ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- High in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush Mountains, drug addiction has turned into a survival strategy for an impoverished community in an isolated alpine village.
More than half of the estimated 2,000 residents of Afsay, a village in the Bargi Matal district of eastern Nuristan Province, now regularly smoke hashish or opium. Most begin taking the drug to relieve pain, cure diseases, or simply fight off the cold during the long winter months.
But many of those who experiment with the drugs eventually become addicts and even vigorously justify their habits in the scenic region lacking basic health care, infrastructure, and meaningful employment. Most days, the distinct smell of opium and hashish smoke emanates from the village’s narrow alleys.
“Using drugs has now turned into an integral part of life here. We do not grow any drugs. They all come from the neighboring province of Badakhshan. The drug mafia from there has taken hold here,” says Maulvi Mohammad Hassan, a local cleric who also serves as a community elder. “The authorities have failed to help us. Now even some of our women and children have become drug addicts.”
Waliullah, 37, is a drug addict. He has been smoking hashish for the past quarter-century. He first began taking drugs to cure common colds.
“There are no clinics and no medicine here. When someone gets sick, we rely on drugs to treat their pains,” he says. “This is how I became an addict.”
Jaffar, an elderly addict, says the lack of health care has led addiction rates to skyrocket.
“We are poor people and often sell our cattle to fund our addiction,” he said of his community, which relies on herding cattle and cultivating small fields to survive in the isolated region, where the nearest clinic is several hours’ drive or many days of walking away.
Nuristan Governor Hafiz Abdul Qayyum estimates that nearly 60 percent of Afsay’s residents are addicts. He says his forces are doing their best to disrupt drug supply routes from Badakhshan.
Checking movement in the vast mountainous region, where insurgents control large territories, is not easy for the thinly stretched and poorly resourced Afghan forces.
Qayyum says treating the addicts will go a long way toward mitigating the crisis.
“I am calling on the government to immediately build a 10-bed clinic in Afsay to begin treating addicts,” he said.
Zahida Faizan, who heads the Nuristan branch of the Afghan Women Affairs Ministry, agrees. She says women and children addicts are particularly vulnerable.
“Once you have one addict in a family, the chances are that more people will become addicts,” he said.
Faizan said treating addicts in the province, where most villages still lack basic health care, would be a step in the right direction.
“We need a special hospital to treat the addicts in Nuristan,” she said. “The addiction rates are rising not only in Bargi Matal but also in Nurgram district.”
The high addiction rates are likely contributing to the unraveling social fabric in Afsay. Locals say some religious clerics in the village have now become addicts, making it difficult for elders to campaign against and combat rising addictions. Across Afghanistan, clerics typically serve as enforcers of morality and oppose drug use because Islamic teachings strictly forbid the use of narcotics.
“We are in immediate need of rescue,” says Hassan, who is now one of the last voices against drug use in Afsay.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Kunar, Afghanistan.