Unlike in India, there are no bright, fantastic colours here. In the horizon the air shimmers evanescent grey, the colour of local heroin powder diffusing to smoke, so that everything – the dried-up riverbeds, the concrete bridges, the fields of vegetables and wheat, even the hues of people’s clothing – seems muted and drained of vibrancy. Advertising slogans painted on the walls of adobe farmhouses promise easy paisa (easy money). Yet nothing could be further from the reality in Pakistan, where people are facing relentless internecine conflict and economic meltdown.
The contrast between the country’s anodyne custom-built capital, Islamabad, and the frenzied city of Peshawar, 100 miles to the north-west, could not be more extreme. They seem united only by the common burden of load-shedding – power cuts that strike with grinding monotony for up to 16 hours a day. A relatively new motorway connects the cities, running from the gridded conformity of Islamabad, through the brick and agricultural fields of northern Punjab, then across the Indus before entering KPK (as the old North West Frontier Province has been renamed), of which Peshawar is the provincial capital.
‘Welcome to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Land of hospitality’, a green motorway sign proclaims in English. ‘And heroin’, it might add.
Eleven per cent of the population here use drugs. KPK – and indeed Pakistan as a whole – is reeling from an epidemic of hardcore drug abuse. According to the most recent report on the country by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Drug Use in Pakistan 2013, there are 6.7 million people who use illicit substances, of which 4.25 million are considered drug-dependent. UNODC calculates that more than 800,000 Pakistanis aged between 15 and 64 use heroin regularly and that there are almost five million cannabis users addicted to smoking high-grade hashish called charas. It is estimated that up to 44 tons of processed heroin are consumed in Pakistan annually – suggesting a rate of use two or three times America’s – and a further 110 tons of heroin and morphine from neighbouring Afghanistan are trafficked through Pakistan to international markets.
In all, Pakistan’s illegal drug trade is believed to generate $2 billion a year. As is often the case where illicit activities are concerned, these figures are difficult to verify. But even at the lowest appraisal this makes Pakistan the most heroin-addicted country, per capita, in the world.
Peshawar is at the centre of this phenomenon, in close proximity to extensive opium-poppy fields in the Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Kunar and Nangarhar, and the rudimentary heroin-processing labs clustered around Landi Kotal in the adjoining Khyber tribal agency. A topographical map of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa shows Peshawar as a citadel surrounded by a mountainous rampart, the bulwark and key to the vast northern plains of the Indian sub-continent. Throughout history, from Alexander to Kipling and the machinations of the Great Game, both past and present, the city and its wild tribal environs have held a compulsive fascination for the feringi (foreigner). My grandfather Douglas ‘Buster’ Browne fought on the frontier as a boy soldier in Britain’s abortive Third Afghan War of 1919, and in the early 1980s I was one of the first Western journalists to cover the mujahideen insurgency across the same Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Today these and other ongoing wars have come to haunt Peshawar; it is a city under siege, racked by violence and lawlessness.
The Western media asserts that Taliban Islamists are responsible for the bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and murders of female teachers and health workers. But many locals prefer to believe the perpetrators are CIA, Indian or even Pakistani intelligence proxies, paid to keep the hatred and instability boiling. Security forces are always on maximum alert. All government buildings are heavily defended against suicide- and car-bomber attacks. The Supreme Court complex and offices of the chief minister are barricaded and ringed by large earth-filled baskets called blast walls. Security-check posts and elaborate traffic-suppression systems are as common as traffic lights are elsewhere. The legendary Frontier Corps, beloved by Churchill and other British imperial adventurers, watch the roads like hawks. Martial Afridi and Shinwari tribal irregulars, in black or grey shalwar kameez battledress and touting heavy-calibre weaponry, appear alert to every possibility.
Putting aside the fear and paranoia engendered by the febrile security situation, Peshawar seems not to have changed much in the 16 years since I was last here. The old Dean’s Hotel site in the cantonment bazaar may have been bulldozed and replaced with a shopping centre, but the Pearl Continental remains the preserve of the CIA and other assorted international security personnel. Yet take a closer look and a different reality emerges. Day and night, everywhere – in the backstreet gullies of Peshawar, at the bus station, in plain view of police stations, on grass verges, under railway bridges, on flat rooftops, near the main gate of the Central Jail, on busy roads – one can see hundreds of dishevelled men (even the odd woman and street urchin) smoking or injecting heroin. In one recent survey of regular injecting opiate users in Pakistan 73 per cent of respondents reported sharing a syringe, and it is estimated that about a third of those are HIV-positive.
