Coming across drug addicts while walking down the streets of the Afghan city of Herat is nothing out of the ordinary; the country ranks second to none in terms of opium production, Anadolu News Agency reports.
The Taliban authority is felt at every corner of Herat, in the country's north-west, and half-conscious addicts are disconnected from reality, wandering in their own separate worlds.
It is not just under bridges, alleys or back streets that one can encounter addicts, as they can also be found among the towering minarets of Musalla, the ruins of a 13th-century religious complex.
What the addicts have in common is that they use laboratory-made, synthetic drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, substance abusers said synthetic drugs are hard to obtain in Afghanistan and that they first encountered such drugs in neighbouring Iran.
It is also noteworthy that the addicts, mostly gathering in small groups of up to three, come together in city centres and continue to pursue their addictions without any intervention.
Many of them sleep under bridges, in deserted streets or on street corners. Some earn money by helping out bakeries or greengrocers, working construction or by collecting paper and waste for recycling, while others admit to stealing or begging.
One can see people of all ages among the addicts; although rare, there are also female drug abusers. Among the addicts are educated people, who once had respectable jobs.
With their rotten teeth, wrinkled skin and bloodshot eyes, they stare blankly and live semi-consciously in torn, dirty clothes. They all have stories much like their fellow abusers, which include losing families, wealth or respectability.
As cars and trucks flow around them, dozens of addicts sit on a traffic island in the middle of a two-way boulevard and poison themselves with drugs, while concealing their bodies under cloths, like blankets.
A woman sitting on the side of the road with other addicts leaves questions unanswered and just stares with blank eyes. Let alone responding to questions, most of the addicts aggressively shoo away anyone who asks questions. Only a few of them answer questions, speaking in short sentences, as if despite themselves.
Family life destroyed
Injecting himself with heroin by a garbage heap is Fairuz Mohammad Ashaf, 57, who said he lived in Iran's capital, Tehran, for two years along with his wife and three sons, and then settled in Germany.
He started abusing the drug a decade ago in Tehran, while working there as a tailor, he recounted, adding: "Over time, I thought I had to get more heroin to do better at my job. That was the end of me."
His family fell apart after two years in Germany, Ashaf said, and he eventually returned to Afghanistan, a decision he said he still deeply regrets.
Coming back was a mistake. People make mistakes in their lives, and this one was mine. Unfortunately, I haven't seen my children for five years now
Today, Ashaf fetches items for a bakery and cleans the place; in exchange, he is allowed to sleep there. The weary man sometimes collects paper and plastic, and sells them to earn a meagre living.
"I'm so tired now, I want to end this," he lamented. "I regret it so much; all of my possessions and family are gone."
'Can't quit anymore'
Another addict, Fakr Ahmad, said all three of his marriages ended in divorce, and he has not seen any of his three children for a long time.
When the 39-year-old, who lived in Iran for 20 years, was asked whether he would stop abusing heroin, he said he "can't quit anymore. I'm done with it. I quit 13 times and restarted it."
The heroin use cost him dear, as he eventually lost his wealth and was forced to live on the streets, he said.
Now he is full of regrets.
"I lost all my relatives. They avoid me, thinking I'm a bad person. (People) are mean to me wherever I go. People leer at me. Little kids throw rocks," he said.
He earns his living by collecting paper and plastic from the garbage, or begging on the streets, and sometimes he steals.
'Addiction is self-destruction'
Mohammad Alizadeh, 32, was living in Iran with his wife and three children before getting deported two months ago; he was first introduced to drugs when his boss started to abuse them at work.
"I tried to quit a year later, but it ended in failure," he said, adding that he had been wandering the streets of Herat for the past several months.
Is it even possible not to regret this? My whole life was devastated. Addiction is self-destruction. You tell yourself that you'll quit it today, tomorrow, or the next day, and it just keeps going on like that
He added that hunger and cold has recently been claiming the lives of addicts – in the winter after the Taliban took over, with the country in dire economic straits – and that he had seen up to seven deaths since arriving in Herat.
Naimullah Haqqani, Herat's Culture and Information Director and the Taliban's provincial spokesperson, said Herat was a large province and that they are drawing up long-term plans to fight drug abuse and treat addicts.
"Many addicts were taken and handed over to specialists for physical and psychological treatment. They are encouraged to quit drugs at examination centres," he said. "We're working for a day when Herat is free of drug addicts."
85 per cent of global opium production coming from Afghanistan
Afghanistan, the world's top producer of illegal drugs, exports more plants such as poppy and hemp than any other country.
Last November, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a report saying that over 85 per cent of the opium obtained from hashish worldwide in 2020 was produced in Afghanistan.
Also, from 2015 to 2019, Afghanistan ranked second after Morocco in cannabis cultivation.
Taliban officials underlined that, after taking control of the country, they would fight drug trafficking. However, they also say that while the issue is being dealt with, people should be offered alternative ways of making a living, so international aid – which slowed after the Taliban took over – needs to be reinstated.