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Living with Addiction
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23 January 2008
By Susannah Peter
When I knock on Shihu's door, a plank of wood propped against a grimy doorway, she asks me to come back in five minutes, so she can get high.
Shihu, 22, has been addicted to brown sugar (a form of heroin) for seven years. "It gives me relief, it takes the pain away," she tells me wearily, her eyes glazed, her skin papery and pale.
Addiction "takes the pain away"
"I'm so lonely, there's no-one else here," Shihu says, slumped in a chair, at home in Malé. Her father is in jail serving a 25-year sentence for drug offences, along with her younger brother, an addict serving six years. Meanwhile, her older brother is banished, and her sister, also a drug addict, lives in Addu with her mother.
Shihu is not the exception in Maldives, where drug abuse and addiction has been spiraling out of control for over ten years. On average, every family has at least one member who is an addict.
In this first part of a two-part series, addicts and recovering addicts explain why they started using drugs, and reveal their experiences of addiction and the pain of getting clean.
Shihu was just seven when her mother told her to leave the family home. So she went to Villingili, where she lived "under the trees, asking passers-by for money to buy food and drink."
After two weeks, she moved back to Malé. But life was still tough. "My mother regularly beat me with a broom," she tells me quietly, showing me the scars on her skinny legs.
Fast-forward a few years, to 2002, and a friend gave her some heroin to try. Before she knew it, Shihu, who now smokes "at least 12 packets a day," was hooked. "I liked it. It hid my problems from me. I had nothing else."
Like many female drug addicts in Maldives, Shihu resorts to sex with dealers to get her drugs.
A drugs specialist, "Dr A," tells me: "The pattern of drug use among Maldivian girls is different to boys. Culturally, girls are less likely to be on the streets. So they must provide sexual favours to get drugs."
"I don't want to [have sex with dealers]," Shihu says softly, lowering her eyes. "But there is no other way," although she adds she always uses condoms.
Six weeks ago, she endured the "darkest moment" she can remember. She was standing outside her tiny house in Male', when a car drew up, and two men, who she recognised, pushed her inside.
"They took me to a house where fifteen men were waiting," she says. "They all took turns to rape me."
She describes how the men "laughed" and "called me bad names. They think I'm a joke."
"I was terrified, thought they were going to kill me," she tells me, adding that the men were armed with a "big knife."
Shihu, who thinks she is now pregnant, is "too scared" to go to the police, because the men will "do it again, and torture [her]."
"I want to give up [heroin]. I have to try," Shihu adds. She has in the past managed to stay clean for 3 months. "But all my friends do drugs. I feel trapped. I feel I can't escape."
I arrive at local NGO Journey, the country's only after-care centre for recovering addicts, run by former addicts themselves.
Faseen Raffiu, an addict for ten years, is now clean and works at local NGO journey
It is hard to believe that Faseen Rafiu, a stocky, fresh-faced member of staff who greets me, was a heroin addict for 10 years.
"When we are addicted, as soon as we wake up, all we think about is where to go and how to get drugs," says Faseen. "Nothing else comes to mind, not family, not other interests."
Mohamed, 18, thought he "had gone to heaven" the first time he smoked heroin, three years back.
An estimated 30% of young people are using banned substances on some islands, according to UNICEF.
"I didn't feel I am in this world. I felt I am different to other people," recalls Mohamed, who is currently in treatment at Addu Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC), one of only two in the entire country.
And it's doubly tough to kick the habit in Male' and other islands, where drugs are available on "every street, every corner," adds Ali Naseem, known as Whales, who now works at Journey. Drugs are freely available in prisons too, smuggled in by prisoners or guards, he adds. Addicts make up an estimated 85% of Maldives' prison population.
Withdrawal is a "living hell," they all agree. "All the sicknesses of the world, I felt," shudders Mohamed. "Diarrhoea, hairs on end, sweats, no sleep, pain."
Meanwhile, Whales doesn't "remember anything about withdrawal," while he was a detainee in the police-run Dhoonidhoo detention centre.
Drugs are available on "every street, every corner," says Whales, who quit whilst in police custody
"But I am told I was running around like a mad-man, hallucinating. I pretended to hold a knife to my throat, and told guards, 'I am dead, so bury me.'"
And the craving, although not as intense as the initial withdrawal, never goes away. "That's the difficult part, it keeps haunting you," Ashfag Latheef, a volunteer at Addu DRC and Journey worker, tells me.
Drug counselors say many addicts fail to kick their habit because of the obstacles they face trying to reintegrate back into society.
The "wider community believes once an addict, always an addict," agrees Ashfag. "They need to accept us, and we need to work to get clean."
Najy Mohamed, 28, who completed treatment at Himmafushi DRC five months ago, still can't get a job, despite repeated efforts. "If I say I'm a recovering addict at an interview, they won't take me on," he says.
Yet the struggle is worthwhile for those who are able to work through it. "I'm proud of what I've achieved. Before I was living for one reason - drugs," says Adam Naseer, a Journey staff member.
The Addict Community
The drug using community is "more than just brothers and sisters. They share hurt, and their feelings," Whales says. "If one is beaten, they all hit back. They share drugs, if one cannot afford them."
At the same time, the wider community "isolates [addicts], and mentally we isolate ourselves," according to Ashfag. "Parents sometimes say we are not even their children any more."
In another worrying trend, 20% of heroin addicts were using needles in 2006, according to a report carried out in that year by UNICEF, local NGO Journey and the Government's Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB).
This compares to just 8% in 2003, with "boys….more likely to use needles than girls," Dr A tells me.
Run by ex-addicts, for addicts: local NGO Journey
Needles are increasingly popular because the hit is "better" and "you don't need as much," explains Ashfag.
The 2006 report indicates there is a growing nationwide awareness of HIV/AIDS and the risk carried by injecting drugs. But this has not stopped the increase in needle use, and awareness of Hepatitis B and C, both also blood-borne diseases, is limited.
There are also dangers associated with unsafe sex, which can accompany drug use.
The Maldivian population as a whole is "very sexually active," with some having sex for the first time as young as nine years old, according to the 2006 survey.
But "safety is not a great concern" in a country where pre-marital sex is illegal and safe sex not openly discussed, the report adds. And drug use makes addicts even more vulnerable to unsafe sex practices.
Mariyam Luisha, 23, is eager to show me pictures of her little daughter "Aniya" 4, and her 8-month old son "Ahmed" when we meet up.
Liusha: "I want to stop my children taking drugs by giving them care, love and advice"
Just five years ago, this cheerful young mother was addicted to heroin and hash oil, "sometimes" having sex with boyfriends, all drug users themselves, after getting her own supply. And she "didn't use condoms."
Now Luisha feels "heartbroken" when little Aniya asks about her father, an addict in prison, who has never met his daughter.
Luisha stopped using drugs during her pregnancy with Aniya in 2002, and says she has not used drugs since.
"I want to stop my children taking drugs by giving them care, love and advice," Luisha says.
But for Shihu, still an addict, it is more difficult to plan for the future.
When I leave her, she gently clings to my hand, extended to shake hers. "I want to tell everyone to stop this," she says, looking into my eyes. "My generation is gone, but we must stop it for the next. It's a waste. No happiness. No nothing."