There was a time, in the 1980s of the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq, when Peshawar (and Pakistan) was pumped full of money by America and Saudi Arabia to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and propagate the mujahideen’s jihad against the communist kuffar, or non-believers. Pakistan’s economy was growing at a rate of about eight per cent a year, while its neighbour and enemy, India, was tied to the treadmill of Nehruvian socialism and moving at the pace of a bullock cart. Foreign diplomats and people working for international aid agencies were not afraid to walk the streets of Peshawar and hardy tourists were drawn to the city’s bazaars to buy gemstones, carpets and handicrafts. Peshawar’s tourist trade is dead today. But the city’s clandestine drug economy is booming. One can buy a packet of grey-coloured heroin the size of a large pinch of salt for as little as 100 rupees, the equivalent of 66 pence. It is almost as simple as buying a cup of sweet green tea. Yet, with almost a quarter of Pakistan’s population living on less than 125 rupees a day, it is an expensive habit for the poor.
Early one morning, as dawn breaks over the restive city, I go in search of Peshawar’s street heroin addicts. My dragoman, Muhammad Ali, whom I have known for 20 years, accompanies me. Within minutes of being dropped off near Soekarno Square, in the Khyber Bazaar district, we find a group of seven men huddled on a flat roof – unkempt, half-starved, like a pack of pariah dogs. Most of the men are caught in the nightmare between exhaustion and the endless cycle of just one more hit. One leans against a low brick wall. Another sleeps squatting on his haunches. With jerky, robotic precision one of them unfurls a small strip of blackened aluminium foil and attempts to ‘chase the dragon’. Through the night and into the pre-dawn hours he and his pack have smoked their heroin until none remains. And now, in mad, concentrated desperation, he is burning the tarnished foil with a match, hoping to extract the very last milligram of heroin, or powderi, as the narcotic is called here. Soon he will abandon his struggle, pick up his gunny and start another day of tramping through the city and rag-picking. With luck he will earn the 300 rupees to feed his habit. Our intrusion is sundered by a volley of insults and the thud of a half-brick thrown from a neighbouring roof by a newly roused addict. Muhammad and I beat hasty retreat.
Throughout that day, and through days and nights beyond, we continue to find huddled groups around the city. They are so commonplace as to be almost invisible to ordinary, industrious Peshawaris; like grey ghosts floating in narcoleptic ether. The explosion of heroin addiction and the rise of Afghanistan-Pakistan jihadis are inextricably linked; significant elements of the mujahideen Taliban fund their holy wars against the kuffar through the drug trade. Afghanistan produces an estimated 60 to 70 per cent of the world’s supply of illicit opiates. About half of this is trafficked through its porous 1,550-mile border with Pakistan. Powderi was always destined for the wider international market, but in the process it has also entered Pakistan’s bloodstream. Heroin had been associated with injectable ‘white’ or ‘999’ product emanating from the Burma-Thailand-Laos ‘Golden Triangle’ and Hong Kong. But then a new, cheaper and smokable heroin, dubbed ‘Paki brown’ or just ‘brown’, came on to the European market. It precipitated a sharp spike in addiction.
In 1985 there was little evidence of public heroin abuse in Pakistan proper. But it was beginning to take hold in the nominally Pakistan-controlled Federally Administered Tribal Areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a region traditionally forbidden to outsiders, where heroin, hash, other narcotics, and guns and ammunition were easily bought. In 1985 tribal drug dealers, attired with bolt-action rifles and more contemporary Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, welcomed visitors with broad smiles and copious cups of green tea. And tribal policemen, Khasadars, were willing to look the other way.
I remember visiting one fortified drug den, controlled by an Afridi clan leader, only a short drive from Peshawar. A dealer sat on a rope charpoy-bed and dispensed powderi to pushing, desperate addicts. A guard and his Kalashnikov kept them in a semblance of order before herding them to a large barn in the walled compound. Inside scores of men squatted and chased the dragon – burning the heroin on strips of silver foil until it liquefied and turned to an acrid vapour, which they sucked and inhaled through small tubes. It was the beginning of Pakistan’s mass heroin addiction.
