kyrgyzstan.htmTEXTStMlI0>GmBIN Opium den
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 Opium rush (small)  Opium logo



Ivan Ivanovich carefully scraped the gooey clay-red substance from the insides of a small plastic bag pressed against his leg with a dirty pen knife. Carefully he deposited the $1 "lapka" of opium into the center of a battered aluminum ladle. He went back to the bag to scrape out any traces of the drug he may have missed. Then he wiped the knife against the side of the ladle. Then back to the bag, then to the ladle; three or four times he did this. When he was satisfied he had gotten all the opium out of the bag, he squatted down and began to heat the ladle over a fire made of book pages which his friend, Albert, had built. As the opium sizzled, Ivan pulled the ladle away from the flames and smoothed it with his dirty, callused thumb. Then he stuck it back into the fire. Slowly the opium liquefied. Occasionally he would dip the ladle into a pan of dirty water to cool the handle. After the opium had achieved the correct viscosity, he poured in rubbing alcohol to liquefy the drug. It caught fire, but he blew it out. The substance started to bubble and again caught fire, and he again blew it quickly out. Then back into the pan of water to cool. Ivan added a substance that I didn't recognize and set it back into the fire. Albert had been ripping pages from an old schoolbook to feed the flames. When the opium solution was again the correct viscosity, Ivan balanced the ladle against the chimney and reached for Dexedrine, an amphetamine, to sprinkle into the concoction. Again, over the burning pages until the porridge reached the consistency of blood. He put the ladle one last time into the water and let it cool until he could dip his finger into it without burning. Albert let the flames die out and went to sit down on a dirty bed, wheezing because, Albert, in his desperation to get high, smokes wood chips wrapped in book pages. Marlboro would be proud. Ivan, meanwhile, had rolled up some cotton tightly and pressed it into the opium. The cotton acts as a filter of sorts, so no impurities, like bits of dirt, will be sucked into the hypo. Slowly the hypo filled with the reddish liquid. Occasionally Ivan would turn the hypo over and tap out the air bubbles. He mopped up all the opium with the cotton and drained the cotton dry with the hypo. The concoction was ready for injection. He tapped out the remaining air bubbles and attached a needle. Fortunately it was a new needle, there is no aids in Kyrgyzstan at this point. Ivan reached for a second hypo and slowly filled that up from the first until each had an equal amount of liquid. Albert was fairly panting, his face eager in anticipation. Ivan squeezed the remaining air out of both hypos and Albert came to him. Albert knelt in front of Ivan like a sinner being blessed by a priest. I sat in raw fascination and absorption, wondering what it would be like to inject myself with opium and wondering why these guys, who live in a rat hole, do.


Dave Carpenter, my colleague from Moscow who was reporting the story, had been talking to Ivan during his "cooking" and learned that Ivan had been using opium for 20 years. Ivan first tried it when he went to jail in the late 1970's for some petty crime. Ivan had been a chief engineer at a local factory but after getting hooked on opium, he had lost everything, shooting up three times a day. At $.50 a pop, Ivan was going through about $45 a month in opium, more than the average monthly Kyrgyz wage.


Albert knelt on the dirt floor and cocked his head to the side. Ivan ran his dirty fingers down the side of his neck, looking for a vein that he could stick the needle into. He looked slowly and carefully until he found one big enough that would do the trick. There are no veins left in Albert's arms big enough to take a needle any longer. Without hesitating, Ivan jabbed the needle into Albert's neck. Albert didn't move. Slowly, Ivan pushed down the plunger, forcing the opium into Albert's blood stream. Albert still didn't move. It was almost religious, a bare bulb burning in a dirty destitute hovel in a far eastern Asian city on the outskirts of nowhere, a man receiving, on his knees, his freedom. When Ivan pulled the needle out, Albert didn't move although he clasped his hand to his neck where the needle had been. Obviously the rush had begun because all Albert could do was sway a little and mumble, it hurts, it hurts. I suppose he was referring to the injection. Then his face lit up, a sweet, child-like smile crossed his lips and he was into his heaven. He lurched to his feet and sat down on the bed.


Ivan, meanwhile, wasted no time watching Albert's reaction. He had been undoing his belt. I thought, of course, he'll tourniquet his arm like I've seen in the movies, get a vein out and shoot up. I couldn't have been more wrong. After undoing his belt, Ivan unbuttoned his pants and pulled down his drawers. His groin was covered in scabs, where he had been jabbing needles into his veins for the last 20 years. He selected one scab and stabbed the needle into it. Albert, by this point, had recovered enough coherence to watch, sitting on the bed, staring as the Ivan's thumb on the plunger forced the opium into his bloodstream. I stared in morbid fascination, shooting pictures, not talking, not reacting, just framing. Ivan's head went back, his hand went limp, the needle dangled from his hip. He too, had reached his nirvana. Maybe 30 seconds later, Ivan came back to himself, pulled the needle out, turned around to button up his pants and sat down on the bed. He asked one of the cops I was with for a cigarette and a light, and talked to Dave. Albert, on the other hand, seeing Ivan smoking, pulled a box of wood-chips out from under the bed, rolled himself a cigarette from book paper and lit up. After his first drag, he started to cough so violently that I thought he would throw up. But he didn't, he just took another puff and smiled.


