Thursday, March 27, 2014

‘I sold my sister to fund drug addiction’ - the awful hold of Afghanistan's heroin habit


Addict parents in the world’s most drug-affected Afghan region are feeding their own children opium to keep them quiet and selling off relatives to fund their own heroin habits. Metro has found.

Worst-hit is the town of Shortepa in the Afghan province of Balkh, not far from the Uzbekistan border and along a trafficking route taking freshly-farmed opiates from source out into the rest of the world.
Such is some sufferers’ desperation to fund their habit, almost any money-making ruse will do – which is why 36-year-old Abdurahim Mutar admits trading in his own sister Tazagul, then 18 and now 22.
Meanwhile, his wife Seema, 22, was forcing some of her stash upon four-year-old daughter Madina and son Zabihula, two – and Abdurahim’s mother Zarghona, 58, and brother were indulging as addicts as well in a toxically-grim family affair.
Afghanistan is responsible for farming 90 per cent of the world’s opium and has 1million addicts of its own, more than any other country.
Yet only an estimated 10,000 each year are being treated, with only 21 of the country’s 34 provinces offering rehabilitation centres.
Abdurahim says he was addicted for 13 years – long enough, perhaps, but dwarfed by many here counting back at least two decades – and blames his mujahedeen days in the mountains.
Army colleagues apparently urged him to try opiates they felt necessary to get through their arduous days, but blue-collar workers here claim their drudgery duties picking plants make drugs tempting as well.
Yet Abdurahim also confessed: ‘When my daughter was one, we’d give her opium because she was crying a lot. She’d reject eating it but we’d give her the drugs by force.
‘We just weren’t aware it was dangerous or it would create health problems. If anything, we thought at the time it would be beneficial. It’s very common here.’
He had spent many hours since marrying trying to persuade his wife his drug habit was purely to treat a long-standing stomach-ache, only to find her unconvinced yet also tempted to try what he was taking.
It was only, ultimately, when he was pushed into Islamic Relief UK-supported treatment – in-house in Shortepa, while his wife like other women was treated at home – that he acknowledged the costs involved: not just 400 Afghanis each day but the obvious family neglect.
His sister Tazagul was traded away for $6,500 (£3.950) - sold to someone living in a distant region to help prop up the family finances and afford food as well as drugs.
Abdurahim said: ‘She accepted this. I was happy to get a lot of money for her, spending it without really thinking about where it came from.
‘Now I wish I’d used it better - for a vehicle or some property, perhaps.’
He also fatefully hesitated when asked to recall his baby son’s own name – as did 53-year-old recovering addict Mohammad Qul when asked to identify his own children.
Elsewhere, Kabul-based refugee camp resident Shah Bibi, 24, told of the dark secrets she only belatedly discovered about her heroin-addicted husband Ghafoor.
Only after his death last year did Shah realise his debts of 350,000 Afghanis (£3,770), accrued while working in the United Arab Emirates, had prompted him to promise elsewhere his daughters Farida, eight, and six-year-old Parwina.
Shah’s brother managed to intervene and cancel the deal for poor Farida, though only on the promise she be married off to someone from his sister’s own clan.
Dubious as such morals may seem, clinic staff in Balkh try to play upon religious devotion – or guilt – in their attempts to wean patients off drugs.
Posters above lines of men’s beds in the wards declare: ‘Every intoxicant is khamr [Arabic for liquor] and every khamr is harmful.’
Staff such as director Dr Mohammad Ehsan Hamrah take pride in a relapse rate of ‘only’ 50 per cent – meaning half of all supposedly-cured addicts fall back into the habit.
Then again, he points out other areas typically find as many as seven in ten patients are unable to remain drug-free once discharged.
Since opening in 2000, the 14-bed Shortepa centre has treated more than 1,500 people and the addiction rate across the province is said to have fallen.
While precise figures remain elusive, Dr Ehsan insisted: ‘Back in 2006 most families had addicts in them – not most families are without any addicts. This is our biggest achievement.’
And yet an estimated 99 per cent off addicts nationwide remain without formal help - often to their own families’ cost and loss.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

'Even hearing their name is enough to frighten us' - the caves haunted by the Taliban

Bamyan may be one of Afghanistan’s safest, if neglected, regions right now – yet its mountain cave-dwellers remain in fear of a Taliban return, symbolised by two huge scars of sentimental and historic significance.

A fundamentalist reign of terror ten years ago brought torture and mass killings to this spectacular setting 80 miles north-west of the capital Kabul.
Speaking to Metro from the lofty mountain cranny from which she was temporarily driven, 32-year-old mother-of-six Zahra Nazari recalled cradling her stricken father in her arms as he died from gunshot wounds.
Even the merest mention of the fearful T-word can trigger upset and panic in many people here, while a recent volley of bullets into the sky during a celebratory festival convinced some the Taliban were invading again.
This is one of the rare provinces in Afghanistan where, despite their previous occupancy, Taliban sympathisers are now said to be scarce.
Yet two stark reminders of that earlier gory rule remain in Bamyan: the towering, keyhole-shaped chasms in the mountains where two sixth-century Buddhas proudly stood until being blown by the Taliban for being ‘un-Islamic’ in 2001.

