The scene beneath the Pul-e-Sukhta bridge in western Kabul resembles a zombie movie. It is not always clear who is alive and who is not. Hundreds of men of all ages spend their days shooting up. They check each other for signs of life, tapping a foot or shaking a head. Some corpse-like bodies respond: they move a hand, raise their eyelids or groan. Others don’t. Their drowsiness had led them on a trip of no return.
Some 80% of the world’s opium and heroin comes from Afghanistan. The United States has invested $8 billion in combating the country’s drug trade over the last two decades, but the efforts have been of little use. The efforts were meant to combat the political insurgency that took over the country last year. “The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” César Gudes, head of the Kabul office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), acknowledged at the time, in statements to Reuters. According to the most recent UNODC data, in 2015, there were between 1.9 and 2.4 million adult Afghan drug consumers. Today, local authorities estimate that there are more than three million.
The addiction crisis is one of many issues facing the ruling Taliban regime. Its ban on poppy cultivation, and raids of street drug users, have had little success. A walk through Kabul reveals the scale of the tragedy.
Under the Pul-e-Sukhta bridge, a thin man lies motionless, his skin crusted in grime. His companions ignore him. Someone has covered his body with a mat that leaves his limbs exposed. “He’s been there for about three days,” calculates a neighbor, consuming just a few centimeters away. The deceased is flanked by two men whose slight movements put them on the other side of the thin line that separates life from death. It is hard to tell whether the stench comes from the dead, from the decomposing waste, the feces and urine, the drains that vomit the city’s dirty water or the overall lack of hygiene.
Karim, 37, has spent a month under a small shelter of sticks and plastic, consuming heroin and methamphetamine. “I live here,” he says, surrounded by other drug addicts in a space about 50 meters from the bridge. The Taliban raids have had little effect on them. Karim, who speaks coherently and moves with more ease than his peers, says that he was once married to a Danish woman. They had a son and a daughter, but everything went down the drain, the former tailor explains in English. His fluency in other languages is a reminder of his past lives: in addition to the local Dari, he also speaks Danish, Russian and Greek. A few meters away, a small burial mound in the parched riverbed marks a recent makeshift grave. The man died right there, and others covered his body with earth without digging a hole.
A hill overlooking the hustle and bustle of the Sharai Shamali neighborhood, among the tombs of an old cemetery and billboards, provides another home for hundreds of drug-addicted men. Jamsed, 34, has been consuming since he was 10. In a conversation with this reporter, he calls on the authorities to stop the distribution of drugs.
In 2015, the largest detox center in the country was created in Kabul. It occupies the site of a former US military base. Today it is called the Hospital of 1,000 Beds or Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna, 980-1037), in honor of a Persian doctor, scholar and philosopher. The head of the institution is a member of the Taliban who openly acknowledges that he has no experience combating addictions. “I came down from the mountains,” says Haj Mawlawi Abdul Nasir Munqad, 45, explaining that in his previous life he was a mujahideen, fighting foreign troops and the previous government. His resume includes six months in the US Guantánamo prison, on the island of Cuba in 2008, and three years in the Bagram base, a prison that US troops opened north of Kabul.
To access Abdul Nasir Munqad’s office, you have to flank the security of a couple of men armed with Kalashnikov rifles. The director of the center, which can hold 1,000 patients, regrets the lack of medicines, beds, pillows and clothing due to the ongoing economic blockade against the country.
In the middle of one of the corridors, between the residents’ dormitories, is the office of Dr. Wahedullah Koshan, a 52-year-old psychiatrist with 18 years of experience. He trained under the UNODC umbrella of the US Department of State International Narcotics Bureau. He holds the position of deputy director and has been working at Ibn Sina since it opened. Koshan explains the month-and-a-half detox process. The center employs about 400 people, including 30 doctors, 35 nurses, 50 social workers, 35 psychologists and 45 psychosocial workers. The psychiatrist mentions that they owe the employees five months of salary. Between 30% and 40% of their patients relapse. Like the director, Dr. Koshab insists that the institution lacks almost everything it needs.
One of the current inmates is 31-year-old Ahmad Samir Nuri. He was deported from Germany, where he worked in a kindergarten until 2020. He speaks English, German, Dari, Pashto, Urdu and Greek. “I only smoke hashish and marijuana and drink Absolut vodka, but I’m not a drug addict,” he says. An employee who has been in the center since its inauguration has many doubts about the method used and says that breaking addiction is not possible in many cases. Drugs in Afghanistan have posed a difficult puzzle for years. Wahedullah Koshan affirms the number of addicts in the country now exceeds three million. Just return to the Pul-e-Sukhta Bridge at sunset. In a cattle market above the heads of the users, life goes on. Amid the bleating of the sheep, the routine renders the drug addicts invisible.