Back out in the sunshine, walking away from Ivan and Albert, I felt sick. Ivan is an intelligent guy and yet he had let this destroy his life until he was a human rat, living underground, in fear and desperation. He got his money to buy his opium from doing repair work on telephones and television sets when he wasn't high. Or his wife bought it for him. Imagine that, I thought, your wife buying you drugs. What a weird world it is.


The police took us to visit another three addicts. One fellow said he had quit a month ago, but it was obvious to us that he had just shot up, he was so incoherent. We went to see two women, friends, who lived in a small flat with a lot of kids and talked to them. They were awfully frightened of pictures but the cops insisted that they cooperate. Not that the pictures were any good, really, just portraits of two desperate young women destroying their families. Finally, we went to see one guy who had been shooting up as many as ten times a day for the last three years. One of his legs had swollen up bigger than the other, there were abscesses all over his body, covered in pus. He could barely slur his words together although he hadn't shot up but once that day. He told Dave he had cut back from ten times a day to twice a day. I thought he should have cut back to no times a day. He lay on his side, a bed on the ground, surrounded by the paraphernalia of opium. His clothing was dirty and covered in pus and blood. Finally he stood up and pulled down his drawers to show me his buttock. There, an abscess fully as big as my fist had eaten its way into his cheek. It was fully of pus, it was infected, I almost vomited. I snapped a quick picture and told him that was enough. I couldn't shoot any more, I felt ill, I sat there as Dave interviewed him. The cops asked me if we wanted him to shoot up and I said, no, I have plenty of material and if he's not going to shoot up now, I don't want to ask him to for the sake of pictures. I mean, ethically speaking he was going to shoot up at some point anyway so it didn't matter whether he did it while we were there or later, but I didn't want to witness the entire process again, I didn't have the stomach.


The point of the story is, I suppose, drugs are evil. We know that, of course, just as alcohol is evil and cigarettes are evil. But until we are confronted with the reality of that evilness, these addicts unable to change their lives and waiting, all of them were waiting, for someone, anyone, to come and help them change, it's difficult to truly realize just how evil these drugs are. Help is not on its way to Osh. There is no government money for addicts, there is no government-sponsored rehabilitation program, there is no free hospital. There is nothing, just quiet desperation and I suppose, ultimately, an indignant death and a pauper's funeral. Drug barons don't care, I don't think drug barons ever see the results of their dealings. Drug barons count opium by the kilo. Ten kilos of Afghani opium purchased in Tajikistan is worth $1000. If it makes it to Osh, that's $7500. If it makes it to Russia, where most of the Afghani opium is headed, it is worth as much as $1000 per kilo. Drug barons look at the figures, the dollars and cents, not at the number of addicts they are killing each year, the numbers of families they are destroying, the number of lives they ruin. The cops we were with are getting paid $40 a month. They have no weapons. The entire anti-narcotics department have just two vehicles to drive around in. If they go on a bust, the narcocops take the bus. The drug barons, cruising around Osh in big Mercedes Benz, BMWs or Audis, laugh. Talk about being on the wrong side of a losing battle. Maks, a good guy with a wife and a couple of small kids, a major in the police force, who took us all over Osh and down to the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, had been approached by the drug barons repeatedly to join them. And Maks was on the edge. That was clear. He could, with his knowledge of the industry from the policing point of view, seriously help the drugs make their way across the borders with less chance of getting caught than the already slim chance that exists now. And then there's the money. Maybe $200,000 the first year, maybe more. Maks, it seemed to me, was just about ready to quit and join the other team. I thought Maks should go and visit the addicts to renew his commitment to the fight against the import of drugs.


It used to be called the silk road, because spices and silks from the Orient flowed over it into Europe. There were great caravans, fantastic cities, a colorful collection of people. That was shut down finally when the USSR was founded, but now, with the opening of the borders, with Taliban using the money they gain from the sales of drugs to finance their war efforts in Afghanistan, drugs are flowing freely across the routes of the old silk road. The caravans are now old beat-up Soviet trucks, the cities are crumbling remnants of their former selves with falling down Soviet buildings, the people, sorry and poor, trying to earn a living in the new capitalist society.


