Tragedy of Afghan child addicts
It is no surprise that tens of thousands of children are exposed to drug use in their homes. But what is worrying is that the use of a glue used by shoemakers and petrol by children is rising alarmingly in Kabul. The Independent Media Consortium (IMC) investigates.*
A survey by International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau reveals 7 percent of Afghanistan’s 1.6 million addicts are children. An earlier study conducted in 2012 had showed that in a quarter of homes where adult addicts lived children as young as 14 months showed signs of significant drug exposure like withdrawal symptoms when the drug was removed.
The two substances easily available to children are Patex, a kind of glue used to gum the soles of shoes, and petrol.
Wahidullah is a 17-year-old shoeshine boy who lives in Charqala Wazirabad, Kabul. He says he has been sniffing Patex for the past seven years. In the beginning he just liked the smell, and “now I’m addicted,” the thin, pale teenager confesses.
Jawed, who’s also 17, from Char Rahi Qambar in Kabul, says, “Some years back I was working in a shop making car seats. When my boss used Patex I found I liked the smell. I felt like I was jumping.” Soon he was pouring the glue secretly into a bottle that he carried around in his pocket. “The smell made me feel happy,” he recalls. Now he has graduated to hashish and opium.
Hamidullah, still a teenager, has been hooked to petrol for five years. “It started when I had to carry petrol for the generators. Each time I had to open the can the smell would make me swoon with pleasure.” Now the teenager is enrolled in a deaddiction programme in the 300-bed hospital in Jangalak, Kabul.
Hamidullah says that he and his friends sniffed Patex and petrol for “fun”, quite unaware that they would become addicted.
Farhad, a shopkeeper in Nawabad Qalamusa of Kabul city, says children are able to easily afford Patex, which is priced at 50 Afs (less than 1 USD) a bottle. At least 10 come to his shop to buy on the pretext it is needed at home, but in fact “they are going up the hill of Qalamusa in search of a quiet spot to share it with friends,” he says. The number of child addicts has increased, he believes.
IMC interviewed Samiullah, a 10-year-old in Jalalabad city, who said he knew 20 to 30 other children who were all addicted to Patex and their parents did not know.
Abusing body and mind
Dr Fawad Osmani, the head of the department of counter narcotics in the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) says 7 percent of addicts in the country are children.
Shirin Gul is from the Kart-e-naw neighbourhood, and begs for a living in the bazaar. She says she takes along two of her six children, a two and four year old, who she drugs so they sleep all day. “I put some glue in their nose,” she says. “I have to do this so that they will not feel either the heat or the cold.”
Substance abuse can destroy the body and the mind.
Naqibullah, 15, lives in the Dahan Chaman area of Kabul – a sprawling tent settlement. He says he has been on Patex since he was six, and each time he has tried to leave it he has suffered terrible withdrawal symptoms. The drug has ruined his system. “I have a chronic cough, vomit blood. My chest hurts,” he told IMC.
His mother Lailuma says a friend in the bazaar has turned him into an addict. “When we got to know we took him to hospital. We tried a lot to save him but it was no use.” She says her son is now called “sreshi” – addicted to glue. He is getting weaker every day, she adds. “He cannot even lift a small jerry can, and faints easily,” she says.
Dr Ahmad Zaher Sultani, head of the hospital for addicts in Jangalak, says inhalation of chemical drugs destroys the lungs, and is more damaging than injectable narcotics.
Dr Farid Ahmad Noori, psychologist, says drug abuse leads to insomnia, paranoia, anxiety disorders, and hallucinatory states. It has been identified as the cause of many deaths.
Afghanistan has only 105 public and non-governmental (NGO) deaddiction centres, which have the capacity to merely treat between 20,000 and 25,000 addicts.
Dr Nazir Ahmad Hemat in MoPH’s department of counter narcotics says only 22 of the deaddiction centres are equipped to treat children.
The government and the international community together have a budget of 14 million USD to counter drug abuse, but it is far from enough.
Dr Osmani, head of the department of counter narcotics, says the MoPH has a budget of 3 million USD, “which is very little”. The rest of the money is spent by NGOs working in this field, he explains. The department of counter narcotics has raised the money issue with MoPH but “sufficient attention has not been paid”, he added.
Dr Hemat who is in charge of educational programmes to raise awareness in the department of counter narcotics points out the treatment capacity of all the dedication centres is “very low”. “The current situation in Afghanistan, the lack of avenues for treatment and inattention of donors to the problem of shortage of facilities for drug deaddiction means there will be no change in the level of health facilities for substance abusers,” he says pessimistically.
“If we are to estimate the cost of treatment per individual is at least 350 USD annually the Afghan government does not have the budgetary ability and the donors have no interest in supporting,” says Dr Hemat.
IMC interviewed Masoud Kamal, the head of the department of budgets in the Ministry of Finance, who said 3.6 million USD was the operational cost of deaddiction facilities in 2012. While 3 million was spent, the remaining was transferred to the next year.
The head of department of counter narcotics, Dr Osmani, had suggested a 5 million dollar budget for the treatment of substance abusers but this was not accepted.
Also awareness programmes run by the department on substance abuse including Patex have been challenged by widespread illiteracy in the population, according to Dr Hemat.
IMC probed addicts and deaddiction centres in 12 provinces including Ghazni, Kunduz and Khost to find a mere 12 percent of interviewees were under treatment. An astonishing 37 percent have never gone to a deaddiction centre; 29 percent returned to drug use; and, 18 percent claimed deaddiction facilities rejected them. Also with the failure to rein in drug trafficking and provide vocational training or financial support patients slipped back to the habit of drugs. The IMC investigative report ‘Drug abuse goes out of control’ was published in early April.
Addicts turn to crime
Abdul Qayum, a shopkeeper in Kabul’s Charqala Wazirabad, says addicts even on Patex waylay people, and rob them of their goods. He shares a personal experience. “My son was stopped by three children less than 18 years of age and robbed in the Charqala area. They beat him, and took away his bicycle and mobile phone,” he says. “The boys were on Patex and petrol, and also smoking cigarettes,” he says. “People in the area are really troubled. Why doesn’t the government do something?”
Nabiaullah who is a joint proprietor of an inn in Charqala Wazirabad says, “Nowadays the environment is damaged by addicts. Robberies take place. The children are addicted to Patex and petrol. They have brought disrepute to the area, and the government takes no action.”
Najib Nekzad, a deputy spokesperson in the Ministry of Interior Affairs, shares his concern about child drug abuse. He seems to suggest the government is doing its best. “We had many programmes to prevent the addiction of children and keep them safe. We met hundreds of young. They knew that if they broke the law they would be handed over to the keepers of the law.”
Najibullah Zadran Babrakzai, responsible for protecting children’s rights in the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission says much more needs to be done by the government if children are to be protected. “Unfortunately little has been done on the risks children are exposed to from drugs.”
The UN’s Convention the Rights of the Child, 2009, has put the responsibility of protecting children from substance abuse on the government. With 1.6 million child drug addicts – a red light for the government – tackling the drug problem has to be taken seriously.