Sunday, April 26, 2009

Drugs, Part 2

The second part of the NPR drug series focused on the former Russian Cultural Center, a bombed-out campus of buildings in Kabul that has become a notorious addict hangout used primarily by men.

You can look at Part 2 of Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson's series on NPR's website here.

According to a February 2009 United Nations survey, around 650 addicts live in the buildings at the Russian Cultural Center, and officials estimate 1500-2000 additional people come everyday to buy and use drugs. Heroin is the drug of choice, with 98 percent of the residents either smoking or injecting it. The drug is cheap. Unemployment, poverty and despair are all in ample supply.

Conditions at the site are terrible. The buildings provide little shelter from the elements. There is no electricity, plumbing, heat or clean water. The floors inside are covered in trash, dirt and human waste, a ripe place for disease to spread. The UN says that during the winter months, 2-4 people died each day at the center.

To stem these daily deaths, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime set up an emergency detox program on the grounds of the center in February. They also began feeding the residents one hot meal per day, so at least they wouldn't starve to death. Although meant merely as a stop-gap measure, this program has become the largest ad-hoc drug treatment center in Afghanistan.

The Russian Cultural Center was an experience. We decided to go mid-morning, hoping people would be stirring before the day's midday meal. Soraya asked both her driver and her fixer to come in with us. The "counter-narcotics" police wanted to accompany us as well (for our own security--why else?), but we refused. We were saved from that situation by allowing a doctor from the detox program to come in with us. Better than the police any day. (Part of Afghanistan's problem is that everyone is involved in the drug trade. It's just too lucrative. Police, members of Parliament, government ministers...)

So, we were five people. To me, that's way too many. In Afghanistan, it's true, I never just go off and shoot by myself. I always have somebody with me, whether it is a driver, translator or another photographer. Especially going into a potentially risky environment, I'd rather not go alone. People can get pretty agitated about photographs even if they're not high on narcotics. But it's very difficult to be unobtrusive with five people.

So, in we went.

A drug dealer sits at the entrance to one of the buildings. Heroin is cheap and readily available at the former cultural center, despite the so-called counter-narcotics police just outside.

When we actually got inside, I was totally shocked by what I saw: room after room packed with men all squatting and in various stages of smoking heroin. I've definitely never seen anything like it.

Addicts light up in a dilapidated room. Users melt the heroin paste then inhale the smoke to feel the effects of the drug.

Some people were definitely upset that we were there, others graciously allowed me and Soraya to talk to them and photograph them. It's always amazing to me what people are willing to share of themselves, even something like their addiction. But I think doing this kind of work would be impossible if I didn't always try to treat everyone I meet with basic respect and humanity, no matter what their situation.

Heroin paste that has already been melted and is ready to smoke.

Ruhollah, 25, an Afghan refugee returnee from Iran, smokes heroin.

We only had 15 minutes or so before it was time to go. Soraya, who understands Dari (Afghanistan's Farsi dialect) said she could hear people threatening us.

A bombed building serves as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime emergency detox program, where addicts can try to quit. The detox center serves the 650 residents with a daily hot meal, and if they choose, detoxification assistance, medical aid and counseling.

Muhammad Rahim, 28, sits in an acute detox room where he will spend a week before moving to a second recovery area.

It's Muhammad's first time trying to quit.

A recovering addict in the final phase of detox sits next to the fire at the center.

Each of the former Russian Cultural Center's 650 residents will receive soup, bread and a little fruit for lunch.

Hundreds of men line up and wait patiently to receive a portion of food.

A man sits hunched over his soup and bread, the first and only meal of the day, just outside the emergency detox center.

Afghans have very few options for treatment of drug addiction. International donors have spent lots on opium eradication, but almost nothing on treatment.


Erin said...

Oh Holly. I can't say anything but that it's warm in Boston & I have goosebumps after reading your accounts and seeing your photos. What should this tell you?...It should tell you that you are an amazing photojournalist. Also, you are a brave and compassionate soul.

Ugh. That last photo -- dirt or poo among the hypodermics???

Lido Vizzutti said...

I'm speechless - Wow Holly.

Holly said...

awwwww. thanks guys.

yeah, not sure what that is on the used needles.

Cindy Hval said...

Holly, I'm so amazed by your work I actually overcame my googlephobia and set up an account, just so I could comment.
You've done so well.
I guess you never miss shooting Love Story photos with me for the S-R?