Drugs Hollow Out Afghan Lives in Cultural Center
KABUL, Afghanistan — The men, hollow-eyed and matted, start coming at dawn, shuffling into the remains of the old Soviet Cultural Center, which in its day staged films celebrating the glories of a new era.
These days, the shell of the abandoned building serves as perhaps the world’s largest gathering spot for men looking to satisfy their lust for heroin and opium. Stooping in the darkened caverns of the place, amid the waste and exhalations of hundreds of others, the men partake of the drug that has begun to wreak its deathly magic in the very country where it is produced.
One such man, who called himself Mohammed Ofzal, struck a match beneath a piece of foil and sucked in the blue smoke that rose from the liquefying little mass. Then he sat back in a crouch, legs shaking a little. His eyes, glazed and half-shut, stared blankly at the floor.
“My parents are fed up with me; they are telling me to quit,” Mr. Ofzal said. He said he was 18. His clothes, unlike nearly everyone else’s in the gathering post, were pressed and clean. He said he would go home soon; he would not be spending the night. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you could die here.”
Around him were a hundred other men, some crouching, some collapsed, some unconscious; some, perhaps, were dead. The visitors, though not the denizens, covered their faces from the smell. Mr. Ofzal lit another match and bent down to drink in the smoke.
Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium, is drowning in a sea of its own making. While the country’s narco-traffickers ship vast quantities of the stuff to Europe and the United States, enough of it stays behind to offer a cheap and easy temptation to the people at home. A United Nations survey taken four years ago revealed 200,000 opium and heroin addicts in a population of about 35 million; a new study, to be completed in the summer, is expected to show even more.
Addiction in Afghanistan is rising along with the country’s opium production, which is cranking at something close to fever pitch. With much of its society and many of its institutions ruined by 30 years of fighting, Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s opium. The money earned from narcotics accounts for more than half of the country’s gross domestic product. It feeds the Taliban insurgency.
The Soviet Culture Center is the most public of arenas in which to view the trade’s depredations on ordinary people. (For the men, that is; the center, like virtually every other public place in Afghanistan, is strictly segregated by sex.) The building sits in the Dehamatzang neighborhood of western Kabul, the scene of ferocious and prolonged fighting during the civil war that engulfed the country in the 1990s. The exterior walls are crumbled and pockmarked with bullet holes.
Inside is a landscape of extraordinary human wreckage. The rooms resemble catacombs; lightless and fetid and crammed with dozens, even hundreds, of bodies, each one clinging to his bit of space, his bit of elixir. Clouds of blue smoke rise, linger and dissolve. Almost no one speaks. In a corner, a man, seated on the floor, offers candy and cigarettes. In an ordinary day, 2,000 men pass through here. That’s on top of the nearly 600 who never leave. “Did you bring any money?” one of the men asked, as hunched and withered as a gargoyle.
“No,” said another, slipping his friend a tiny packet.
Next to them a body slumped in an improbable pose — curled, stiff, yet balanced, delicately, as if on the head of a pin. After a time the body fell over, as frozen as before. No one looked up.
Men and boys are not the only people who have fallen prey to the drug; women and girls are merely harder to find. Typically, females, prohibited from wandering the streets, stay indoors, which mitigates their helplessness but shields them from help.
A woman named Aziza, for instance, lives at home with her six children, who range in age from 18 months to 21. Aziza, who like many Afghans has only one name, is a gaunt and reduced figure, possibly beautiful once, but now a woman of papery skin and sunken cheeks and eyes sunk deep in her skull. For Aziza, as for many here, smoking opium is a way to escape a life without hope.
Two years ago, Aziza’s husband died in a car accident, and with no way of supporting her family on her own — women in this deeply conservative society do not generally work outside the home — she fell into despair. One day, a friend offered her a pipe and opium. She took it. Since then, Aziza has been smoking two or three times a day, sometimes in front of her children.
“Opium has been a good friend to me; it has taken away my sorrows,” Aziza said, seated in the corner of her one-room house, with her children looking on.
Kabul contains a tiny handful of clinics that treat drug abuse, but they have nowhere near the capacity to treat the number of people in need. About six months ago, the counselors from one clinic, alerted by the neighbors, found Aziza in her home and invited her to the clinic. Aziza stayed for 24 hours.
“When I need it, it is a kind of an attack,” she said afterward. “I can’t resist the opium; it is stronger than I am.”
With her children standing by, Aziza reached into a cloth bag and produced a filthy spoon, a bit of powder and a straw. Her 6-year-old son, Mirwais, stood to his mother’s left, 10-year-old Sonia stood to her right. Aziza, eyes glazed, struck a match but could produce no spark. She tried again and failed. Finally, Sonia took the box from her mother’s hands, struck a flame and handed the match to her mother.
Aziza bent over and breathed in the blue smoke..