Many families still remain, whether in basic homes constructed in earthbound villages or in even more ramshackle nooks along snow-streaked mountain resembling huge slabs of Viennetta.
Islamic Relief’s Martin Cottingham said: ‘This place shows the potential of what the rest of Afghanistan could ideally be like – but also the risks there are of returning to the bad old days.’

Zahra Nazari’s family have lived in the peaks for years, their residence only interrupted by the Taliban reign when they sought shelter in nearby Behrud – though not before falling victim to the religious insurgents.
Her brother, a mujahedeen fighter, was shot dead in the northern region of Mazar-e-Sharif, while her father Jomakhan Hussain was gunned down while still here in Bamyan.
Zahra recalled: ‘He was shot at here in the mountains and died right in front of me – in my arms.
‘I can’t really remember anything more from that time except how I cried for more than 40 days and nights – more than that, probably. I just couldn’t stop.’

Yet she and her surviving relatives did ultimately manage to make their way, gradually, to safe refuge in Iran – only returning to Bamyan once they felt sure Nato forces had driven their tormentors away within a year.
Her husband Mohammad, 40 – who served a Taliban-imposed prison sentence before eventually being freed – now works as a police officer, a role that still brings its own specific dangers.
He was caught in a landmine explosion four years ago, leaving him with lingering leg injuries,
Harrowing ordeals live long in the mind, prompting Zahra to admit: ‘Even hearing the Taliban name is enough to frighten me. We hope they never come back again but who can say for sure?
‘I don’t understand much about Nato’s role here but I do worry enough about what might happen when they leave.
‘At least, I do hope my children can get to live somewhere else when they grow up.’

Between 400,000 and 600,000 people are believed to live in Bamyan province, some on the ground – some
in an estimated 200 mountain caves, two-thirds of which are occupied by internally-displaced refugees.
The main town of the same name, some 80 miles north-west of the capital Kabul, rises as high as 800m in altitude.
Among the success stories of the 36,000-population town – and London-based charity Islamic Relief’s education programmes there – is 32-year-old Uzra Lali.
She was taught to read and write by Islamic Relief’s inaugural literacy classes introduced in 2011 and now employs another 48 women helping her to embroider bags, rugs and other furnishings.

Uzra and her family originally lived in neighbouring Wardak province, running a grocery store and guesthouse until their village was attacked by the Taliban in 1998 and they were forced to flee.
Her husband Abdul Hamid was jailed for alleged offences against Islam, while Uzra escaped to Pakistan for three years before finally the couple could be reunited and settled with their five children in newly-liberated Bamyan.
Yet many problems afflicting Bamyan remain: the remote setting can deter investors, while a private clinic that recently opened its doors shut them again after mere months due to poorly-paid locals’ inability to afford the fees.
The widespread presence of Afghans from a Hazara heritage is also felt to contribute to the region’s neglect by Afghanistan’s predominantly-Pashtun political elite.

Transport links are largely restricted to sporadic United Nations aircraft and treacherous highways, while the province’s first electricity supplies were only introduced three months ago – and even then, only patchily.
Local health worker Khalil Rahman Anwari admitted: ‘Central government’s attention isn’t equal or just – there are no serious plans nor follow-ups.’
For the tentatively-hopeful locals, whether down on the ground or shivering above, the region does at least feel comparatively peaceful and secure enough. For now, anyway.

The Taliban has resumed control of large parts of Afghanistan and their power is only likely to expand as disputed presidential elections loom, security experts fear.
The Islamist fundamentalists dominate large swatches of southern and eastern Afghanistan and are merely ‘biding their time’ for Western troops to withdraw later this year, it was warned.
Vote-tampering claims and disputes over the outcome of the April 5 polls are widely expected, following similar rancour when Hamid Karzai was elected president four years ago.
Recent terrorism outbreaks in the capital Kabul - including last week’s assassination of an AFP reporter and his family - are also undermining faith in peace-keeping efforts.
Some nine people were killed when insurgents bypassed security checks at the upmarket Serena hotel in Kabul last Thursday, shooting dead nine people including four children.
The Taliban also claimed responsibility for a double suicide bomb attack outside the offices of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission on Tuesday morning.
Four insurgents then stormed the building, close to the home of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, in the latest fulfilment of Taliban promises to disrupt the election campaign.
The latest attacks follow the bombing of a Lebanese restaurant in the capital in January, killing 13 foreigners and eight Afghans.
Polls suggest the candidate most likely to emerge victorious next month will be either Zalmai Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani - though none is the clear favourite.
Omar Hamid, Asia head for London-based analysis consultancy IHS Country Risk, expects three-way tussles for power between Taliban forces, re-emerging ‘old warlords’ belonging to the likes of the Northern Alliance and ‘weak central government’.
Mr Hamid said: ‘We are already in a situation where there is a very weak central government while the Taliban is in the ascendant while waiting for the international forces’ withdrawal.
‘The Taliban are already powerful in southern and eastern parts of the country, while the security situation is worsening - including in Kabul.
‘Many people will feel if the government can’t guarantee security in the capital, then they’re hardly likely to do so elsewhere.’
Warlords such as Dostum, Khan, and Atta Muhammad Nur are increasingly intervening in trade agreements relating to ‘potentially lucrative ventues such as mining or energy,’ he added.

