Guest Contributor: James Barkman
As I follow our friend Muhammad* down a narrow, trash-ridden path that leads under the bridge, an overpowering wave of human waste mixed with thick opium smoke hits my nostrils, instinctively forcing me to hold my breath.
My eyes slowly adjust to the dimly lit scene, revealing hundreds of makeshift shelters and thousands of hunched-over figures squatting around flickering flames. Some inject heroin by passing a needle around, while others inhale opium smoke directly off pieces of tin foil held over a flame. Countless bodies scatter the camps, lying motionless in the mud in a cruel and fleeting state of bliss.
Even though I was told to expect this, my heart sinks and I choke at the rising emotion, shocked to be witnessing this level of human depravity. Within minutes my head is spinning from inhaling the second hand smoke, and as we follow the winding path through the shoulder-to-shoulder camps we take care not to draw too much attention to ourselves.
"Countless bodies scatter the camps, lying motionless in the mud in a cruel and fleeting state of bliss."
In the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan, underneath a busy, traffic-jammed concrete overpass, dwells a drug-addicted community living in unimaginable conditions. Located along the banks of the less than pristine Kabul River, thousands of Afghans live “under the bridge,” hopelessly enslaved to addiction with no way out.
Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s heroin, and the price of being the world’s highest opioid supplier mixed with decades of conflict has taken a devastating toll on the nation’s population. With the average price of single-use opioids costing approximately $0.50 USD, sequentially between 2.5 and 2.9 million Afghans are active drug users - 11% of the population.
As if that wasn’t enough, women and children account for 40% of the country’s drug addicts, and it is not uncommon to see women sedate their children with heroin/opioids and beg for money in an attempt to draw on the heartstrings of the sympathetic.
“Sadly, drug addiction is no respecter of persons, and successful doctors, lawyers, and teachers are all among the victims of heroin and opium addiction.”
The path zig zags through different sections of the camps, and out of the darkness hands reach into my pockets and grab for money or valuables. Every few steps I sink to my ankles in a muddy slime, no doubt a mixture of human waste and mud from the Kabul River. Used needles and pieces of glass from broken pipes litter the ground, and I can’t help but notice that a surprising amount of men are without shoes.
A man squats in the mud, washing himself in the river by pouring the filthy water over his head with a plastic cup.
A decently dressed Afghan recognizes us as Americans and in broken English, begs us to help him escape his addiction. His knuckles are cut and bleeding from a fist fight a few minutes before. Theft, murder, and rape are commonplace in this hell-hole as women are just as susceptible to opium and drug addiction as men. Sadly, drug addiction is no respecter of persons, and successful doctors, lawyers, and teachers are all among the victims of heroin and opium addiction.
In the context of such human suffering, it is easy to become one of two things - overwhelmed or uninformed, and in certain instances both. The West, and myself included, can have a bad habit of being educated yet unempowered, giving way to a feeling of helplessness that can lead to subconsciously avoiding pressing and humanitarian issues.
There is no doubt that the opioid crisis is affecting the lives of the young and the old not only in Afghanistan, but on every corner of the earth and increasingly in our own backyard. It’s one thing to hear about a crisis from afar, but to see it firsthand - that’s another story. The reality is, if we are willing to look, the devastating effects of this very issue are all around us. Opioid use is on the rise in the US and everywhere else in the world. In 2016, over 64,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses, and unless drastic change is taken, it is projected that 500,000 American people alone could die from opioid abuse over the next decade.
The statistics go on and on, and despite obvious repercussions, there’s no denying that the poppy industry is deeply rooted in the Afghan economy. In addition to directly funding the Taliban and other extremist groups, opium is simply a crucial agricultural way of life in rural provinces and communities. Sometimes there may not be an immediate or easy answer, but there is always a piece to the puzzle that we as individuals can hold.
One of the solutions explored by the Afghan government and a host of international organizations, one that has proven to be both hopeful and effective, is the introduction of saffron into the agricultural landscape, a spice worth more than its weight in gold. Saffron is a lucrative spice that happens to be the most expensive in the world, perfectly suited to grow in the dry yet fertile climate of Afghanistan. The saffron industry has been exploding in demand and popularity, and Afghan-grown saffron boasts the highest quality in the world.
While 2,000 square meters of land in Afghanistan yields an opium crop worth $400-$600, the same land area has the potential to produce a saffron harvest worth up to $9,000 USD. According to U.N. findings, opium cultivation significantly decreases in areas where saffron is introduced, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani acknowledged saffron as a key component in the country’s development. Additionally, over 80% of production and cultivation can be carried out by women, creating countless jobs and opportunities. By providing incentive for farmers to transition from growing poppy to saffron, the future and direction of the opium epidemic can suddenly appear sincerely promising.
"There’s an old Afghan proverb – 'Drop by drop a river is made.'"
The journey to reform may be long and challenging, but every revolution has a small beginning. Presenting an economic solution to the crisis at hand through saffron cultivation and education can undoubtedly impact the poppy industry, one step at a time. It has been said that “if each family had half an acre or one acre of land for saffron, (Afghanistan) would be saved from poverty." In a place that has so long been the subject of conflict and turmoil, it’s refreshing to see a business model that is dedicated to building actual economic growth and change.
There’s an old Afghan proverb - “Drop by drop a river is made.” Through the support of the saffron industry, we can be a catalyst for change by educating and empowering Afghans to recognize and implement the tools around them.
I don’t know about you, but for me it’s easy to approach things with a mentality that “somebody else will fix it.’’ When it comes to social justice and awareness, responsibility can always be passed along to someone else - someone more qualified, educated, or capable. Reformation only happens when we choose to believe that we as individuals can actually make a difference. What I experienced under the bridge in Kabul that day opened my eyes to an issue and world I had never known, and will forever be imprinted in my memory. No matter how small our actions may be, I have come to believe that now, not later, is the time to support what is right.
* name changed for security