Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Rehab Kazak Style
Under a blazing summer sun, dozens of teenage drug addicts will soon be labouring in the desert sands of southeast Kazakstan, far from city centres and beyond the reach of the narcotics they crave.
Organisers of the "charitable rehabilitation centre" at Pribalkhash, 160 miles from Almaty, reckon the surrounding harsh terrain will deter even the most enterprising of dealers from trying to reach the camp.
Some of the addicts might even consider this brutal regime preferable to life in a big city where vigilante gangs regularly hunt down drug users and administer savage beatings with implicit police approval.
It is all part of a pattern in which addicts are being systematically dehumanised by a population fearful that narcotic addiction is spreading like a plague throughout Kazakstan, bringing HIV and other scourges in its wake.
"Drug addicts are no longer human beings," one vigilante gang leader told IWPR. "Such people steal, betray the love of their parents and sacrifice friendship just for another fix. They're capable of anything except being cured. If they're allowed to move around freely they would spread addiction to even more youngsters."
The Pribalkhash reservation is not the first experiment of its kind. The project leader, Ermak Alimkhodjaev, claims to have previously achieved "spectacular results ". This is just one of many programmes set up with the approval of President Nursultan Nazarbaev to treat and rehabilitate addicts.
Some top officials remain sceptical that any of their efforts are doing any good. "So far the struggle is being carried out only on paper," said Serikkali Mukanov, chairman of the anti-narcotics committee at the justice ministry. He said that lack of coordination among the various
institutions condemns their efforts to failure.
Official figures show 42,367 registered drug addicts being treated by 409 qualified specialists. Mukanov believes the real number could be up to 10 times higher. In addition, analysts note a direct correlation between the growth of drug addiction, the increase of HIV and the rise in crime. These statistics appal the general population, who feel threatened by the addicts.
The state has long recognised the dangers of drug use but lack of state funds and scarcity of qualified specialists have permitted the problem to spread unchecked. Because of this some experts see the desert camps as a last resort. Political analyst Eugene Larionov told IWPR that behind the good intentions of rehabilitation lies a fervent wish to sweep "socially dangerous elements" out of sight.
Hatred of addicts is reaching new highs. Vigilantes believe that to beat one up is a good deed which benefits society. There are so called "clean" territories, where drug-addicts are forbidden to venture. However, most of the animosity is directed against users of hard drugs like heroin.
One student from Almaty, Olga Kostomarova, said it was practically impossible to meet a drug addict in the street during daytime. They are afraid they will be caught and beaten," she said. "They move around the city only at night." Olga knows about drug-addicts - her brother has
been one for six years.
With the government seemingly unable to deal with the drugs problem, hundreds of newly appeared psychotherapists, therapists and secular healers, with no real knowledge and experience, are doing good business out of treating addicts.
Quack treatments, denounced by professional doctors, are being offered for 3,000 US dollars a time. Few addicts can afford this but Vladimir Sheveliov, whose son Vitaly is addicted, sold his car to pay for treatment by a "well-known healer". Vitaly said, "The result came to zero. I still inject."
IWPR surveyed a number of drug addicts from well-off families, who have gone through full rehabilitation courses at the clinic of Dr Nazaraliev from Kyrgyzstan, currently rated the most authoritative doctor on the territory of the CIS. But many of those who've received treatment there have relapsed.
Faced with such examples and urged on by an inflammatory media, public opinion increasingly takes the view that placing addicts in harsh, isolated camps is the only solution. Professional doctors and drug experts together with close friends and relatives of addicts are opposed to the treatment.
"My husband has been an addict for seven years but I will not agree to having him banished to the wilderness," said Anastasia, a cook in an Almaty kindergarten. "I don't think any camp can help him and he will not be cured until he himself wishes it."
For the moment, addicts have little choice. Spending time in an isolation camp may seem a grim prospect, but the alternative is to face the risk of vigilante beatings.
Erbol Jumagulov and Eduard Poletaev are regular IWPR contributors.
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