The 2015 summer campaign to push drug users out from under the bridge in Pol-e Sokhta and close the ‘addict town’ there has turned into a public spectacle with groups of drug addicts being herded around by the police. Complaints by the surrounding community had forced the police to act, resulting in the partial dispersal of the drug users to the Kot-e Sangi area. They however continue to return. The drug users have been accused of littering, stealing and disturbing passersby, but there is no real place for them to go, as the 27 Kabul-based treatment centres struggle to accommodate the growing number of drug users in the capital. Qayoom Suroush, who previously researched the drug users of Kabul, and AAN’s Jelena Bjelica look into the problems that both the drug users and the surrounding areas still face today.
In late August 2015, the Kabul police pushed drug users out from under Pol-e Sokhta bridge in the west of Kabul, which, since the police raid on the old Russian Cultural Centre in 2009, had become the primary hotspot for both users and dealers in the city. Local journalists had named the area under the bridge ‘addicts’ town’, which according to the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, had hosted up to 800 drug users at a time. (The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that there are around 1,500 visible (street) drug users in 15 to 16 different public locations around the city of Kabul.) The Pol-e Sokhta bridge had become the most frequented location because of the numerous drug dealers in the area. (See previous AAN reporting here). The area surrounding the Pol-e Sokhta bridge is also one of the most densely populated residential and commercial areas of the city and the bridge is used by thousands of people on a daily basis. On both sides of the bridge, many merchants sell fruits, clothes and other goods.
The increased presence of drug users over the past years has caused numerous problems for the local community, including theft and littering. The residents and shopkeepers of the Pol-e Sokhta area have complained many times about the large presence of drug users to the police and other local government officials, with families and shopkeepers repeatedly reporting that drug users had stolen from their houses and shops. Many locals said they were ready to sell their houses and shops, but that no one was willing to buy their properties. Real estate prices have been decreasing due to the large numbers of drug users in the area (for example see here and here).
High-ranking government officials have repeatedly promised to address the grievances of the shopkeepers and residents. The most high-level promise was probably on 26 October 2014, when Muhammad Mohaqiq, second deputy to the Chief Executive of the National Unity Government, visited the drug users and surrounding communities and pledged to close the ‘addicts’ town’ soon and move the drug users to treatment centres. (1)
However, it still took ten months for the government to take a bold decision and finally act on the Pol-e Sokhta bridge situation. On 22 August 2015, the police from Police District 6 (PD 6) pushed the drug users out from under the bridge. Kabul police spokesman Ebadullah Karimi told the media that the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics, in cooperation with the Kabul police, had launched this campaign to clear the area and that, from now on, the police would not allow any mass gatherings of drug users in the city (see also here). He also claimed that the police had arrested as many as 33 drug dealers in the first three days of the campaign alone, recognising that drug users usually assemble where drug dealers are easily accessible. A video showing the police forcing drug users to leave the area can be found here.
After they rounded up of the drug users from underneath Pol-e Sokhta bridge, the police loaded them onto buses and sent them to Jangalak Centre – the largest state-run drug treatment centre and shelter for street drug users in Kabul city. It has a capacity of 300 beds. (2) Drug users later told the local media they were forced to leave Jangalak as soon as the media and the police had left the centre, as treatment centre officials told them there were not enough beds. This was confirmed by Fawad Usman, head of the centre, who told Hasht-e Subh daily newspaper the shelter could accommodate only around 200 homeless drug users and the drug treatment centre could take in only 100. (3) As a result, only 200 of the about 800 drug users who were brought in by the police for treatment were able to stay at the centre, the others were asked to leave.
Within a few hours, those drug users who were forced to leave the centre returned to the Pol-e Sokhta area. The police, however, did not allow them to settle under the bridge again. The drug users then went to the top of the bridge, where they gathered and crouched in the flowerbeds (the Pol-e Sokhta bridge has in recent years been upgraded to a large flyover with multiple lanes and a long stretch of flowerbeds in the middle). However, the authorities of PD 6 did not let the drug users stay on the bridge for long either. According to drug users interviewed by AAN, the police took some of them by bus to the Darulaman area, further south towards the city limits. However, after several hours, the addicts had travelled back to the Pol-e Sokhta area where they could more easily find their drug dealers. Another attempt was made to remove them, when the police pushed the drug users northwards, towards Kot-e-Sangi bridge and the surrounding areas, which encompass police districts 6, 5 and 3.
