chronicle of a reportage
along the way of heroin
at side of heroin's dealers hunters
on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan
Spring, each morning the young men at camp no. 8 get up and exit the large underground chamber that shelters them from the torrid temperature. In this place, day time highs can reach 52 degrees in the shade. I observe them as they go about getting ready to face the next eight-hour shift, issued with what to us seems like long-disregarded and obsolete equipment. I can read the great determination in their eyes along with a sense of sacrifice, something that we have long disregarded as well.
The isolation is almost total; supplies come in once a week, no visits, no R & R, no weekends. A single telephone, for official use only, is linked to the main barracks. We are four hours by car from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan. A God forsaken place.
The youths, ten-thousand of them, are soldiers that for several months now scattered across a hundred such camps, guard the course of the river Pyandzh which, along its length of 1700 kilometers, marks Afghanistan's northern border with Tajikistan. This river, with its murky and at tracts hasty waters, is today a transition point for over 1.000 tons of heroin a year.
I climb up the 20-meter high observation tower, the highest look-out point, and I can clearly see the demarcation line of the barbed-wire fence at the border, beyond that the buffer zone, and then a second fence.
It all seems so still and yet through this restricted area transit such mind boggling quantities of drugs that it is hard to imagine.
But figures from the UNODC, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, speak clearly enough: in the latest years Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, having sowed 91.000 hectares of land. While in Burma and the Golden Triangle, the average yield per cultivated hectare stands at 7 kilos, in Afghanistan it fluctuates anywhere between 50 and 90 kilos of opium per hectare. Essentially, of the world's 2007 opium production, 8.200 tons, equal to 93%, came from Afghanistan.
Six more hours on the UAZ jeep and I reach a small outpost in a place called Khirmanjo;
here the great mountain chain of the Pamir begins, an outstandingly beautiful landscape which I have no time to enjoy. Two youths, bound and blindfolded, are walking towards us amongst the dust clouds raised by the armored vehicles roaring to and fro. They have just been captured. They had come ashore on the Tajik river on a patched-up dingy with home made oars, hauling 24 kilos of opium. I inquire as to their age: they have no papers, but declare to be 16 and 17; this saves them from jail. They will be deported back to Afghanistan, where they will again try to cross the river in a couple of days. Fifteen dollars for each successful haul, and each time their lives are at stake.
However, they draw little attention. Everyone here knows that there are very few opium runners left.
Afghanistan has become the world's leading heroin producer. In recent years, particularly in the Helmand and Nanghara areas, many labs have specialized in the transformation of opium into the purest of heroin. This has streamlined drug trafficking and made it infinitely more profitable. According to UNODC figures, the criminal organizations which transport the heroin from Afghanistan to Tajikistan make up to US $ 80 million a year.
At the camp I hear talk of a network of drug deposits that have been identified along the border, each able to turnover 20 tons of narcotics per month (that is 240 tons per year). This means 8 tons of heroin a month! One-hundred tons a year, which is about a quarter of the heroin producing capacity of Afghanistan. Since the narco-traffick channel which used to pass through Iran and Turkey has been under pressure from Iranian authorities, much of the drug traffic has changed routes, heading north and into Russia. Today, enough heroin transits the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan to supply Great Britain's demand for nine years and Europe's for one.
I am now 8 kilometers from the Moskovsky military center, which is undoubtedly the most important along the border. It is 20:30 hours. I am following a special forces group that is perfectly camouflaged amongst the vegetation. I am not really scared, since I believe that the chances of me being involved in a firefight are quite remote. Having been awake since 04:30 I am almost falling asleep now. Abruptly, a burst from an assault rifle causes my heart to miss a beat. More shots ring out, hand-to-hand fighting ensues. The booty: 24 kilos of the purest heroin.
For the first time I get to see the substance which Dilshod, a 27-year-old addict recovering from 3 years of abuse, had told me about while undergoing treatment at the Republican Narcological Centre in Dushanbe. "We smoke it or snort it like coke. Or we dampen the cigarettes and roll them in the white powder. I would've done anything to get my fix."
"What can you recall about those days?" "Death walked beside me."
A tiny hospital, few beds, limited equipment, since drug addiction only reached this place in '96. "Before that, heroin didn't use to exist here" says Dr. Anatoly. "The addicts that we are caring for, about seventy in all, are aged between 18 and 25 and sixty percent of them have been using heroin for up to four years."
