Former addicts try to help drug users in Afghanistan

In this Dec. 21, 2016 photo, an Afghan first aid nurse with Bridge Hope Health Organization (BHHO) left, helps dress wounds of drug addicts in Kabul, Afghanistan. A small group of former addicts is trying to help drug users in Afghanistan, a country with one of the highest rates of addiction in the world. Thousands can be found in the streets of the capital, Kabul, sleeping under bridges, as the government struggles to provide services and rein in cultivation of poppies that produce opium and heroin. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

By RAHIM FAIEZ

Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Raheem Rejaey was a drug addict for 17 years. He lived under bridges in Kabul or in the ruins of buildings. His clothes reeked. In his misery, he tried suicide several times, he said, once intentionally overdosing and lying unconscious in a street for two days, undiscovered.

So he can feel the pain of other addicts as he searches for them in the streets of the Afghan capital. Clean for six years, the 54-year-old Rejaey volunteers for the Bridge Hope Health Organization, a group made of up of former addicts like himself who help get care and counseling to drug users.

It is an overwhelming challenge: Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of drug use in the world, with an estimated 3 million addicts, around 10 percent of its population of 30 million. The government struggles to provide services, but can’t keep up as the numbers of addicts grow in the country, which is the world’s main source of opium and heroin.

Authorities have established treatment centers, and police with health officials often round up addicts from the streets and bring them to the centers. Billions of dollars have been spent on counter-narcotics campaigns in the past decade, including encouraging poppy farmers to switch to other cash crops.

Still, officials say the number of drug users is growing. Most addicts come from the millions of Afghans who work in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, where narcotics are even more of a problem.

The 10 volunteers at Bridge tour Kabul districts where addicts are most plentiful and provide basic help to 15-30 a day, such as counseling and referrals to drop-in centers where they can get screened for HIV. They often find old friends.

“My health was really bad when I was an addict, I was hoping to die,” Rejaey told The Associated Press. “When I became healthy and gave up addiction, I decided to devote my life to serving these people, because … I knew there is no one who will care for them.”

The ranks of Afghanistan’s addicts include more than 1 million women and more than 100,000 children, said Abdul Manan Azadmanish, director of drug demand reduction for the Public Health Ministry.

“It is a big disaster,” he said, speaking at a Kabul rehabilitation center as police brought in several hundred addicts for treatment.