"We can't afford our own coffins" - the Afghan refugees clinging to hope amid terror and tragedy


AFGHAN refugees are pleading with Western troops not to abandon them once more to the resurgent Taliban, while yet cursing the Nato bombs that forced them from homes and killed family and friends.
Survivors of 13 years’ conflict since the Allied invasion are terrified of a return to persecution once US- and UK-led forces complete their long-planned pull-out by the end of this year.
Starving families crammed into refugee camps across the capital Kabul, cramped in wattle-and-daub hideaways, told Metro they fear being left even more vulnerable in the months and years ahead.
Yet there is also bitterness at how the war waged by the West since the 9/11 terror attacks and the Taliban’s sheltering of Osama bin Laden has devastated so many native lives too.
One father-of-six, 67-year-old Dadmola, weighed up the progress made since the Taliban’s overthrow – for example, widened school access for both sons and daughters – with the damaging impact of Nato warplane raids.
He and his family were forced to flee their home in the Gereshk province village of Habib Khan by attacks from above that left 45 neighbours dead, including a brother and a daughter.

Also now living in eastern Kabul’s sprawling Nasaji Bagram refugee camp is 60-year-old grandmother Niaz Bibi (above), left without sight in her right eye following a Nato bombing of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province two years ago.
She lost not only her husband in that clash, but also a daughter, two grandsons and two granddaughters.
A study today published by Islamic Relief outlines how many basic needs remain unmet across Afghanistan, despite best efforts of, say, Britain’s Department for International Development and David Cameron’s optimistic claims.
On average, there are 16,000 Afghans to every one doctor, 101 children for each qualified primary schoolteacher, 1.5million nomads among a 27million-strong population and 36 per cent people living below the poverty line.
And Kabul, like the rest of Afghanistan, remains dangerous: a Lebanese restaurant was blown up, killing 21 in January, a British-Swedish journalist was shot dead there this month and an AFP reporter and his family were killed last week in an upmarket hotel.
Dadmola does appreciate how these spartan IDP camp homes are not subjected to regular midnight searches he came to expect in Gereshk, when villagers would be caught in the crossfire.
He recalled: ‘Taliban troops would rush into the villages targeted by Nato and the Afghan National Army and take shelter in our own homes.
‘That would typically be around about midnight, only they’d manage to leave just in time before the shooting began – and Nato or the ANA would arrive asking us where the Taliban were.
‘Of course, in the end, it would only be us losing our family members in the fighting.’
He insisted he saw ‘no difference between the Taliban and our government – they’re all fighting for power’, but did beg: ‘Every Afghan, every human being, just wants a normal way of living after all this – no more fighting, no more killing.’

Presidential and parliamentary elections next month are shrouded in uncertainty, however.
President Hamid Karzai cannot stand again after serving his two turbulent terms, dogged by corruptuion allegations yet also signing off with a signed agreement with the US and the UK to maintain at least some oversight and peacekeeping presence.
Few seem sure just who might emerge as the country’s new powerbrokers, however, nor indeed whether the polls and their aftermath can escape being tainted by disputes over legitimacy and fresh outbreaks of violence.

Samar Gul (above), professed ‘camp leader’ of a nearby refugee sprawl at Gulbata, declared: ‘In all my 31 years on this earth I’ve seen many regimes and many presidents and none of them brought any positive changes to my life. No one’s even come here canvassing for votes.’
Niaz Bibi simply pleaded: ‘I’d like to ask Nato to stop bombarding us, stop the conflict.
‘At the moment we don’t even have the money to die – why, we can’t afford so much as coffins.’

Scrabbling for much-needed money on Kabul’s frenetic streets can be a dangerous business, especially for the young children pressed into desperate service.
Many youngsters are happy to scavenge for scraps of paper and plastic which they can either sell for meagre amounts or else bring home for their own families to use as kindling.
Others insistently tout packets of cigarettes or jars of pure smoke.
Even babies are put in harm’s way, held precariously by parents sitting in the middle of the highways and holding out arms for hand-outs – even as traffic hurtles past, for some reason invariably Toyota Corollas.