Naturally, people hardly knew what heroin was before they started producing it. Given the high cost, it never came back from Europe, while today, also due to the many counterfeit dollars floating around, it is even used to barter with and naturally much of it is destined to stay here and be consumed.
"It's a recent phenomenon" the Doctor carries on "and we just don't have the means. Overdoses are frequent, because among users nobody knows enough about the risks and consequences involved because of the purity of the stuff".
The young men I see on the tiny beds which are packed in the rooms, will undergo treatment for 21 days at the most. Hellish days, to get over withdrawal symptoms.
If this flow goes unchecked, Central Asia will face a phenomenon of drug abuse among its very young, of uncontrollable proportions. In prison no. 7 in Dushanbe, Director Rashimov tells me that of the 1300 inmates over sixty percent are traffickers or small time dealers. The average age is between 25/30 and all have been arrested within the last five years. Even in this place the number increases exponentially, and the prison facilities are inadequate to face the new scourge.
I am back in the barracks at camp Moskovsky, where I have been permitted to assist the interrogation of two drug runners: the rest of the group got away. Each was carrying 25 kilos of heroin and they were led by one or two guides who chose the path they would take. They were armed with state-of-the-art Kalashnikovs, heavy machine-guns, rocket launchers, and rudimentary hand grenades made with powder from land mines. To communicate they used Walkie-Talkies with a 50 kilometer range; some were even using satellite phones.
This technological edge, creates a disparity between the traffickers and the security forces.
I manage to get an interview with General Nazarov, heads of the new Tajik Agency. "With the help of the UNODC and that of the Russian troops we are managing to put a spoke through the traffickers' wheels. Furthermore - the General said - the new radio interception and surveillance equipment has enabled us to foretell their moves while choosing which tactics will result in more efficient intervention".
My trip continues aboard an armored mechanized vehicle in the company of twenty Russian soldiers and one 31-year old Afghani, father of 5, who was arrested the night before as he guided a group of traffickers. He knows the hills like the back of his hands. They are taking him to the pebbly shore of the river so that he can point out the paths used by the other guides to cross the border. He does not want to collaborate, being afraid that the others will seek revenge on his family across the river. They force him, insisting with much coercion. He does not give in. The disparity between the twenty armed soldiers and the frail and desperate looking Afghani makes me doubt as to which side I should take. I hand him a cluster of grapes, as I wonder if he, who comes from a village just over the border, even knows what Europe is. His legs have never carried him that far: he just cannot imagine what one kilo of heroin can mean on our streets.
I am back in Dushanbe after ten days of eating dust and strong emotions. At the Anti-drug Agency they are processing a scrawny 50-year old man, captured with 60 capsules of heroin in his stomach as he was boarding the Moscow bound train. He speaks a little German, having served in the former East-German Army. We are able to communicate. He tells me his trip was to last four days and four nights, during which he could have only fed himself tea and sugar. His payment was the one-way ticket to Moscow, and $150 upon delivery. I ask him whether he was aware that if even one capsule had burst he could have risked his life, but he merely shrugs. Now he faces 15 to 20 years in prison.
At the Agency I receive confirmation of the news I have collected so far: 1 kilo of heroin in Afghanistan costs between $1.000 and 3.000 depending on the quality; across the Tajik border it goes for $2.000/4.000; Once it reaches Dushanbe the price inflates to $4.000/5.000.
Where does all this money end up? Narco-trafficking is a get-rich-quick scheme everywhere, and in a country like Tajikistan, lacking in natural resources - bereft of gas and oil - it provides fodder for the criminal and terrorist groups operating locally and in Central Asia. While in Afghanistan the total lack of control over production and transport in the interior makes the drug channels ever easier to follow. The young men at camp no. 8 give it their all, but they cannot make it without international aid. Tajikistan could become the place through which Central Asia, Europe and American poison themselves. A river of heroin flowing to the world. Only political and economic stability can stop the flow of drugs.
I come across one last piece of news before leaving: it seems that the more advanced of the Afghani drug labs are able to convert 1 kilo of heroin from just 6.5 kilos of opium, compared to the 10 kilos it used to take. If it were true, this would mean a 40 percent increase in Afghan production, with no new land being tilled. A gloomy and disquieting mood comes over me on the trip back.