Lost souls inside Afghanistan's graft-riddled narco state
by Fariba Nawa
In her prologue to this gripping narrative, veteran American-Afghan journalist and author Fariba Nawa describes the mixture of 'aching nostalgia and lingering survivor's guilt' that first drew her back to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2000.
It is this potent emotional mix that compels her to return again and again to Afghanistan, the land she fled at the age of nine, together with her parents, during the Soviet occupation. She eventually moves to Kabul in 2002 to report on the US-led war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but still the guilt and nostalgia linger.
So, in the process of dealing with her unresolved emotions, she decides to tell the world just how the Afghan drug trade is providing funding for terrorists and for the Taliban who are killing Americans and assisting in corrupting Afghan government officials whom the US supports.
The result is an insightful, occasionally beautiful, invariably tragic narrative that takes the reader inside not just the labyrinthine complexity of the opium trade, but also that of Afghanistan itself. Part personal memoir and part history, part account of a crippled, war-torn economy addicted to opium and part investigation of the trade's effect on women, Opium Nation travels deep into layers of Afghan society rarely glimpsed in the West. Herat-born Nawa is indefatigable in her efforts to traverse the length and breadth of the country, travelling with considerable difficulty. She talks to poppy farmers, corrupt officials, drug lords, smugglers, policemen and women, addicts and those trapped in the seams of this trade.
Moreover it is as if we are compelled to enter her narrative, just as Nawa was forced to re-enter her homeland, under the stifling weight of a burqa, and with a male chaperone, a mahram, without which no Afghan woman can go anywhere. It's a unique, intense perspective, yet surprisingly frank and intimate, as women open up to her in ways they don't to others.
Haunting the pages of Opium Nation is the story of a spirited, green-eyed 12-year-old girl, called Darya, whom Nawa encounters in Ghoryan, an Afghan district bordering Iran. Darya's father has sold her into marriage to a drug lord 34 years her senior to settle his opium debt. Darya's 14-year-old sister, Saboora, has also been sold by her father to another drug lord.
Something of Darya's fierce independent spirit touches Nawa, who becomes obsessed with the girl's plight, undertaking a dangerous search for her a year later in Helmand province where the drug lord takes her. Nawa never finds Darya, but the memory of the girl becomes deeply entangled in her quest to shore up her own Afghan identity, and her belief in the strength of Afghanistan's women, 'whose threshold for suffering seems higher than any Western woman can imagine'.
Even more chilling is the story she encounters in the northeastern province of Takhar, where the uncle of a six-year-old boy kidnaps his nephew - and a six-year-old friend - to compel the child's father to pay a drug debt. The boy is never seen alive again; his friend's body washes up in the river a few days later.
Four months after the boys' disappearance, she meets one of the commanders of the province, an elected member of President Hamid Karzai's government and the man locals say is responsible for ordering the children's murder. One of the former mujahideen commanders whose alliance with the US and Nato has enabled them to solidify their hold on the heroin business and their power over entire regions in the country, this man denies his involvement in the boy's death and in the local opium trade, observing 'until now the international community does not have proof against me'.
It's a story that recurs in myriad incarnations throughout the pages of Opium Nation. The corruption of the Karzai government is no secret, but Nawa maps out such deeply entrenched, corrosive corruption at every level in every community she visits, that it beggars the mind as to how it can ever be eradicated.
Nawa meticulously details how the opium/heroin trade has become deeply entrenched in Afghanistan, and how it has expanded from the time Genghis Khan introduced poppy cultivation for medicinal uses in the 13th century to now, in what is considered a narco state.
But what lingers in the mind long after reading is her vivid portrayal of the people, in particular the women and their stoicism. What lingers, too, are the words of a hardworking female police commander from Kabul who confides to Nawa: 'I've never known there to be justice in Afghanistan. The poor always lose.'