Day in the life of an addict

It's dawn in Chendawul's twisting tiny streets, southeast of the capital Kabul. In the isolated ruins of an old building, Suhail, a 28-year-old drug addict, sits on piles of rubbish surrounded by hundreds of flies.

He is preparing to smoke his first 10-gram heroin dose of the day. "This is my palace. No disturbance from the police or passers by," says Suhail. He heats the heroin powder on the foil of a cigarette pack and sucks its smoke through a plastic pen tube. "There are many ways of smoking it," says Suhail with closed eyes and shivering smiling lips.

Suhail recalls his former days when he was a high school student and poppy grower in the eastern city of Jalalabad, one of the leading poppy growing provinces of conflict-ravaged Afghanistan. "I used to harvest poppy fields. I started to eat opium just for fun which later turned to disaster," says the homeless Suhail, who fled home when his family discovered his addiction three years ago.

Suhail gets out of his "palace" after an hour of being "high", and looks for menial jobs to fund his next supply. "I have to work for two days to support my daily habit," he says. It costs Suhail 250 afghanis (US $5) to buy his daily supply of heroin powder. "I often steal or beg for money if there is no work," he says.

For drugs addicts like Suhail, who live in the world's leading opium producer country, finding the drug is not a problem. "It's abundant, you can get it as easy as buying Coca-Cola," he claims. "The drug dealers are known to addicts and to the police as well. We are however treated as criminals while they are regarded as respected members of this community."

Drug addiction in conservative Afghan society is more than just an illegal act. Suhail says he is judged guilty of offending against law and order, culture and religion. "There's nowhere to take refuge. The people hate us, the police hate us and hospitals hate us," says the young peasant.

"Just recently, the police caught me red-handed while buying heroin from a local drug dealer. The drug dealer was released on the spot and I was detained for several days," he maintained. "I had to do hard manual work and clean all the toilets of the police station for three days before I was released."

But still Suhail prefers detention in a police station to spending nights on the streets of Kabul. "At least there is a bed to sleep on," he says. "I often sleep in mosques or cafés but sometimes they kick me out when they realise that I am an addict."

Afghan opium feeds a major market demand of western countries. The country produced 3,600 tonnes of opium in 2003. This is projected to increase considerably in 2004, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Consequently, recent studies indicate that drug abuse is now turning into a serious problem for the Central Asian nation. Latest UNODC reports indicate that the capital Kabul alone has around 60,000 drug addicts.

According to the UN agency, the main drugs used in Afghanistan are hashish, opium, heroin and a wide range of pharmaceutical painkillers and tranquillisers. Other drugs including alcohol, volatile glues and solvents are also on the list of top illicit drugs.

While drug abuse is rising alarmingly, there are very few rehabilitation and detoxification centres in the country. Suhail says he was forcibly taken by local police to a government rehabilitation 20-bed hospital but he managed to escape. "It was like prison. They stopped me from smoking it, which is impossible to do at once."

The destitute drug-victim has no hope of once again being a respectable member of his community. "I think I'm on a one-way street," he says.