The day comes to an end. The sun had almost gone down behind the surrounding peaks of the Pamir Mountains. Mirzo, with his slow and exhausted voice, lets me know that he no longer had the strength for conversation, for memories. He needs another dose. Mirzo, like many from his village of Porszniev, situated deep in the mountainous region of Tajik Badakhshan, has been struggling with heroin addiction for almost two decades.
Heroin took its toll. Mirzo talks about his youth, about his friends and classmates, among whom only a handful have managed to escape addiction. “Once, 30-40% of young people in the village took heroin. Most of them are already gone. They even did not live half of their life.” He counts everyone one by one: three sons of the neighbour, two doors down another three brothers, he and his younger brother. The list of those affected by addiction seems to have no end.
Heroin started to appear in the Pamirs in the mid-1990s, during the Tajik Civil War, and very quickly it became widely available. Before this, it was almost unknown, with opium being the drug of choice for people across the region. During the war, people were nearly starving. Getting flour to make some bread was on the verge of being a miracle, and yet heroin was lying around in local bazaar in kilos.
The fall of communism sparked a euphoria of independence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In Tajikistan, that euphoria quickly turned into chaos, as many wanted to take control of this newly created state. Members of the old guard, interested in preserving their grip on power, faced resistance from the eastern regions, including the Pamirs. Years of war (1992- 97) turned what was already the poorest country in Central Asia into a total ruin.
Many young men affected by the brutal civil war, without any means for living, or prospects for the future, tried to escape to the alternative world offered by heroin. Even if this world was available just for a short while, this seemed better than the surrounding reality. As Mirzo recalls, “When I took [heroin], it felt like a fluff. I was in heaven.” The gates of heaven seemed to be open to all. In the beginning, heroin was given away for free, just to try. It was, you might say, a free sample, but a sample that turned out to be the greatest test of life. Trying to justify his actions, Mirzo explains, “Nobody knew what it was. Nobody knew the results. We all smoked opium and had no problem with it. The same was thought about heroin. There were no movies about it. Nobody warned us.”
Heroin begins its existence as innocent-looking poppies grown in the fields of Afghanistan. In 2014, 200,000 hectares of agricultural land in Afghanistan were recorded as being used for opium farming. It is estimated that each year 300 tons of heroin leaks through the borders of Afghanistan into neighbouring countries. Transit corridors run through Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia – the so-called Northern Corridor – and then on to Europe and Russia. Transit corridors pass by Mirzo’s village, lying right on the river Pyanj. The river forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, but also connects the producers and smugglers of drugs. It is estimated that approximately 80 tons of heroin are being smuggled annually into Tajikistan, which equates to roughly 200 kg a day.
In the village, many make fun of Mirzo and his colleagues, pointing fingers at them. But these guys don’t have too many reasons to laugh. It has been 20 years since they started taking heroin. Mirzo says, “They do not like us, and perhaps even hate us. If something goes missing in the village, they point fingers at us, as if only an addict could have committed the crime. There are also thieves who deal with their business. They are addicted too: to stealing.”
Stigma is a big problem when it comes to drug addiction in this former Soviet republic. In small towns, where people know each other, it is difficult to hide the habit. Cities are different. You can avoid the stigmatizing looks of your neighbours or passers-by. You can be anonymous, don’t exist, but it come with a price. A young volunteer from a local NGO in Khorog, the main town in Tajik Badakhshan region, says that up to 90% of the drug addicts with whom he works were reached thanks to people who knew or heard about them. Those who come to the centre help to get others in too. They know where to find other heroin addicts, and how to look for them. This is especially important in terms of young people, who often do not want to admit that they have a problem with addiction. They are difficult to reach, as they often walk their own ways. They are elusive, like young wolves.
According to official government data, the number of registered drug addicts in Tajikistan is approximately 7,500. However, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross estimate that the number is much higher, perhaps even reaching 100,000, which would constitute just over 1% of the country’s population. The official figures are almost silent about those who have died from overdoses. Families prefer not to reveal the real cause of deaths, as people will talk. “What will it change anyway?” They say. The dead are just another number, another statistic.
Almost all aid in combating drug addicts is dependent on foreign support. Posters of programmes financed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Aga Khan Foundation hang on the walls of NUR, an NGO based in Porshniev. The organisation provides needles, leaflets, and advice. The work of the NGO, does not, however, convince local residents, who believe that centres handing out syringes actively encourage the taking of drugs. Workers at an NGO called Volunteer in Khorog, say, “It’s difficult to convince people that you have to fight against drugs and not pretend that they do not exist.” Experts believe that needle exchange programmes helped to stop the HIV epidemic which was developing in Tajikistan after the end of the civil war.
However, despite two decades of international assistance, not much has changed, and there is a little hope that it will change drastically. Even an introduction of methadone, a drug that suppresses the hunger for heroin, was hampered by difficulties. In the Pamirs, methadone has been available since 2011 but only for residents of Khorog. Mirzo, who lives outside the town, has no access to the treatment program. The doctor from the local narcological centre breaks the rules. He says he is trying to take in everyone.
Between a rock and a hard place
Mirzo and his colleagues are playing for time. Methadone treatment in Khorog is at risk of being terminated. But even if these men wanted to be rehabilitated, they lack the money to get to the centre. Without a job and living off his mum’s pension, 55$ for monthly transportation from Porshniev to Khorog seem to be impossible for Mirzo to meet. The narcological centre is only a 20-minute drive from Porshniev, barely a stone’s throw away, but as he says, “It is easier to buy heroin in the village than to get to the centre.”
With minimal help from the state and a lack of money to access rehab facilities, Mirzo and his colleagues are pushed into the clutches of dealers. These men seem to be in a hopeless situation as only heroin keeps them alive. As they say, “Without them [dealers] there is no life for us. We get up in the mornings and run after them to get a dose. If they are not here, we cannot deal with the pain.” It is difficult to imagine the excruciating pain of a man who has taken heroin for two decades. The stories circulating around the village provide much food for thought: one man hanged himself; another threw himself into the river to end his life and relieve this suffering once and for all.
Only a handful of Mirzo’s schoolmates is still left alive. Guys meet daily to share the cost of a dose. Sometimes they do some small work in the village, fixing a few things. At other times, they take stuff from home and sell it for pennies. They chip in about $2 each to get a gram of heroin that costs around $13. And they dream. They dream about a beautiful life. They keep saying to themselves that tomorrow they will start rehab, that they will give up heroin and begin a new life. They keep saying this to each other over and over again. As soon as the heroin stops working, they are on the search for the next dose again.
After 20 years of taking it, it is difficult to set heroin aside just like that. Mirzo tries to justify his addiction, saying, “We did not know it would end like this…. I did not think that it would be such a long way ahead. That there are only two ways out: death or prison. There is no other way out.” As sad his situation seems to be, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel: there is hope for others, for young people. Trying to comfort himself Mirzo keeps believing that there are fewer like him and his school friends. “The youth who see us, they already know what it is. We are a lesson for them that such things can happen. And they have a chance to stay away from it. No one gave us such a chance.”
* The names of some interviewees have been changed or omitted at their request
The material for this story is part of NARKOMEN, an independent documentary film produced by Malgorzata Skowronska and Matthew Traver from Visual Media.