The new opium road flows two directions from Afghanistan through the former Soviet Union according to the police in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second biggest city. Actually, Osh is really nothing more than a small frontier outpost on the border with Uzbekistan. Some 70% of the opium flowing from Afghanistan moves through Termez, the Uzbeki border point, with the remainder coming up through Tajikistan and into Kyrgyzistan. Apparently there used to be more drugs using the Osh route, but the civil war raging in Tajikistan has made that route less safe. Further, now it's easier to get the drugs across the river separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan than it is through the very high Tajik mountains.


The mountains blow me away. We drove down to them, some 200 kms south from Osh. We drove down because we wanted to see the trucks the drugs come on, the cops manning the checkpoints, and the road that the drugs come along. The road itself is a barely paved track that winds its way from Osh southwards through a dried-out river bed until it reaches the first of the passes. This first pass is situated in mountains which are dried out and look like they have been thirsting for water for the last century. There is no growth anywhere, just brown mountains growing out of the plain. The road is potholed, some asphalt, mostly gravel, plainly not repaired in years. It then ascends again into the mountains, this time higher, more rugged mountains, passing over a saddle some 3240 meters high. There is a little tea shop for the drivers of the trucks to stop at and have a cup before attempting the climb.


The tea house is a former container with a door cut in the front, a couple of windows hammered into the side, a stove pipe coming out the top and some icy steps leading up to the entrance. Outside sit six or seven old Zil trucks, all with their hoods up, letting the engines cool. Inside there are two sections, one for Muslims and one for non Muslims. The Muslims sit on the floor behind the stove and are served their tea on a dirty table/floor cloth. The non-Muslims sit at an old wooden picnic table. A pot of tea costs almost nothing and the drivers gather here to discuss the road, the checkpoints and to refresh themselves. To drive from Tajikistan to Osh, a distance of perhaps 400 kms, takes four days.


The road descends to Sary-Tash, on the plains in front of the Pamir mountain range. That mountain range which flows eastwards toward the Himalayas passing through Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, is quite simply, awesome. The tallest mountain in the former Soviet Union is there, Mt. Communism, 7495 meters tall. The road to the mountains was blocked though, by Russian army troops, stationed there to check for drugs. Except they don't check for drugs, they just check papers, which is useless as the trucks that have made it from Tajikistan to Sary-Tash have already passed through two checkpoints. I suppose the Russian army stops inquisitive journalists who aren't prepared to pay a "fee" and casual hikers or bikers who would like to get closer to these mammoths.


We paid the "fee" and were through on the track which was still badly paved, but down to one lane. It ran straight towards Mt. Lenin, the second highest mountain in the range before veering off two valleys to the left. We were ascending gradually, our Russian made jeep was straining, but I was lost in the beauty of the mountains out the window. The road went up a glacial track that was left when the glacier that resides on the mountains went back to gather strength. It's a rugged country, lots of snow, high wind, cold water and no plants. The checkpoint at the border is 4285 meters and that's under the pass, which is actually in Tajikistan.


At the border is a small house and six or seven policemen and one or two customs guys. They check the cars coming over the hills for papers and drugs. But, the guys complained to us, unless they are tipped off the chances of them catching someone with any opium, is slim. The dogs which the government had given the checkpoint further down the valley, had died earlier and were not replaced. Besides, the dogs were fooled when the opium was stashed inside the tires of trucks. The police and customs officials at this crossing have no weapons either and they are scared that the Tajik rebels will one day pop up and start shooting at them. They have no car to escape so they would have to flee into the mountains and then whatever needed to come across the border, could. The same thing is true for the checkpoint down the valley.


The other problem the police face is the smugglers on horseback. Although a truck is preferred, it takes only four days, horses are a definite alternative. A couple of weeks before the cops had caught and busted a horse caravan and found 150 kgs of opium. It was a victory for them, a small one, but it felt good nonetheless. Horseback offers the option of staying off road and out of sight. With the mountains being so high and the distances so vast, even if a horse caravan is spotted, the chasers may not be able to catch up. And with a horse caravan there are an infinite number of routes they can take to cross over the mountains and avoid people altogether.


So what to do? What can we do? I don't suppose anything. Even a country like the US with vast resources at its fingers would be hard pressed to stop the flow of opium coming over the border. And its allure for instant wealth is more than enough motivation for many struggling to survive in these dirt-poor Asian countries. Sure, we could not buy drugs, we could not do drugs, we could ban drugs, but I'm not sure that would help because,


most amazingly, all of the opium that is coming from Afghanistan through Osh is going to Russia. It's not going to the west, it's not going east, it's going to feed the growing Russian market, which, like everything else in this vast country, is insatiable.




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