Desperate Measures Afghan Mothers Use Opium As Surrogate Medicine

More and more people in Afghanistan are using opium as a painkiller due to a severe lack of medical supplies in the country. Some mothers are even giving it to their children, much to the concern of the UN.

By Joachim Hoelzgen

The province of Badakhshan is located at the north-eastern tip of Afghanistan. Its valleys line the Hindu Kush mountain range, from which rises Noshaq, the highest mountain in Afghanistan at 7,492 meters (24,580 feet). But the silent beauty of the mountain landscape contrasts with the fate of the village dwellers, whose rugged life takes its toll early.

They live in a world of social devastation, as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), the news service of the United Nations (UN), has now revealed. Many of them take opium without knowing about its dangers, smoking the brownish-black substance through a hookah, because there is no medication in the villages. Opium contains morphine, which initially acts as a painkiller. It also contains codeine which suppresses coughs -- something which almost everyone in the valleys, especially children, suffer from due to the harsh winters.

And there is no shortage of opium in the province of Badakhshan right now. The poppy fields will be harvested here until the end of the month. Farmers slit open the buds with their knives during the day, so that the milky juice inside is released. During the night, the juice solidifies and is scraped off, again using an opium knife, to yield raw opium the next morning.

Opium consumption has tended to be the exception in Afghanistan until today, despite the fact that the country is the world's leading opium producer, with an output of 6,100 tons last year. The use of intoxicants is prohibited to the deeply religious Afghans, as decreed in the holy Koran. It was only a drug mafia consisting of warlords, smugglers and Taliban fighters that properly began exporting opium and the heroin produced from it. From Afghanistan, heroin is transported to Pakistan, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and Iran, and from there to the rest of the world.

But now, with a series of record harvests, more and more Afghans are falling prey to the drug. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that a million people between the Hindu Kush mountains and the deserts of southern Afghanistan have now become addicted to opium.

Child Addicts

The effects are especially severe in Badakhshan. There, women who use opium to replace medication -- and also give it to their sick children -- are especially affected. In the village of Jokhan, for example, Sadaf, a mother of four, uses opium as a tranquilizer by sucking the smoke from a hookah and then blowing the smoke into the mouths of her children.

One of the children has pneumonia, like many of the children here, according to the report by an IRIN journalist, and the siblings also suffer from bronchial diseases. But thanks to the morphine, they keep quiet for the time being and have stopped crying.

But the mother, Sadaf, is unaware that the smoke will only aggravate her children's diseases -- and that they will become addicted, just like her. The UN correspondent also made a video showing the grandmother giving the opium smoke to the children. A small girl with a disturbed expression on her face looks into the camera, her eyes glazed over.

The children look emaciated and waiflike due to their opium consumption, like junkies in a Berlin subway station, and the lined faces of the women also testify to their hard lives. The addicts among them suffer from asthma and dry coughs. In combination with poor hygiene, opium abuse and the weakening of the immune system that comes with such abuse, the effects are devastating.

The Afghanistan office of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in Kabul has found out that Badakhshan also has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. For every 100,000 births, 6,500 mothers die during pregnancy, delivery or during the childbed period.

And much as with addicts in the West, opium addiction aggravates the poverty of Afghan women. Bibi Mullah from the Yamgan district in Badakhshan, for example, spends 200 afghani every day to purchase opium. That's the equivalent of €3 ($4) and twice the daily wages of an Afghan roadworker. Bibi Mullah has had to sell a piece of land she inherited and is now left without anything.

Record Harvest

It's not that no one is tending to the people in underdeveloped Badakhshan, whose population is 1.11 million. But the mountainous province is almost the size of Germany's Lower Saxony region, and reaching a doctor in Jokhan, for example, takes two days -- on foot or on the back of a donkey. Even the German military with its vehicles needs 10 hours to get from the neighboring province of Kunduz to Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan.

Still, the German reconstruction teams working in Afghanistan can take pride in the fact that opium poppy cultivation is declining in their provinces. They are the only Afghan provinces where that is the case. In the conflict-ridden southern and eastern regions of the country, by contrast, yet another harvest record has been set.

But the UN's anti-drug forces are fighting a losing battle in Badakhshan. A health education campaign which used informational leaflets, for example, would be a waste of time, since hardly anyone in the hinterland can read. And all attempts at getting the opium addicts to break their habit have failed so far. UN medics and doctors have treated 3,730 addicts so far. But all started smoking opium again after their rehabilitation treatment was over.


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