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Most of the heroin linked to Afghanistan's soaring poppy cultivation is smuggled abroad, ending up as far away as Europe and the United States. But in Badakhshan, near Afghanistan's northeastern border with Tajikistan, aid workers say the number of Afghan addicts is increasing at an alarming rate. Provincial officials elsewhere also are sounding warnings about rising heroin addiction.
Prague, 9 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Crouched near a stone wall in northeastern Afghanistan, 35-year-old Abdul performs a daily ritual that he calls "chasing the dragon." He heats a small pile of heroin on a piece of foil and draws the smoke into his lungs through a glass tube.
He smiles with bleary eyes as he explains that the heroin he just bought is of "high quality." It took Abdul about five minutes to find 1 gram of the illegal drug at a marketplace in Faisabad. Although that amount of heroin costs up to $300 outside of Afghanistan, Abdul paid about $6.
UN officials say the availability of cheap heroin is one reason the number of Afghan addicts is growing. There are no statistics on the number of laboratories in Afghanistan that produce the white heroin granules from opium poppies. But the UN Office on Drugs and Crime says they appear to be on the rise.
Doris Buddenberg, the head of the UN agency's Kabul office, said: "Yes, I think this is a problem [and] that [unless] we deal with it now, Afghanistan will face a major drug-addiction or drug-use problem in the near and further future."
In Faisabad, the provincial capital of Badakhshan, one local aid group has set up a clinic where men and women addicts can go through a month of detoxification. Paree Naaz, a 34-year-old Afghan mother, is in that program now after using heroin regularly for a year. She said she first turned to cheap heroin as a "pain medication," and that both her 10-year-old son and her husband are addicts as well.
"In Shegnan, we didn't have medicine so we had no other choice but to use it; and we had to sell whatever we had so that we could buy [heroin]," Naaz said.
In another part of the clinic, 28-year-old Mohammad Saddiq explains that it is physically painful to stop using heroin once a person is addicted. Saddiq is a longtime addict who said he has gone through detoxification several times in the past three years. He said he keeps feeling drawn back to the drug.
"Whenever I had a panic attack, my body would start shaking. My head would be spinning, and I would not be able to sleep. But after using heroin, I could control myself better and I could sleep," Saddiq said.
Northeastern Afghanistan is not the only part of the country where authorities are concerned about heroin use. Assadullah Qualed, the governor of Ghazni Province southwest of Kabul, spoke to RFE/RL last week on the sidelines of a seminar that addressed the problem.
"[Heroin] has damaged the reputation of Afghanistan worldwide [because of the exports from Afghanistan]. But also inside of Afghanistan, both men and women are becoming addicted in many areas," Qualed said.
Zafar Sharif, the chief administrator in the Jaghori district of Ghazni Province, said he also is concerned. "Youths are becoming addicted to these drugs in many areas of Afghanistan," he said. "We are seeing this problem in our district, too. We are concerned that if the widespread cultivation of poppies is not stopped, we risk seeing the number of addicts increase across all of Afghanistan."
But many Afghan farmers depend on poppy earnings for their survival. UN officials like Buddenberg say alternative sources of income are needed.
"There is no single other crop that can replace opium poppy in terms of cash income," Buddenberg said. "Rural development projects -- or alternative livelihood programs -- do not look only at the possibility of replacing opium with potatoes, but they look at the overall development of a locality or the context of a valley or a region."
Back in Badakhshan, snow flurries fall on farmer Abdul Raouf as he walks through his barren fields, waiting for spring weather to plant more opium poppies.
"I know it is illegal. But what can a person do when he is hungry? When his family is hungry? They can rob or kill people to survive," Raouf said. "We know it is illegal [to grow poppies], but what is the government doing for us? What is the international community doing to help us so we can still survive if we stop cultivating it?"
During the past four years, Raouf said, he has earned about $2,000 a year from his opium harvest. He said that has been enough to feed his wife and three children, as well as many other relatives.
(RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)