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The road to nowhere
Publication Date : 20-01-2014
With Balochistan province in Southwestern Pakistan being used as a conduit to smuggle narcotics from Afghanistan, growing numbers of people are falling victim to drugs such as heroin, crystal meth and hashish.
One such person is 35-year-old Munir Ahmed. A graduate of the University of Balochistan who sports a trimmed black beard, he might appear an unlikely candidate for addiction. But in 2005, he was incarcerated for 13 months at the district jail in Zhob, which borders the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
“The jail warden brought me heroin and out of frustration I started smoking it,” he says. “It’s not an addiction; it’s poison.”
Ahmed has spent the last three months under treatment at a private drug rehabilitation centre in Quetta. Carrying heroin, opium and other narcotics across the porous border, drug smugglers travel from Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand and Kandahar provinces to Chaman, Chagai and Nushki districts in Balochistan.
Opium cultivation has hit a record high in Afghanistan; according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, poppy was cultivated on 209,000 hectares in 2013 as compared to 193,000 hectares the year before. As the US-led international forces prepare to leave, there are concerns that the profits from the drug trade will go to warlords and the Taliban ahead of the fast-approaching presidential elections.
But Balochistan appears to be the first victim. “Drug barons smuggle most of the narcotics to Europe and the Middle East while some is consumed locally,” explains Brigadier Adnan Azeem, the commander of the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) in the province. Given the easy availability, the number of addicts is constantly rising in Quetta.
“If someone has the money, purchasing heroin is not difficult,” says Gul Shah Khan, whose addiction dates back to early 1980s after the USSR invaded Afghanistan.
Like Gul Shah, hundreds of heroin addicts smoke heroin in the area known as Main Nullah, located in the high-security zone of Quetta. Main Nullah is considered the hub of the narcotics trade and addicts (from grandfather to grandson) smoke heroin here openly. Drug peddlers have engineered good ties with the law enforcers, and for law-abiding citizens it is a no-go area.
The water channel snakes though the main commercial area of the city. Drug peddlers have established dens inside the Nullah, while addicts steal and spread their hands before people to obtain money for purchasing heroin.
“I smoke heroin worth 300 Pakistani rupees (US$2.84) a day,” says Gul Shah, adding that arranging money is a difficult and humiliating job. “Peoples’ jokes cause me pain each day,” he explains.
According to sources in the Frontier Corps (FC), around 15 frequented and more than 60 unfrequented routes exist across the poorly-manned Afghanistan-Balochistan border. Drug smugglers travel across the rugged mountains and hundreds of miles of desert on their way to Iran and Pakistan’s coastal Makran belt, with speedboats being used to carry narcotics to the Gulf region.
“Drug barons have diverted attention towards the Arabian Sea as the Iranian route is risky,” says Brigadier Azeem. “They use the deserts of Mashkail on Pakistan’s border to enter Iran, attempting to go on to Turkey and then Greece. Most of them are caught, though, and very few manage to reach Europe. Iran is ruthless with narcotic smugglers.”
Thousands of FC personnel are deployed along this portion of the border to stop the smuggling of weapons and narcotics. But the smugglers have deep pockets, and manage to either grease the relevant palms or find another way of getting away with it.
“The movement of narcotics is well-guarded and armed,” says Brigadier Azeem whose force comprises 450 men. “Since 1997, nine personnel of the Balochistan ANF have been killed during various operations against narco-smugglers. Last year, the ANF seized 81 tons of morphine, crystal meth, heroin and poppy straw, etc, in the province.”
As for the mentally and physically broken drug addicts on the streets of Balochistan, the government has done very little to rehabilitate them. But Haji Wali, a well-known philanthropist, has launched an organisation in this regard.
The Save Humanity Foundation Balochistan, located in the Pashtoonabad area of Quetta, currently houses 120 heroin addicts. “They are not addicts but live corpses,” Wali tells Dawn.
Balochistan has been in the grip of violence for more than a decade, now. Law enforcement agencies’ first priority appears to be maintaining law and order, and the eradication of narcotics comes second. But the cold shoulder given to the latter has resulted in the emergence of a newer but no less worrying problem.