As Afghanistan suffers ever-growing levels of drug addiction, figures show more women being dragged into the spiral of addiction, often introduced to narcotics by their male partners or relatives.
Qandi Gol is only 30, but already, nearly half her life has been consumed by drugs.
She grew up in one of Afghanistan’s cultural and economic hubs, where multi-coloured roundabouts lead to an iconic blue-tiled mosque, believed by many Afghans to be the burial place of the Imam Ali.
For the last six months, though, Qandi Gol has been living in a cemetery three kilometres outside the city. There, among the graves, away from the gaze of strangers, she feels comfortable to indulge in her heroin addiction.
Standing in the cemetery, surrounded by hundreds of other men and women suffering from addiction, Qandi Gol recalls the story of her own habit. As she speaks, it becomes clear that the 13 years of drug use have taken a heavy physical toll on her. Her hair is dishevelled and filled with specks of dust from the hours she spends each day on the streets begging for money to feed her addiction. Her skin has dried out from sun exposure. Her dark eyes are sunken in and dark circles that have formed around them.
A dark secret
Qandi Gol was 17 when she got married. After an elaborate, traditional ceremony, the two families danced her into the ornately decorated room she would share with her husband in his family’s home.
As was tradition, the room had been newly painted and filled with flowers, new linens were placed on her marital bed. She set out on her new life as the new bride of the family, but quickly realised her in-laws had been hiding a dark secret.
“His brothers were addicted to heroin, so was he. But I didn’t know any of this before,” she says. Soon, her brothers-in-law began to demand money for drugs from her, saying they would beat her if she didn’t comply.
Lacking job prospects and a proper education, she turned to begging on the streets of Afghanistan’s fourth largest city so her in-laws could get high.
“Eventually, they realised the only way to insure that I would continue to bring them money was to get me hooked too.”
Within months of her marriage she joined the ranks of the more than one million women suffering from narcotics addiction in the country. She carried on like this for years, spending her days on the streets of Mazar and her nights lost in a haze of heroin smoke.
Last summer, though, her in-laws, struggling with the economic setbacks of dealing with a family of addicts, cut her off. That was when she fled their home and ended up in the Dasht-e Shor cemetery.
“They were the ones that got me hooked, but then they realised the only way to save money was to deny me drugs,” she says.
Afraid to return to her parents’ home as an addict who left her husband, she had little choice other than to find a community of fellow drug users to live amongst. In Mazar, Dasht-e Shor has long held a reputation for being home to hundreds of addicts.
Palwasha, an aid worker based in Kabul, recalls a 2014 visit with her family to the cemetery to pay her respects to a deceased aunt.
“We were just getting ready to leave when in the distance we saw one of my father’s cousins,” the 24-year-old said. She had never met him, but her family recognised the man instantly.
“He was just standing there, his hair was long and unkempt, his clothes looked dirty and in disrepair and I remember he just kept staring and smiling. He had this odd smile the whole time, and he just started to laugh and laugh,” she says.
That relative, in his thirties, also had his drug addiction supported by his family.
“At one point he ended up in jail, and everyone said his mother would sneak his heroin into the jail by putting into the manto [dumplings] she would bring him,” says Palwasha.
Recently, several cemeteries in Afghanistan’s other urban centres have also become home to thousands of the nation’s 3.6 million addicts. In Kabul, up to 2,000 addicts gather in the Sarai Shamali cemetery, on the road that leads to Mazar, each day. In the Western city of Herat, addicts gather in a cemetery near a shrine located not far from another burial ground that houses the graves of the city’s former Jewish population.
Qandi Gol isn’t the only woman in the Dasht-e Shor cemetery.
In December, local television outlets released footage of two other women who spend their days in the graveyard. One woman, Mariam had been sent for treatment several times, but according to the reports, continues to live in the cemetery with her infant child. Another video report referred to a woman by the name of Marwa, who had been living in the cemetery with her mother and father.
Negina is another woman who also lived in the Dasht-e Shor cemetery. She is several years younger than Qandi Gol, but her story is strikingly similar.
“Before I was married, I was happy. I went to school, but as soon as I got married my husband got me hooked,” Negina says. Like the other addicts in the cemetery, her face is tired and her lips have dried out from a months-long addiction to heroin.
“My mother-in-law warned my husband that unless I too became addicted, I would leave him.”
Experts say Negina and Qandi Gol’s stories are not uncommon. Often, when male relatives — whether it be brothers, husbands or in-laws — influence the women in their lives to try drugs it’s a desperate attempt to save face and avoid divorce.
With more than 2.5 million men suffering from addiction themselves, officials say they are seeing rises in the number of female addicts.
Abdol Rahim Rahman, the director of the Balkh Provincial Counter-Narcotics Directorate, said the number of women suffering from narcotics addiction in the province is rising, but that he does not have specific figures.
Rahman’s statement refers to a common problem in Afghanistan, a lack of clear statistics. Estimates of the number of addicts in Balkh range from 80,000 (in 2012) to more than 200,000 (in 2016). A 2018 report by Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Office estimated the entire population of Balkh province to be at least 892,684.
Despite the high number of female addicts, Daoud Rateb, director of the Balkh Provincial Drug Treatment Center, said there are currently only 120 women being treated across four rehabilitation centres in the entire province.
The high addiction rate in Balkh is also due to the province’s status as a regional hub for the manufacture, sale and trafficking of narcotics, both domestically and among Afghanistan’s regional neighbours. Given its location, on the border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Balkh serves as a major transit point for opium, hashish, morphine and heroin. Last year, a single seizure near Balkh’s border with Uzbekistan led to the confiscation of at least 72 kilogrammes of various narcotics, including heroin.
According to the United Nations, opium-poppy cultivation in Balkh surged from 2,085 hectares in 2016 to 12,116 hectares just a year later.
As one of Afghanistan’s economic centres, recent years have also seen a steady rise in the use of much more expensive synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, in Balkh. In 2016, the average cost for a gramme of methamphetamine-based narcotics in Balkh ranged anywhere from 700 to 800 Afghanis (between $8 and $10 USD).
Sources who spoke to TRT World on condition of anonymity in Balkh, accused local police officials of involvement in the drug trade. One source said that a high-ranking police official in Balkh district, one of the province’s most productive in terms of poppy-production, personally approved the cultivation of opium poppies in the district in 2018.
The accusations of security forces’ involvement in the narcotics trade is not limited to the police, however. In 2015, an army general who commanded a recruitment centre in Balkh was arrested on charges of trafficking heroin in nearby Baghlan province.
All of this has created a situation where narcotics are readily available across Afghanistan, which has made kicking a drug habit extremely difficult.
Dr Wajma, director of the Women’s Treatment Center at the Balkh Provincial Drug Treatment Center, says patients undergo a mandatory 45-day rehabilitation programme with the possibility of extending their stay by another 45 days.
Dr Wajma said once a patient is discharged, there are follow-up services for nine months to a year.
However, with many of these women living with families where drug use is common and with the ease of access to narcotics in the country, staying sober will prove extremely difficult.
Commenting on the number of women suffering just as Qandi Gol and Negina do, Qazi Sayed Mohammad Sameh, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission’s Northern zone, says: “When a woman becomes addicted in Afghanistan it is a shame on not only a household but the entire nation.”