TAKHAR -- Residents of this remote district of northeast Afghanistan are finding that desperate times call for desperate measures.
With few options to make an honest living, many locals in the Kalafgan district of Takhar Province are taking jobs as drug mules for local drug cartels. As couriers, locals smuggle packages of illicit narcotics to neighboring Tajikistan and Iran.
The work is high-risk and often rewarded with prison or even death.
Those dangers hit home recently as locals buried the bodies of 10 men from Kalafgan who were hanged in Iran, reportedly for drug smuggling. Residents say that in the past six months they have buried 80 villagers who were executed in Iran. As many as 400 other residents, locals say, are serving lengthy jail sentences in the Islamic republic.
Work, Passports 'In A Week'
The high concentration of drug couriers in Kalafgan has forced a light on the booming illicit drug trade in the area. When funerals for the 10 men were held on February 23, hundreds of mourners marched through the streets calling on the provincial government to improve economic conditions and to apprehend smugglers in the area.
Hamidullah's brother was among the Kalafgan residents recently hanged in Iran. He says his brother, whom he does not name, spent years taking menial jobs on either side of the Afghan-Tajik border, the crossing point for one-fifth of Afghanistan's illegal narcotics exports.
One day, Hamidullah says, his brother told him he had had enough. His brother approached a drug dealer in the district for work and within two weeks had been sent to Iran, where Hamidullah says he was apprehended by border police.
WATCH: Bodies of Afghans executed in Iran are repatriated:
Hamidullah says that, like other locals, his brother was wooed with promises of money and the prospect of a job upon his arrival in Iran.
"Drug smugglers pay local passport officials in Takhar 20,000 afghanis (around $400) to get couriers passports," he says. "In just a week, they secure visas for their mules to go to Iran. After they get their papers they hide drugs inside their bodies and go to Iran."
Hamidullah blames his brother's death on local officials in Takhar, who he says provide protection to the smugglers for a share of the drug profits.
"The officials and police are offering [drug smugglers] protection. Everybody knows about their presence but they don't do anything about it," Hamidullah says. "The smugglers have protection from high-ranking officials. We strongly urge [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai to take action."
Located near Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan, Kalafgan's mountainous terrain makes it uniquely suitable as a drug route, with remote roads making it inaccessible to most. The district's remoteness has meant locals have seen little economic improvement. Unemployment statistics are unavailable, but local officials say it exceeds 50 percent, 10 percentage points more than the estimated national average.
Suriya, another resident, says poverty and lack of jobs in Kalafgan have made many villagers easy targets for Afghan drug cartels seeking to recruit couriers. Among them was her husband, one of the 10 residents recently executed in Iran.
She says the need to provide for two newborn children compelled her husband, despite her protests, to take a job with what she calls the "free-roaming drug mafia" in Kalafgan.
Empty Beds And Threats
With the breadwinner of the family gone, Suriya, who is an Iranian national, says the family is struggling to survive. Like many residents, she blames the provincial government. She says locals know the names and addresses of drug smugglers, yet many officials turn a blind eye.
"The Afghan government is not taking action against the drug dealers," Suriya says. "Why aren't they doing anything? My husband was killed. They've taken everything away from me, including my family. I'm widowed with two children now. What should I do?"
To add to her misery, Suriya says she has been threatened by her husband's former employers. She says the ringleader, whom she names, has told her to pay him compensation for the drugs her husband lost when he got caught. If she does not pay, she says, she will either have to carry drugs for them or risk losing her children.
"A dealer called Khari Mohebullah, who smuggles drugs into Iran, came to see me and told me that my husband had cost him 5 kilograms of drugs," Suriya says. "He told me he wouldn't let me bury my husband until I paid him compensation. He said, 'Even though your husband is dead, I will still collect my money.'"
Mohammad Farid Zaki, the acting governor of Takhar, confirms that at least 43 Kalafgan residents have been hanged in Iran in the past six months. That is the number that Iranian officials have confirmed, he says, adding that he suspects the number is much higher.
Not So Isolated?
Zaki adds that his office has launched an investigation into why high numbers of Kalafgan residents have been imprisoned and executed in Iran. He admits the drug trade in the area is playing its part, and stresses that Takhar is not alone.
"This is not a problem only in Takhar, but all over Afghanistan," Zaki says. "In some places Afghan youths who travel to Pakistan and Iran are used [as drug mules by narcotics gangs]."
The precise number of Afghans executed in Iran over the past several years is unknown. Tehran rarely informs or provides explanations to Kabul about the execution of its citizens.
Afghan media estimate that some 2,000 Afghans have been jailed in Iran on drug-smuggling charges and other criminal acts, while hundreds more face the death penalty.
Afghan lawmakers and human rights groups have raised concerns, saying many Afghans imprisoned in Iran do not receive fair trials because they lack access to defense lawyers and are not given the opportunity to get assistance from Kabul.
Written and reported by Frud Bezhan in Prague, with reporting by RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Dayan Ahmadi in Takhar Province