"Terrorism funding"

Mr Mohammed's view is typical of a great number of Afghanistan's farmers.

Opium producer
Opium production is now a dominant part of both rural and urban life
"Unfortunately the Afghan people continue to depend on poppy and the growth of drugs," Hamed Karzai, Afghanistan's president, said on recent trip to London.

He said it was in the international interest to help Afghanistan stop growing opium - or face even worse problems.

He stressed that failing to tackle the problem would mean funding for terrorism would increase, and there would be massive further drug use problems.

"It is in the direct interest of the people in the UK to help Afghanistan do well, so that people in the rest of the world can do well," he added.

Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer.

"A lot of the population - perhaps three to four million - directly depends on the drug economy," British scholar Jonathan Goodhand told Analysis.

"There is a long history of growing small amounts of poppy for medicinal purposes. What's new is just the sheer scale of it."

The explosion in production has come about partly as a result of the fall of the Taleban, Mr Goodhand explained.

"The key factor has been really the breakdown of central authority, and that has provided opportunities for warlords to establish their fiefdoms," he said.

"Clearly the Taleban made a lot of difference on the ground, production went down dramatically. The Taleban did have the coercive power to do that, whereas the Karzai government doesn't.

"But it's not going to happen through an edict or a government ruling - a whole range of other factors have to be taken into account."

Failed efforts

The greatest of these factors is money.

Sign put up by the Taleban warning about drugs
The loss of central government has seen the drugs problem explode

Last year the Afghan Government launched an effort to pay farmers compensation if they destroyed their crop.

But the scheme failed because members of the local government paid people to pose as farmers and claim the payouts.

The officials then collected the payments from the bogus farmers, while the real farmers simply continued to grow opium.

"The assumption is it's basically about greedy profiteers and warlords, and that's far from the case," Mr Goodhand said.

"A large section of the population depend on this for survival. It's not about profit, it's about pure survival."


SEE ALSO:
Record Afghan poppy crop forecast
18 Mar 03  |  South Asia
UN warns on opium fears
26 Feb 03  |  South Asia


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