Hundreds of men using heroin, opium and meth were strewn over a hillside above Kabul in tents or lying in the dirt. Some of them overdose, and quietly slip across the line from despair to death.
“There’s a dead man next to you,” someone told me as I picked my way among them, taking pictures.
“We buried someone over there earlier,” another said.
One man was face down in the mud, not moving. I shook him by the shoulder and asked if he was alive. He turned his head a bit, just half out of the mud, and whispered that he was.
“You’re dying,” I told him. “Try to survive.”
“It’s fine,” he said, his voice sounding exhausted. “It’s OK to die.”
He lifted his body a little. I gave him some water, and someone gave him a glass pipe of heroin. Smoking it gave him some energy. He said his name was Dawood. He had lost a leg to a mine about a decade ago during the war and couldn’t work after that. His life fell apart and he turned to drugs to escape.
Drug addiction has long been a problem in Afghanistan, the world’s biggest producer of opium and heroin and now a major source of meth. The drug use has been fuelled by persistent poverty and decades of war that left few families unscarred.
It appears to be getting worse since the country’s economy collapsed following the seizure of power by the Taliban in August 2021 and the subsequent halt of international financing. Families once able to get by found their livelihoods cut off, leaving many barely able to afford food. Millions have joined the ranks of the impoverished.
Drug users can be found around Kabul, living in parks and sewage drains, under bridges and on open hillsides.
A 2015 survey by the U.N. estimated that up to 2.3 million people had used drugs that year, which would have amounted to about 5 per cent of the population at the time. Seven years later, the number is not known, but it’s believed to have only increased, according to Dr Zalmel, the head of the Drug Demand Reduction Department who like many Afghans uses only one name.
The Taliban have launched an aggressive campaign to eradicate poppy cultivation. At the same time, they inherited the ousted, internationally backed government’s policy of forcing drug users into camps.
Earlier this summer, Taliban fighters stormed two areas frequented by drug users — the one on the hillside and another under a bridge. They collected about 1500 people, officials said. They were taken to the Avicenna Medical Hospital for Drug Treatment, a former U.S. military base.
It’s the largest of several treatment camps around Kabul. There, the residents were shaved and kept in a barracks for 45 days. They receive no treatment or medication as they go through withdrawal. The camp barely has enough money to feed those who live there.
Such camps do little to treat addiction.
A week after the raids, both locations were once again full of hundreds of people using drugs.
On the hillside, I saw a man who was wandering in the darkness with a feeble flashlight. He was searching for his brother, who fell into drug use years ago and left home. “I hope one day I can find him,” he said.
Under the bridge, where the stench was overwhelming, one man in his 30s who identified himself as Nazer seemed to be a figure of respect, breaking up fights and mediating disputes.
He said he spends most of his days under the bridge but goes to his home every once in a while. Addiction has spread throughout his family, he said.
When I expressed surprise that the area under the bridge had filled up again, Nazir smiled.
“It’s normal,” he said. “Every day, they become more and more. … It never ends.”