Page last updated at 00:17 GMT, Monday, 27 August 2007 01:17 UK

Inside an Afghan opium market

By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Shaddle Bazaar, eastern Afghanistan

Opium being sold at Shaddle Bazaar
Opium sellers are wary of outsiders

Travelling on Afghanistan's main Jalalabad to Torkham road, you eventually arrive at Shaddle Bazaar, a market of around 30 shops in the eastern province of Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan.

At first glance, it looks like any other normal market offering everyday goods.

But in reality, this is one of Afghanistan's biggest opium markets.

Farmers from Nangarhar and other adjacent provinces bring opium to Shaddle to sell. Much of it comes from Nangarhar and Helmand - two of Afghanistan's biggest opium-producing provinces.

Mud hut shop

Thousands of kilos of opium are bought and sold every day.


Sitting inside the shop tension between the drug dealers is visible - for a few minutes there is hot dispute and shouting over prices and the quality of the opium before the transaction is completed.

There are big scales in the shop, and the assistant weighs the opium on it - Gul Mohammad is busy counting out Pakistani rupees to pay for the opium he has bought from one of his suppliers.

In his mud hut shop he buys hundreds of kilos of opium every day and the smell of it is everywhere.

Outside his shop vehicles come and go - green tea is served constantly for the visitors.

It's argued that opium can be used for medicinal purposes

But you do not have to study what is going on too closely to notice the unusual - a man carries a big bag full of hundreds of thousands of Afghanis.

The dealers all carry pistols which they say is for their own protection.

Customers enter the shop bringing opium packed secretly, which they refer to by its nickname as maal. They are constantly on the look-out for government informers.

I am repeatedly asked not to take pictures of anyone's face, nor should I name anyone. The names of those involved in the drugs trade in this piece have been made up to protect their identity.

"We could get killed or arrested," says one of the few people in the shop willing to talk to me.

Europe bound

Some villagers, like 18-year-old Abdullah Jan, have to walk for hours before reaching Shaddle. The tiredness on his face explains it all - if he is stopped by government agents or bandits he would lose money that feeds his family for the entire year.

"I left at four in the morning and got here after four hours. I have brought 10kg of opium from my fields to sell."

After a hard bargain with Gul Mohammad Khan, the opium dealer, he is getting the equivalent of $1,400 - more than he can get for any other crop. He is one of hundreds of people who travel to Shaddle bazaar to sell and buy opium.

Graph showing soaring opium production in Afghanistan

From here the opium is taken to the nearby mountains and villages in the border areas to heroin labs set up by local drug dealers, where it is processed into heroin.

Eventually, it will hit the streets of Europe.

The market first began to sell opium openly under the Taleban regime after they permitted the cultivation of poppies.

After the fall of the Taleban in 2001, the market has been raided several times but it has re-opened again and again.

In recent months, Afghanistan's elite anti-drug force has raided the bazaar with the help of foreign forces in the country - they made arrests and seized opium and heroin in large quantities. But they did not succeed in closing down the bazaar indefinitely.

Last year, Afghanistan's poppy production reached record levels.

The US state department's annual report on narcotics said the flourishing drugs trade was undermining the fight against the Taleban.

Powerful mafia

It warned of a possible increase in heroin overdoses in Europe and the Middle East as a result.

Poppy production rose 25% in 2006, a figure US Assistant Secretary of State Ann Patterson described as alarming. Four years after the US and its British allies began combating poppy production, Afghanistan still accounts for 90% of the world's opium trade.

Opium being burnt in Afghanistan
The authorities are trying to eradicate opium crops

The US has recently given the Afghan government more than $10bn in assistance, but most of the money will be spent on security rather than encouraging alternative sources of income.

For 45-year-old Gul Mohammad Khan being a opium trader is his way of surviving.

"If we had roads, clinics, factories and if there were job opportunities I would not do what I am doing now," he said.

For the past 10 years Mr Mohammad has seen many regimes and local officials come and go. His shop has been raided many times but he has never been arrested.

Inside, I am shown various qualities of opium and other raw material that are used to make heroin. Current prices are anywhere from 10,000 Afghanis ($201) for a kilo of dry opium - that is the best quality - to around 5,500 Afghanis ($110) for wet opium.

Target traffickers

According to officials, the mafia is powerful and strong.

"They are so strong that we sometimes find ourselves outnumbered fighting them," says Gen Daud Daud, the deputy minister of interior in charge of counter narcotics.

"In these mountains of Achin district and other border villages they have everything from heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and of course better vehicles and more money than we do."

Haji Deen Gul - who is selling 20kg of opium - is critical of the Afghan government and the international community for targeting the farmers. Instead he wants the traffickers to be targeted.

"They should target the ones who are selling the heroin to Western countries. I sell my opium to feed my family and from my heroin they can even make medicine. When I have water and roads provided to me, I will stop growing poppies."

Before I leave Gul Mohammad Khan's shop, he tells me selling opium is not ideally the trade he wants to be in.

"I don't want my children to be in this trade and I hope that some day the world will help us. Only then can we stop the opium trade."

Names of those mentioned in the article have been changed to protect their identities.

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