Dawn/Gemini News Service.
20 July 2002 Saturday 09 Jamadi-ul-Awwal 1423
By Laura-Julie Perreault

'White death' endures in the lands of Central Asia

KHOROG: American authorities predicted a sharp decrease in drug trafficking after the eradication of Afghanistan's Taliban regime - known to feed its activities by selling opiates abroad. But its northern neighbour, Tajikistan, knows better.

Months after the ouster of the hardline Afghan regime, trafficking in heroin - dubbed "white death" in Tajikistan - is far from eradicated.

"We evaluate that there has been a 13 to 15 per cent increase in drug trafficking since the beginning of the US intervention in Afghanistan," said Abai Iugochev, head of press relations for the Tajik Drug Control Agency.

"There is a vacuum of power right now and that is exactly when drug networks can act the most freely."

Tajik authorities can safely make this claim. They have seen the same scenario played out in their own territory during the Tajik civil war between 1992 and 1997.

While politicians, the Tajik army, police and opposition mujahideen were fighting in the Tajikistan lowlands to grab post- Soviet power, drug smugglers from Afghanistan had an easy time crossing the Panj River to pass heroin and opium into the Gorno- Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO).

This region, mostly inhabited by the Pamiri community (a people sharing the Ismaili faith) and separated from the Tajik valley by the Pamir mountain range, witnessed little fighting during the civil war. But its long border with Afghanistan was left unpoliced for years - and it became wide open to drug traffickers.

The fact that this once highly-subsidised mountain region plunged into sudden poverty after the collapse of the Soviet Union only helped the dangerous new trade.

Until the mid-1990s, the GBAO capital of Khorog was one of the main entry points of Afghan heroin, along with Iran and Pakistan. The drugs would follow the Pamir highway to Osh, the main Kyrgyz city in the Fergana Valley, before being routed to Russia and the West.

The impact of the illegal trade did not take long to appear. Unofficial estimates by regional organizations and police forces show that approximately 1,000 to 1,500 people were addicted to heroin in Khorog between 1992 and 1995 - in other words, more than five per cent of the city's 24,000 citizens were consuming "white death" every day.

The effect is much deeper when one takes into account the number of people in addicts' families - usually 10 to 12 in each household.

"Because of the high unemployment in Khorog, when one consumes, he has to get money from his family or steal it," explains Abdumamad Abdumamadov of the Khorog-based non-government association Volunteer.

"In most of the families where there is a drug addict, the whole family lives under the poverty line."

At the peak of consumption in 1995, more than half of Khorog's population was locked in this situation.

Locals say an intervention by the Aga Khan, leader of the Ismaili community, helped halt the downward spiral. The billionaire, who has been channelling aid to the region since the fall of the Soviet Union, made his help dependent on the halt of drug cultivation and trafficking.

"And we know for a fact now that none of our farmers grow poppy," said Mirza Jahani, chief executive officer of the Aga Khan Foundation in Tajikistan. "We are involved in every community and we know what is going on."

In exchange for turning their back on the lucrative drug trade, the Aga Khan promised to increase the number of development projects in the area and started sending humanitarian help to the Afghan communities settled across the Panj River.

Within a few years, the level of drug consumption and trafficking plunged dramatically in Khorog and its surrounding areas.

Last year Volunteer opened a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts in an old Soviet sanatorium. In the first seven months, more than 60 drug addicts were rehabilitated.

The centre closed down when foreign funding was not renewed, leaving a state-run unit - whose only prescription is abstinence - as the only place to treat drug addicts.

Tajikistan's three main cities, the capital Dushanbe, Khojand and Kulyab, should learn fast from their mountain compatriots. The latest data revealed that the heroin traffic is mostly routed to these three hubs.

One problem appears to be that the efforts of the Tajik and Russian governments are being diluted by corrupt elements in the government.-Dawn/Gemini News Service.