One shrapnel-hoarder, Niaz Bibi’s ten-year-old grandson Rahman, still bears scars across his knees and ribboning his scalp after being hit by a car a year ago while collecting paper.
He admitted to still feeling the pain and can often by heard screaming in the night, whether from his lingering wounds or stinging nightmares.
Another member of the family, Niaz’s 15-year-old daughter Familu, has been fortunate enough to be offered a place on a tailoring course - and must pass on the tips to dozens more at the camp.
Other cash schemes can provide a few more fringe benefits – such as the careful nurturing of pet quails kept in cages.
Camp members feeding them on seven different types of seed can choose to sell the birds either after one month of care, for about 1,500 Afghanis (£16), or hang on for a few more months and potentially pocket up to 4,000 AFN (£43) per quail.
In the meantime, more money can be pocketed by taking bets on quail-fighting bouts – while 28-year-old Ahmad Shah more cheerily added: ‘We also get to enjoy some nice singing while they’re still here.’
Stonemasonry, street-cleaning and laundry services can also raise a little more to buy water or food, especially with aid agencies often offering some provisions one month then not re-emerging for several more.
Epileptic fits frequently hinder the efforts of 18-year-old Afsal to make a living as a shoe-shine boy, to help fund food and medicine for his family – including 20-year-old wife Palwasha, also epileptic, and their three young children.

Palwasha (above), now living at the Gulbata camp after they were forced from flashpoint town Jalilabad, described how it costs 100 AFN (£1.07) per day to treat one or the other of the couple for their epilepsy. 
Afsal can only really hope to make between 30 and 50 AFN (32p-54p) per day, however, and that only if he avoids falling over in the street amid his explorations of the city streets.
Palwasha told Metro: ‘Our main priority is to make sure our children can eat each day, so often my husband and I will go hungry – several times each week.’

Monday, March 03, 2014

Syria failures didn't cause Ukraine crisis - just make it look even more dismaying

Amid so much uncertainty this past week way out east – and in the western world, responding – there has at least been one political truism to which many have solemnly nodded along.

That is, that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad must be heaving, even enjoying, a mighty sigh of relief.

Then again, such a consensus assumption would suggest he even felt much to fear from the West even before latest developments kicking off in Kiev and Crimea.

Russia and Vladimir Putin have won many grudgingly-admiring arguments from over here, congratulating him for not only playing a blinder but also playing just so the US and the UK over Syria.

Why, he managed to not only buttress against any United Nations military intervention – along with presently-neglected obstacle China - he also managed to negotiate as no other nation could a dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons armoury.

Perhaps even more impressive, mind, was how he seemed to collude in a medio-political consensus that those chemical weapons were pretty much the be-all-and-end-all.

Viscerally horrific as those much-publicised chemical attacks in Syria were, they did become a little too much of a handy global shorthand for the country’s troubles.

Meanwhile, rockets and bombs continue to shell cities, towns and villages across Syria on a daily basis - the cause of so many millions of people being forced out of their homes, forced to watch loved ones die or forced to suffer life-changing wounds themselves.

Yet the public stance of unburdening his specifically-chemical stockpiles has bought Assad time, time only too happily eaten up by UN bodies who have only just got around to staging their much-touted second round of peace talks.

‘Geneva II’, for all the invariable difficulties bringing disparate warring sides together across the same table, even managed to massively disappoint by only really paving the way for, say, a 'Geneva III'?

(A trilogy-closer which threatens to invite just as much disappointment as that The Godfather conclusion.)

All of which is to suggest that the intractable problems the West faces in Syria are hardly simply transposed to Ukraine, notwithstanding that Mother Russia has dug her heels in on both.

Some Conservative ministers have even been briefing that Ed Miliband’s concerns over British-backed military strikes on Syria last summer have helped embolden Putin in Crimea – as if he hardly had any Soviet-style ambitions beforehand.

The very idea – as suggested by the coalition's financial secretary Sajid Javid – that a vote against war is a strike against peace seems somehow a little 1984-esque, regardless of either side of the argument’s merits.

For the moment, Putin and Russia look in the aggressive and alarming ascendancy, as they did when stalling not only Syria intervention but aid-related sanctions.

Yet as recently as a week ago this alleged string-puller seemed taken aback by the pace of the Ukrainian demonstrators’ uprising and the flight of his protégé Viktor Yanukovych, who has since been reduced to Black Knight-style pleas of defiance.

Meanwhile, Assad of course must be looking on with some delight at being yesterday’s news.

Yet, even for the UN as for us, he has been (un/)safely so for ages already.