In the absence of alcohol, smoking hashish has been socially acceptable in many Muslim societies for hundreds of years. And in Pakistan the transition from smoking charas to smoking powderi has been almost seamless. Back in contemporary Peshawar one heroin user, a businessman, tells me, ‘My friends and I always used to meet after work and smoke charas. It was our way of relaxing. Then one day one of the guys said, “Try this.” It was heroin. The first time I smoked it, I felt as if I could do anything. I lost all my fear.’
There are many legends about how – and why – heroin first appeared on the North West Frontier. It is generally accepted that 1979 was the year in which momentous events combined to produce a new front in the narcotics business. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the advent of the ayatollahs signalled a major shift in the illicit industry. Almost overnight Ayatollah Khomeini ruthlessly cracked down on his country’s extensive heroin trade, sentencing drug dealers to capital punishment. Iranian chemists relocated over the border to Afghanistan, a habitually anarchic country soon to disintegrate into chaos and warlordism amid the welter of the Soviet Union’s Christmas 1979 invasion. And the rest is history.
Pakistan’s national and provincial governments appear unable, or unwilling, to respond to the manifest crisis of the country’s narcotics addiction. Draconian laws are in place – with no distinction between soft and hard drugs – and the sanction of the death penalty in cases involving one kilo or more. But the system is riddled with weakness – not least rampant corruption – and narcotics are not high on the political agenda.
In what can only be termed a flight of utter fancy, Pakistan aims to be drug-free by 2020 under its 2010-2014 Drug Abuse Control Master Plan. Yet in 2011 and 2012 the body set up to coordinate this goal did not even bother to meet.
Meanwhile, UNODC, which holds many of the keys to funding and influence in the fight against narcotics, is hobbled by the security situation across the country and barricaded with embassies and other agencies in a special international compound in Islamabad. UN personnel cannot leave their fortified village without clearance from their own security force. Any official trip outside the compound, – to Peshawar, for example – is monitored every 15 minutes. It takes me a week and a flurry of emails to arrange a meeting with UNODC officials. A senior official begins to pontificate about ‘the programme’. He tells me that ‘national drug treatment protocols have been instituted’ and that UNODC is ‘building capacity’. And he claims, repeatedly, that now, for the first time, ‘the government of Pakistan really owns the programme’.
But in a country where the government cannot keep the lights on, I find this mantra of ‘ownership’ deeply unconvincing.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has 17 drug-dependency units or services – run by the local government, NGOs and the private sector – for its 1.7 million drug users. They can treat a maximum of 1,052 patients at any time. Yet even this meagre figure may be inflated. About a third of these services are provided by the Dost Welfare Foundation, a groundbreaking charity established by Dr Parveen Azam Khan in 1992 with funding from Britain’s Department for International Development, the Canadian International Development Agency and UNODC. Dost, which means ‘friend’ in Urdu, works with drug addicts, street children, people with HIV/Aids and prisoners.
Last year it was forced to close its therapeutic hospital for drug addicts at Shahi Bala, on the western outskirts of Peshawar, because of a lack of funding. The facility is unique in KPK and a model of how to treat drug addiction, with high medical-staff-to-patient ratios, a rational and humane three-month detoxification programme, vocational training facilities and healthy food grown in its own garden to help heal broken minds and bodies. When operating it claimed a 65 per cent success rate, compared to the 90 per cent failure rate of government-run facilities. But earlier this year Dr Parveen announced that the American Bureau of International Narcotics Law Enforcement (INL) is to fund three major one-year projects, including a 180-room residential treatment centre at Shahi Bala, a project in five prisons in KPK, and a 100-bed treatment centre for children in Peshawar, which incorporates a drop-in centre.
Khan, formerly the director of women’s health services in the province, has earned the soubriquet ‘The Angel of Peshawar’ for her religious devotion and pioneering work. She is recognised as one of the leading experts on drug rehabilitation in South Asia. Now aged 75, Khan, the daughter of an aristocratic frontier family that claims descent from Dost Muhammad, a 19th-century king of Afghanistan, radiates poise and integrity. ‘This is a conflict zone, where 70 per cent of the people are living under the poverty line,’ she says. ‘Many people, especially people living in the tribal areas, have been traumatised by the war on terror and all the violence. It has definitely led to a big increase in drug use and addiction. Heroin is destroying our youth, killing them, criminalising them. They end up in prison, mental institutions or dead.’
