Life in the Mountains of Badakhshan - The Burden of Past Opium Dependence

5 September 2010 - One of the last villages on the winding dirt road that chases the mountain river through Jahan Valley is Sarhad. Some 160 households dwell in the slender gorge surrounded by high peaks of snow-covered mountains.

Almost half of the villagers are opium addicts.

Nasim, in his mid-sixties began to use opium when he was 15 years old. His parents gave him the drug (as it was the only form of medication). Today, Nasim smokes opium three times a day.

- It is really a bad habit, but I would die without opium or would get very sick, says Nasim during a male focus group discussion with village addicts.

The village of Sarhad used to grow opium six years ago. The villagers were never selling opium on the market, but were growing it for the village needs.

- Six years ago police came and said they will arrest us if we continue growing opium. Since then every year they come 10 times a year to our village to check whether we are still growing opium, one of the participants of focus group explains.

The village gets regular visits of local traders from other districts of Badakhshan. Sometimes, villagers go for their own supplies to the nearby townships that still grow opium.

Opium cultivation in Badakhshan province increased by 179% between 2008 and 2009, according to the UNODC Afghanistan Opium Survey 2009. Some 557 hectares of Badakhshan land were covered by opium poppy in 2009, compared to 200 hectares in 2008.

- Traders from Jurm district are selling opium in our village, Nasim continues, explaining that for one tali (Afghan vernacular measurement for cannabis and opium, equals 5 - 10 grams of opium) he pays 200 AFS (4 USD).

UNODC and the World Food Programme (WFP) are providing alternative livelihoods to villages like Sarhad in Badakhshan province. In this village UNODC is supplying locals with tools for construction of irrigable terraces on one of the mountain slopes.

- This community-based initiative will provide villagers with additional agricultural land, which will help improve food security and increase income, says Jeremy Milson, UNODC Senior Programme Officer for Counter-Narcotics.

UNODC is planning further support to the villagers in regards to their addiction problem.

- The project is strongly supported by the villagers. They are working to build the livelihood of the village and have asked for support to help treat drug addicts in their village, so they can finally be free of the burden of past opium dependence, Mr. Milsom adds.

There is an opium treatment centre in the district of Baharak, more then four hours ride on the bumpy road. Approximately 40 women from Sarhad village recently attended the two month lind treatment at the Baharak centre.

Still more than 30 women are addicts in the village of Sarhad. Most of the women began using opium either because their husbands are addicts, or their parents were giving it to them as a form of medication during their childhood.

One of the most shocking statistics of the UNODC Afghanistan Drug USe Survey 2009 is the number of parents giving opium to their children: as high as 50% of drug users in the north and south of the country.

During a focus group discussion with female drug addicts in Sarhad, three children were seen timidly hiding behind their mothers lond dresses. The women lamented that these children are also addicted as they often breathe in opium smoke from their parents.

Akbar, a member of the local Community Development Council (CDC) - established under the National Solidarity Programme - is supervising the work on the terraces and land development.

Akbar expects that work in the land development will be finished by November, and the first planting will take place in the late autumn.

- We hope to get some juicy fruit from the trees we will plant on these terraces. This project will also give us some good fodder for our livestock. Under the shade of the trees we shall have a good spot for our community meetings, says Akbar as he shares his vision of the new orchard on one of the steep slopes surrounding Sarhad village.