Pushing drug users back and forth between the various police districts has now become routine behaviour for the officials from PD 3, PD 5 and PD 6. According to UNODC, as of mid-October 2015, the police were also trying to round up smaller groups of drug users still dispersed in the area, in cycles of 45 days, in order to take them to the local treatment centres. However, the effectiveness of the current drug treatment services and the lack of treatment facilities and alternative treatment methods is a serious impediment to finding a long-term solution for the street drug users in Kabul, let alone the other urban centres in Afghanistan.
Dr Muhammad Reza Stanakzai of UNODC told AAN that, according to figures of the Ministry of Public Health, 70% of all visible drug users in Kabul have been treated at least once, but due to a lack of after-care services, over 60% of treated drug users relapse. He also said that, this year for the first time, female street drug users were found under the bridge. During his 12 years as a drug treatment specialist, he had never before witnessed female drug users in a public space in Afghanistan.
In the Kot-e Sangi-based drug treatment centre for women and children run by the Social Service for Afghan Women Organization (SSAWO), Dr Homa confirmed that female drug users had indeed been found under the bridge this summer. When Dr Homa and her team had gone to the Pol-e Sokhta bridge just before the police raid, they had found six female drug users and two babies. She said three of the women were relapsed drug users; the three others were identified as new drug users. Although Dr Homa invited them to come for treatment to the SSAWO centre, none of them were willing to do so; they said there would be nothing for them after the treatment – no jobs and no future. According to Dr Homa the women never came to the SSAWO treatment centre, even after the police raid on the Pol-e Sokhta bridge.
Back to Pol-e Sokhta bridge
The clearing of the bridge has clearly not been a success. The drug users keep returning and then refuse to leave the area, which the police respond to by beating them with sticks and the butts of their guns. This causes anger among the drug users, who sometimes react violently, throwing stones and pushing back the police, and sometimes even collectively attacking the local police forces.
Based on this violent approach by the police, it seems they are no longer treating the drug users as individuals in need of treatment, but rather as a group of criminals. The police are also searching anyone they suspect of dealing in drugs. According to drug users interviewed, the police reportedly often use these searches as a pretext to steal money from the drug users’ pockets.
Forcing the drug users to leave their places from under the Pol-e Sokhta bridge has not only failed to improve their living conditions, but has actually worsened them. It has also increased the problems faced by the communities in the surrounding police districts – problems that the police actions were meant to address. The presence of around 500 addicts on the bridge is causing traffic jams and has destroyed the landscaping on the bridge’s centre. The drug users claim that some passers-by insult them and spit on them. Local residents, on the other hand, report that some of the drug users harass passersby, in particular women. Shopkeepers and street traders have repeatedly complained to the media about the increasing criminal activities in the area now that the drug users are living above the street, instead of underneath the bridge (for example see: here)
Overall, the 2015 summer campaign to push the drug users out from under the bridge and to close the ‘addict town’ has turned into a public spectacle with hundreds of drug users on the road being herded and harassed by the police. Multiple Kabul police districts are now trying to get rid of the drug users by pushing them into neighbouring police districts. Meanwhile, the drug users have no place to stay, other than the various open-air, public spaces in the area. With winter at the door, many will find themselves on the streets of Kabul in harsh weather conditions. Both the government and international aid organisations have tried to identify a possible location for a large shelter to accommodate the majority of the street drug user population during the winter. However, firm plans to shelter the estimated 1,500 visible drug users from Kabul’s streets have not been confirmed to date.
Considering the current conditions of the drug users, one wonders if the officials knew what they are doing in the first place, when they started their campaign. It has exhausted the drug users to the point that many of them have lost hope. One of them, while talking to AAN, cried: “God should kill us, if he cannot save us.”
(1) The current capacity of the 115 residential treatment centres (35 for female and children) across 29 Afghan provinces, according to UNODC, is 25,000 patients per year. However, according to the 2015 Afghanistan National Drug Use Survey, between 2.5 and 2.9 million Afghans are estimated to use drugs, and some 1.5 million Afghans are believed to be regular drug users.
The Afghanistan National Drug Survey is based on a sampled survey and defines drug users as those individuals who have been tested positive (hair, urine and saliva of 10,549 Afghans were collected) for one of the following types of drugs: opioids, cannabis, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, alcohol, and amphetamine-type stimulants.
(2) The existing 27 Kabul-based residential treatment centres together can accommodate a maximum of 800 patients per treatment cycle, according to UNODC.
(3) Afghanistan’s drug treatment policy for residential treatment centres only stipulates short treatment cycles, with one treatment cycle lasting between 25 and 45 days. UNODC and The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) have recommended the Afghan government extend treatment cycles to 90 days.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020