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Following the heroin trail from Holland to Somalia
By Belinda van Steijn (Photo: Antoinette de Jong )
Sunday, May 13, 2012
Afghanistan, 2004. Nazir Mohammed and 12-year old grandson Qadratullah harvesting opium.
© Photo: Antoinette de Jong - http://www.YdocPublishing.org
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Poppy farmers in Afghanistan, addicted prostitutes in Ukraine, war-torn neighbourhoods in Somalia and drug tourists in the Netherlands... Heroin leaves a trail of destruction across the globe. Dutch journalist Antoinette de Jong and photographer Robert Knoth spent 20 years researching the Afghan herion trade and the devastation it causes.
And just published is a book containing their stories and photographs, Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin.
From it we learn that the heroin trade has a turnover of 45 billion euros every year. A very small proportion of that goes to farmers, warlords and the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to De Jong. The rest is earned along the trade route. “We travelled the route to see what impact heroin has on the countries it passes through,” says the author. The effect is disastrous.
Poppies for weapons
The Afghans started large-scale poppy growing when the former Soviet Union invaded the country and installed a puppet regime. Afghan rebels used the profits to buy illegal weapons.
All attempts to help Afghan farmers change to other crops have so far failed. The heroin trade is just too lucrative. Millions of Afghans rely on it to make a living. Farmers and children lick their fingers as they harvest the poppies, becoming addicted themselves.
De Jong says millions of people in neighbouring countries are also addicted to heroin. “There is a culture of weapons and drugs in the Pakistani city of Karachi, which has almost brought the city to the edge of the abyss.”
HIV and prostitution
The heroin trade and corruption that goes with it are undermining stability in Central Asian countries. Yet Russians are the biggest users. A fifth of Afghan heroin goes to Russia. Heroin addiction has led to an explosion of HIV infections and AIDS among junkies and prostitutes. Addicted and HIV-infected prostitutes in Ukraine are also a huge problem.
The heroin route passes through distribution country the Netherlands to Great Britain and other European countries.
In the mid-1990s, De Jong and Knoth visited a run-down Rotterdam neighbourhood called Spangen. “The residents took a stand against drug tourism and prostitution in the area. You see the same kind of trouble in other big European cities.”
War and tourism
De Jong thumbs through her book and points to a photograph taken in 1988 of two soldiers during the Kosovo War in south-east Europe. "The Kosovans financed the war using the trade in Afghan heroin," she observes. "After the war, they continued the trade, which resulted in mafia practices that are still going on."
Governments also earn directly from the heroin trade. “An estimated four billion euros was transferred to Dubai last year and used to build beautiful, shiny skyscrapers and luxury shopping centres,” according to the author.
A policy that works?
In all these years, has she been able to think up a solution to the problems caused by heroin? It’s not that easy, she says. “You have to create a stable situation and make sure people find other sources of income. It’s not that people want to get into the heroin trade, they do so because they have no other choice.”
Take border police in Tajikistan, who only earn 20 dollars a month. There’s a huge temptation to get into the drugs trade, according to De Jong.
“If you give people an alternative and combine that with fighting crime and legalising drugs, you might have a policy that works. Unfortunately, most governments don’t look any further than their term in office."
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