‘Opium Nation’ -- The Women of Afghanistan’s Drug Trade

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SAN FRANCISCO - In 415 B.C. Athens sacked neighboring Melos and brutally slaughtered the population. That same year, the Athenian dramatist Euripides composed, “The Trojan Women,” which chronicled the horrors visited upon Troy’s female survivors after a 10-year war.


“Ah me! Ah me!” cries the fallen queen, Hecuba, as she laments the destruction of her city and a future spent in bondage to her new Greek masters. “What else but tears is now my hapless lot, whose country, children, husband, all are lost?”


Last week America ended its eight-year misadventure in Iraq, a war fought on grounds almost as baseless as those used to justify Menelaus’ vengeful escapade against the Trojans: “The WMD that launched 10,000 ships.”


Yet even as the tanks roll out, the war in Afghanistan continues, surpassing the 10-year mark. And the women in whose name we fought must contend with building a future on the ashes of war.


Author Fariba Nawa’s new book, “Opium Nation,” tells the stories of these women, who find themselves at the center of foreign aggression and the narcotics trade it birthed. It is a trade, she writes, global in its reach and fueled by dependence both economic and otherwise, affecting “the daily lives of Afghans in a way that nothing else does.”


“I do not want to go with this man. Can you please help me?” pleads Darya, an twelve-year-old Afghan sold into marriage to a 46-year-old man by her father to cover an opium debt.


That terror-stricken voice is the chorus around which Nawa writes about the drug trade of Afghanistan and the women who find themselves caught in the middle.


Nawa spoke recently at a gathering of about 100 community members in the city of Fremont, some 30 miles south of San Francisco, home to the Bay Area’s largest Afghan population, many of them clustered around the area known as Little Kabul.


Speaking in Farsi, a dialect of Iran’s Farsi, she described the multi-faceted role that women are now playing in the Afghan drug trade, which amounts to an annual $65 billion industry and, according to the United Nations, supplies 15 million addicts worldwide.


“Men are dying in the trade,” explained Diana Sayed, a human rights lawyer in Washington, D.C., who works closely with Afghan refugees and attended Nawa’s talk. “Many are either killed in tribal battles or executed by Iranian authorities. The women are left behind, often with large debts owed to bigger drug lords.”


Sayed, a native of Afghanistan who grew up in Australia, said that while most in the Afghan community know of the drug trade, it is rarely discussed openly. “It’s part of the underworld,” she explained.


That underworld, however, is becoming an increasingly intimate part of everyday life for Afghans. For example, Nawa noted that a growing number of Afghan women “use the white gum produced by the poppy flower to seal in the cracks of their homes” as protection against blustering winter winds.


Afghanistan’s drug trade emerged in the 1980s, as Soviet troops destroyed traditional farming and replaced it with poppy cultivation. American agricultural aid projects dating back to the 1950s, meanwhile, had depleted the soil, making it possible for only a few crops to grow, the most lucrative of which was poppy.


The lawlessness that pervaded Afghan society in the subsequent years helped to sow the seeds of an ever-expanding drug network without which the Afghanistan economy would collapse.


Nawa was born in the western city of Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest and famed for its Sufi poets and architecture, much of it built during the 15th century reign of Queen Gowhar Shad, known as the “Muslim Queen of Sheba.” Nawa fled the city with her family in 1982, at the age of nine, three years into the Soviet invasion.


Eighteen years would pass before her return during the Taliban reign, a period that witnessed the end of the Soviet war (and the Soviet Union), the start and end of another 10-year civil conflict and the opening of Afghanistan’s war with America. In the interim, said Nawa’s aunt as they met for the first time since her return, “Life became bloodier and more miserable.”


Farid Younos is a lecturer of Islamic Studies at California State University East Bay and the author of numerous books on Afghanistan and Islam, including the upcoming “Principles of Islamic Sociology.” Having fled the country in 1979, he recalled for the audience the advice he was given just prior to becoming an American.


“When you become a citizen,” the swearing-in officer told him, “you should not forget your past.”


For Nawa, as for many members of the Afghan diaspora, forgetting is not an option. It was memory that brought her home, invisible under her burqa as she crossed the desert border from Iran into the land of her birth for the first time in nearly two decades.


Sitting in a taxi, she watched as young bearded men approached. “Don’t worry,” the driver said. “The Taliban are scared of women.”

 

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