Khan’s work with drug addicts was originally inspired by a visit to wasteland near Peshawar’s Karkhano market, a notorious nest of smugglers abutting the Jamrud entrance to the Khyber tribal agency, where guns, ammunition, petrol and a panoply of other contraband goods are on sale. ‘We were shocked by what we saw,’ she recalls. ‘There were men – and even women and children – smoking heroin. There were beggars and three dead bodies just lying among them. Maybe 100 people were using drugs there every day. That woke me up.’
Days later I see the more prosaic face of heroin treatment in Pakistan. Peshawar’s public health system has only one heroin-addiction referral unit – attached to the psychiatric wing of Lady Reading teaching hospital – with 14 beds. Patients on a year-long waiting list undergo a 10-day cold turkey regime before being discharged. On the day I visit, unannounced, I find the doctor on duty asleep in the consultation surgery.
I speak to one addict, 35-year-old Faisal Khan, the father of two children, who shares his room with two others. The air is thick and dank, poisoned by the unmistakable funk of heroin, sweat and excrement. This is Faisal’s first time in detox, he tells me through an interpreter. At home he runs a lorry, which he either drives himself or hires out. He smoked heroin twice a day, he says, and spent around 1,400 rupees a week feeding his habit – about a third of his earnings. ‘My children feel great shame,’ Faisal says. ‘It’s not a good thing when we are smoking and sitting in garbage. I cannot sleep. I don’t want to eat. This is my sixth day of not smoking and today I ate for the first time.’
Before I leave Peshawar I make one last visit to Gulloona, Khan’s drop-in centre for street children near Peshawar’s central bus station. Gulloona means ‘flower’ in Urdu, and it represents hope amid the dirt and squalor of its surroundings. A canal, built during the British Raj, flows alongside. Today it is little more than an open sewer. Concrete urinals empty directly into the water. Faeces and all manner of urban and industrial detritus float on the surface. Vagrant boys splash and swim in the water, defying the dangers with shrieks of joy. For them Gulloona is a safehouse where they can get a hot dinner, receive medical treatment, perhaps even learn to read. Most of them, even children as young as four, have direct experience of drugs: glue-sniffing solvents, charas, powderi. The centre, which serves 40 to 50 street kids a day, is located down a narrow backstreet, behind a warren of small industrial units, repair shops and a junkyard. In front a broken pipe has spewed out a flow of raw sewage. But inside everything is clean and ordered. Rest rooms for the children, staff offices and a small dispensary are set around a large patio. At the back there is a small kitchen and a large dining room, and upstairs a vocational sewing unit for young women.
I talk to three small boys who have just finished their dinner: Shahid, aged five, and brothers Hakim, seven, and Hikmet, four. Each child makes between 100 and 300 rupees a day (66p to £2) collecting rubbish, which they sell to the junkyard. Shahid, with his flattened nose, chapped lips and agitated manner, has the unmistakable features of a glue-sniffer. Hakim strokes his little brother’s head and admits he has already smoked hashish. An older rubbish-collector, 18-year-old Kamal Khan, a smiling, strapping lad, says, ‘I hope God keeps me safe from the powder. Yes, I also smoked cigarettes, and I smoked hashish, and for six years I used to sniff glue. But then I had treatment from Dost foundation for three months. Now I’m not taking anything. I’m on a different road.’
Another success story is that of Tariq Shah, also 18, who started smoking heroin at the age of nine. It is difficult to believe that this young man, with his clean-cut Bollywood good looks, was chained up by his family for three years because of his addiction to powderi.
‘Before I came to Dost I was dying,’ he says. ‘I came for treatment. Slowly my brain began to work again. The people here have given me a lot of help, food, everything. Now I work as a tailor with my father. I owe everything to lady doctor Parveen; she has rescued me from the quicksand.’
‘I don’t agree at all with people who say that Pakistan is a lost state,’ Khan tells me in parting. ‘We have wonderful examples of recovery. I’ve never felt helpless and hopeless, except when we’ve got no funding. Every day for me is a golden opportunity to do something.