Tajikistan Faces Addiction Crisis

Access to some of the world's cheapest and purest heroin has seen addiction rates soar.

Tajikistan Faces Addiction Crisis

Access to some of the world's cheapest and purest heroin has seen addiction rates soar.

Flooded with high quality narcotics from neighbouring Afghanistan, Tajikistan is facing a growing heroin addiction crisis.

As of January 1, 2002, there were 6,250 officially registered addicts, 4,713 of them heroin abusers. And the director of the Republican Clinical Centre for Narcotics Users, Andrei Onishchenko, estimates that the actual number exceeds this official figure by a factor of eight to 10.

The deputy commander of the Russian border guards in Tajikistan, Major General Ramazan Jafarov, says intelligence indicates that 5,000 tons of assorted drugs, half of it heroin, is currently stockpiled on the Afghan side of the frontier ready for shipment - before this year's harvest of the opium-bearing poppies that are the raw material for heroin even begins.

Afghanistan's poppy fields, which decreased in the last year of Taleban rule, have been expanded again since the movement was driven from power. United Nations drug experts believe the harvest will yield 1,900 to 2,700 tons of opium, marking a return to the levels of the late 1990s.

Tajikistan's proximity means that, unlike Europe, drugs are easily affordable with a kilo of heroin selling for 2-3,000 US dollars, compared to 8-10,000 dollars in Moscow. The purity, of what is considered the most potent heroin in the world, is also usually much higher than in the West where it is often diluted.

Thus inundated, Tajikistan has been slowly turning from a transit country to a drug consumer. The republican centre last year treated 1350 patients, 964 of them for heroin addiction. Most were young people aged 18 to 25 and 75 per cent of them were women, who tend to form a habit faster than men.

Drug-taking is not exactly a new phenomenon in Tajikistan. Even in Soviet time, Tajiks added cannabis to their food. Gradually, however, harder substances, such as ephedrine, a stimulant found in many over-the-counter medicines, grew in popularity.

Drug addiction really took off during the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan. "Many of us used drugs to be braver, to be able to kill and forget about it, and sometimes to suppress our hunger," confesses Mirzo, a former opposition guerrilla-turned-government security officer.

After the war, Mirzo started a family and gave up drugs, but not without difficulty. "I went to see a doctor in Bishkek. My mother sold all her jewellery to pay for it. I had a terrible time of withdrawal, but I held out for the sake of my wife and son. I think I'm completely over it now. Drugs symbolize the war and all its atrocities to me," he said.

Drugs have also been used to coerce girls into prostitution and enslave them - while other sex workers turn to them to escape grim reality. Farida, who has long since married and abandoned prostitution, said a "friend" tricked her into using heroin, saying the substance in the syringe was caffeine.

It turned out that her supposed friend had been on a mission to recruit girls for a brothel and new users for her drug supplier.

Farida was one of the lucky ones, meeting her husband-to-be who got her out. He had also started using drugs but both successfully beat the addiction - although doctors have said that they will never have children.

"Rumour has it they have enslaved at least 10 more girls over the past two years, mostly from poor rural families," continued Farida, having recently seen her former brothel-owner and the person who tricked her on the street.

Drugs are easily available in most schools in Dushanbe, with boys and girls from both impoverished and affluent backgrounds falling prey to the habit. Dealers get people hooked by offering the first dose for free or for token amounts - and in turn receive a cash bonus or a free dose from their "masters". For many people, a single dose is enough, with narcotics specialists reckoning dependency is formed after two hits in 55 per cent of young men who try heroin and 82 per cent of young women.

A few years ago, President Emomali Rakhmonov launched an initiative to create a so-called "anti-drug" belt around Afghanistan. The plan was backed by neighbouring Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Iran, as well as major international donors and the UN, with an agency for narcotics control formed with government money under Rakhmonov's personal auspices.

The effort to stop the flow of drugs included equipping Russian and Tajik border guards with vehicles, night vision devices, walkie-talkies and drug testers. In 1999 a group of international narcotics experts even visited Tajikistan.

But it appears to have come to little, and in the end many feel that the country has been left to combat the influx of drugs from Afghanistan on its own. "A year has gone by in which we have not received any assistance whatsoever, apart from words of encouragement," said Jafarov.

With poppy harvesting about to begin the human tragedy looks set to soar again.

Saida Nazarova is the pseudonym for a journalist in Tajikistan

Support our journalists