Summarising data from the UN Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), Peace News editors Emily Johns and Milan Rai recently noted that the area of land given over to growing opium in Afghanistan fell by 91% under the Taliban, to just 185 tonnes by 2001. However, by 2008 this had risen to a massive 7,676 tonnes – an increase of over 4000%.
Although it is well known this bumper crop is the source of around 90% of the world’s heroin, since the 2001 US/NATO invasion the problem has increasingly become an Afghan one. "Because of criminal gangs and crime syndicates taking advantage of the instability, for the first time ever 60 percent of all the opium produced in Afghanistan is turned in to smack before it leaves the country", British photojournalist Guy Smallman explained to me recently. "I’ve been to the former Russian culture palace in Kabul, and I saw with my own eyes over 500 men, boys and women shooting up and smoking dirt cheap heroin."
Addicted in Afghanistan provides a glimpse in to the heartbreaking lives of two of Afghanistan‘s estimated one million drug addicts. Heartbreaking because the addicts in question are Zahir and Jaber, two 15-year old boys, who say they have been taking heroin for over seven years. As the 75-minute documentary points out, their story is not unusual – over 40% of addicts in this highly conservative society are women and children.
From their poverty-stricken homes, to aimlessly wandering the streets of Kabul and smoking heroin, the London-based Afghan director Jawed Taiman follows the two teenagers for over a year. Filmed clowning around on a scooter, play fighting and constantly ribbing each other, in many ways Zahir and Jaber are typical teenage boys. However, the boys addiction has a ever more tighter grip on their lives, their lies and wasted behaviour making their families desperately unhappy and cultivating a keen sense of hopelessness. In these desperate circumstances, Zahir’s dream of being a pilot is desperately sad. The old adage "old before their time" has never been so apt.
Hope is offered by a small, under funded rehabilitation centre, which both boys have attended several times before without success. The film gradually builds up to another attempt to wean them off their destructive habit, but the outcome, while predictable, is still painful to watch. Hollywood this isn’t.
A modest film, Addicted to Afghanistan‘s low-budget is evident by the fact Taiman appears to be the only cameraman following Zahir and Jabar. With no narration and little context or explanation, it is very much an observational documentary, rather than a polemical tract like the work of John Pilger or Michael Moore. No direct questions are posed and therefore no answers given. For example, the US/NATO occupation is rarely mentioned, instead providing low-level background noise to Zahir and Jaber‘s story – an occasional shot of a Humvee rumbling through the streets or a low-flying helicopter over their neighbourhood.
What is left is an intimate portrait of two tragic Afghan youths and a thoughtful exploration of the disastrous effects of hard drugs on contemporary Afghan society.
The world premiere of Addicted in Afghanistan takes place at the Sheffield Doc/Fest on Friday November 6. For more information visit www.sheffdocfest.com or www.addictedinafghanistan.com
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected]