Jhe dark sea of crammed shapes is nearly impossible to grasp at first.
The grimy, hunched figures resemble the inhabitants of a vast, sordid dungeon. In the grimy riverbed nearby, lifeless figures strewn about resemble the aftermath of a battle or an air crash.
Nearly 1,000 drug addicts shelter under this bridge in a western district of the Afghan capital.
The ragged mass soon resolves into numerous vignettes, each briefly illuminated by the glow of lighters.
Several men with glassy, staring eyes appear little more than skeletons and will surely not have long to live. Some stand hunched over and unconscious like zombies.
Groups band together to smoke drugs from heated pieces of foil. There’s a buzz of industry around another man making bulbous glass drug pipes.
Another crouches down and meticulously trims his beard with scissors, despite the dirt around him.
An optimistic shopkeeper pushes his way through the crowd, selling cups of tea. Traffic and normal life continue overhead.
“There are a lot of good people here,” a man says, looking at the crowd of other drug addicts. “Engineers, doctors, educated people. But they have problems with drugs. The problem is getting worse day by day.
The Pul-e-Sukhta Bridge was known as a haunt for Kabul’s miserable drug addicts long before the Taliban seized power last August.
While the battle to stop the drug trade in Afghanistan is often framed as a struggle to keep heroin off Western streets, this drug and others are wreaking terrible havoc closer to home.
A 2015 survey estimated that the country had between 1.9 million and 2.3 million regular drug users in a country of 39 million.
It is believed to have one of the highest proportions of opium or opiate use in the world.
Today, the scale of the economic collapse caused by the Taliban victory and a booming new methamphetamine trade are making matters worse.
Almost all addicts below deck said they were addicted to heroin or methamphetamine. Each had a different story to tell. Many said they became addicted as migrant workers in neighboring Iran.
“When I first took it, I felt strong,” says one man. “Many take medication for energy or to avoid sleep while working.”
Another said he had been part of the collapsed Afghan army and became addicted to heroin while fighting the Taliban on dangerous and harrowing tours of the country’s southern provinces.
Syed Ramin, 32, says he became addicted to heroin and later methamphetamine after becoming depressed after his failed engagement.
“I was graduating from school and preparing for college and I liked a girl and failed. The family didn’t approve. After that there was no chance for me. , so I just used heroin to calm myself down.
When the Taliban took power in August 2021, they said they would quickly address the drug problem in the capital.
They arrested thousands of drug addicts in the streets, forcing them to go to the Ibn Sina rehabilitation hospital in the capital.
The hospital has 1,000 beds, but staff recall that after the Taliban raids there were three patients in each.
Faced with overcrowding, violence and conditions not conducive to drug withdrawal, doctors at the hospital convinced their new Taliban masters to stop rounding up drug addicts.
The hospital, on the road from Kabul to Jalalabad, has now gone to the other extreme. With around 300 patients, the former military camp seems deserted.
Abdul Nasir Munqad is the Taliban leader appointed director of the hospital.
He spent three years in the high-security Bagram prison north of Kabul after being captured fighting for the Taliban, but now oversees doctors and nurses, along with his entourage of bodyguards.
He denies that the drug situation is worsening in Afghanistan and blames the former government’s “drug mafia” for the number of drug addicts.
The Taliban have also ordered an end to the opium poppy trade in the country, although there is much international skepticism as to whether they will continue.
“By order of our supreme leader, Haibatullah, there was a decision to reduce this problem,” he says. “Nowadays there has been a reduction in our drug problem.”
He says the current lack of patients is because he has so little money that he cannot feed them properly.
The international aid that once kept the hospital afloat has ceased. Salaries are not paid and patients only receive bread or rice. Medications like methadone are running out.
Each patient follows a 45-day program. The first 15 days are a detox to get the drugs out of their system. Then they undergo rehabilitation.
Religion plays a big role in treatment and did so before the Taliban arrived, says Dr Atiq Azimi, secretary to the director.
“Our problem is different from European countries, where people use drugs for fun. If we ask our patients, they don’t have a job, they don’t have an income.
“We started our religion classes because our country is a religious country and it has a good effect. In our experience, we can eliminate this problem with religion classes.
After the end of the forced roundups, almost all the sick are volunteers, or have been brought in by their families. They cannot go out during treatment and are practically inmates. Often they try to escape.
As the Telegraph circled the halls, a man lifted his shirt to show vicious bruises on his back where he said he had been beaten.
Doctors said he was lying and he was schizophrenic. The patient himself describes himself as “crazy”.
Staff speak of patients with compassion, but are also frustrated with their situation and say there are occasional clashes and violence.
Bashirullah, a 26-year-old former soldier, weaned himself off heroin in hospital last year and is now acting as a volunteer guard, wielding a length of electric cable to prevent escapes.
He says he took the drugs while serving on military bases away from his home for months.
“For months I did not see my house and for that I was very upset and depressed.” When the old government collapsed, he said he decided to get clean because he had no money to support himself.
The UN does not have up-to-date figures on the number of drug addicts in the country. The most recent research in 2019 showed that crystal meth is starting to take hold among the nation’s youth.
Experience shows that the poverty and desperation caused by an economic collapse such as the one that engulfs Afghanistan will tend to increase the number of drug addicts.
Kamran Niaz, from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says: “Certainly when there are economic difficulties, when people are displaced, they want to look for mechanisms to deal with their difficulties. . It definitely makes people vulnerable to more regular drug use.
Economic difficulties also make it more difficult to give up this habit. Several of the men below deck said they had been through the hospital program before, some multiple times.
Mr Ramin says his own trip to the hospital did not make him clean. “When I got out, what could I have done?” he asks. “There was still no work. I was in the hospital, but got hooked again when I left.
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