Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechnya's Hidden Drug Crisis

Thousands of young people are turning to heroin in the war-torn republic.
By Zaurbek Eskirkhanov

On the outskirts of the Chechen capital Grozny, a young man is trudging across an overgrown field. His name is Hasan. He is now 26, and he has been taking heroin for many years.


"Every morning, I wake up with only one thought - where to get the money for another dose," Hasan told IWPR. "When I get the money together, I run across the field to my dealers."


Hasan is one of thousands of drug users in Chechnya, according to Rosa Dalsaeva, deputy head doctor at the republic's detoxification centre.


According to the official statistics, there are 10,000 drug users in Chechnya, 10 per cent of whom are HIV-positive. Unofficial estimates suggest the real number of addicts is twice that figure. The habit is growing fastest among people under 30, who account for than three-quarters of all users.


"This is far too many for Chechnya, where the population is under one million," said Dalsaeva.


Drug addiction has been a largely-ignored consequence of the years of conflict in Chechnya.


Hasan's story is fairly typical. His mother told us he had been a promising student in school before he discovered heroin. He was an athlete, and was all set to go to college after high school. But then the second Chechen war broke out four years ago, and his hopes and dreams were shattered.


"In 1999, we moved to Ingushetia [as refugees]," recalled Hasan. "Having nothing else to do, I roamed the streets of Nazran. One chilly autumn day, I ran into a former classmate outside the central market."


"He suggested heroin. I was feeling really homesick, and needed a distraction. So I let him inject me. It was a good, happy feeling that helped me deal with life. I gradually developed a habit. I've been using heroin for four years, and I don't plan to give it up."


One effect of wide-scale intravenous drug use in Chechnya is the spread of HIV infection. Olga Dedova, a psychologist at the AIDS Prevention Centre in Grozny, said the majority of HIV-positive people there had been infected through drug use. "They usually tell me they were first offered drugs by a friend," she said. "To save money, a group of junkies will share a syringe, without caring about the risk of HIV".


There are 310 HIV-positive Chechens on the AIDS centre's books. "Most of them are drug addicts," said Dedova.


"I've had to go to jail once since I became a junkie," said Hasan, scratching his head with his swollen hand, his eyes misty and bloodshot. "I stole something at the market. I was on withdrawal and so weak I couldn't run, so they caught me right away. I did one year."


Hasan tried to kick his habit in jail, but once he got out, he went back on heroin the very next day.


Drug use has always been a feature of life in Chechnya, and a lot of young men smoked marijuana before the war. But the trauma of conflict has made the problem much worse, turning young people from soft to hard drugs, mainly heroin.


"In Grozny these days, it's as just as common to see a junkie as to see an armed man," Musa Dalsaev, Chechnya's chief detox doctor, recently said on television.


The Chechen prosecutor's office reports an average of around one thousand crimes a year related to drug dealing. Ahmed Dakayev, deputy interior minister of the republic, told IWPR that the dealers are largely out of reach of the law. "We mainly target users. The big fish - the wholesale dealers - remain at large," he admitted.


"This year, we have arrested four drug dealers," said Alexander Kashin, police chief in the Zavodskoy district of Grozny. "You'd think an arrest with a lot of evidence is final, but it isn't."


"Last month we nailed a dealer who was holding a huge stash. The court pronounced him guilty, but as the verdict was announced, a group of armed people in masks stormed into the courtroom, pointed their guns at the security guards, and took the defendant away."


There is a spot at Grozny's central market that they call the "stock exchange". This used to be the place to buy weapons, cars and drugs. These days, the exchange consists of a couple of dive-in bars with pool tables, frequented by drug dealers and their steady clientele.


A dose of heroin retails for around a hundred roubles - a little over three US dollars - in Chechnya, according to Ruslan Ilyasov, Grozny police narcotics chief. "Chechnya has the cheapest heroin in the country [Russia]. In any place torn apart by war you have high prices for food, and low for drugs."


The heroin may be cheap, but it is of inferior quality and especially dangerous. "What they sell here is a much worse substance than pure heroin," said Sultan Elimhajiev, an aide to the Chechen health minister. "The death rate is high among drug addicts in Chechnya. 150 died last year alone."


The drug problem has surfaced as an issue in Chechnya's upcoming presidential election.


"The whole world is fighting drug addiction under peacetime conditions, where the state has a lot of resources at its disposal, law and order prevails, and there are special centres that focus specifically on substance abuse, or fight the drug mafias," said Moscow businessman Husein Jabrailov, one of the candidates. "Here in Chechnya we have no drug prevention or treatment facilities. Our young people are unprotected, socially and economically."


Hasan's neighbours in the village of Michurino recall his friend Albert, a junkie who had a long track record of using heroin. A year ago he was found dead in his home. The forensic expert who inspected the body concluded that his heart had stopped after an overdose.


"Before he shot up that night, Albert told me it was going to be his last hit," recalled Andiev. "I didn't know what he meant exactly. I thought perhaps he was about to quit, but he turned out to be right, in a different way."


Zaurbek Eskirhanov is a reporter for Grozny Inform news agency and Molodyozhnaya Smena newspaper in Chechnya


More IWPR's Global Voices

Young Iraqis Are Demanding Change
A new generation is standing up for what they believe in - and they refuse to be intimidated.
Nineveh Reborn
Iraq: Women Plant Trees for Peace