JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Across the southwestern plateau of this country, opium poppy fields are as much a part of the landscape as the Hindu Kush mountain range is in the north.
Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s raw opium, and drug addiction is widespread, even among women and children. But a unique drug rehabilitation center in this conservative Muslim town is trying to tackle the problem.
Muslim traditionalists here consider drug addicts “haram,” or forbidden, by Islamic law. Even so, the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan has been embraced by the community and operates with the blessing of the local Taliban.
Nearly 50 percent of the Taliban might be addicted to drugs like opium and hashish, according to Fazal Wahid, an administrator at the center, and their need for help overshadowed their objections.
“I once treated a Taliban soldier at the Wardak men’s treatment center. He left clean and eventually made a pilgrimage to Mecca for Haj,” Wahid said. “He called us and thanked us for what we had done for him, saying he was able to make the Haj only because of us.”
WADAN operates drug rehab centers and programs within all 34 provinces in Afghanistan. Some of the centers are designated solely for women and children, and others for men.
The women and children’s center in Jalalabad is primarily funded by the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, which, according to its website, funds six residential drug treatment centers for women in Afghanistan.
Officials with that agency said they have no knowledge of treating Taliban at any of the centers they fund in Jalalabad, since they only fund the centers for women and children.
The Jalalabad facility coordinator, Dr. Jahan Noor, said that 40 to 50 addicts apply to the women and children’s drug rehab program each month, but there is only space to admit 20 at a time for the intensive, 45-day program. She insists the wait is worthwhile. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2010, of the 35 million Afghans, more than 1 million are addicted to drugs. According to the survey, among drug addicts, only 10 percent of Afghan addicts ever receive or seek treatment.
Afghanistan has been producing drugs for decades, but with rampant unemployment at nearly 40 percent and the repercussions of a decade-long war, the survey shows that drug consumption continues to rise.
Despite the negative stigma of opium use and addiction, poppy cultivation is highly valued because of its profitability for farmers, even though it has been banned by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At $160 to $200 for 1 kilogram of dry opium, it is the country’s most lucrative crop. In contrast, a kilo of wheat only pays 41 cents.
One of the goals of the WADAN program is to eliminate the stigma of drug addiction in Afghanistan, so addicts will not be treated as criminals and can openly seek treatment.
“The center is trying to get the community to see these individuals as sick, having a disease like diabetes or high blood pressure,” Noor said.
The most distressing residents at the facility in Jalalabad are children.
On this day, 25 sit around a carpet eating bread and drinking water. Five of them are addicted to opium.
Some have become drug dependent because of their mothers, who often give their children opium for medicinal purposes.
Ignorance about the dangers of drugs and the severe shortage of medical and pharmaceutical supplies in remote villages are at the root of the problem. Opium — at less than a dollar per pellet — is used as a suitable cure for simple symptoms like headaches and the common cold. The result is lingering addiction.
“Sometimes they would complain of stomach pains or other sickness, and I would boil the skin of the poppy [making tea] and give it to them,” said Saira, the mother of three of the children, ages 8, 7 and 3. She said she gave it to her children every morning and evening. They were brought to the center by the WADAN outreach team.
UNODC says that 40 percent of addicts in Afghanistan are women and children.
“When I’m using [opium], I neglect the housework and cooking and don’t care for the children,” Saira said. “But I feel power and comfort and I can sleep.”
The rehabilitation program at WADAN has two primary elements: daily counseling and physical detox.
Noor says patients are slowly weened off opium until they have achieved total withdrawal. Withdrawal during the first week is the most difficult.
“We had a patient named Saddiqa who came to the center on the third day of her wedding celebration. Her withdrawal was so bad she was fainting,” said Noor. “We had to send a caretaker with her everywhere she went, even to the bathroom.”
But Saddiqa was clean by the time she left, and has stayed clean, Noor said, becoming an excellent reflection of the center’s work.
Haroon Khadim contributed to this report.