It’s hell down here. We sleep in the dirt and shit. Everyone is always fighting, but once they inject they just fall asleep, fall down, and forget where they are. When someone dies, the government comes and gets the body and they hold it for the family to pick it up. There are doctor’s assistants down there, university graduates, ex-soldiers—they have family issues, they have lost people in the war, they are suffering economic problems. Some of them had too money once. They started having fun and they now can’t stop.

—Hasibullah, addict

Addiction to drugs is no new phenomenon in Afghanistan. For years the country has produced up to three-quarters of the world’s heroin and been a trafficking route to much of Eastern Europe and Russia. Yet, in the wake of the recent withdrawal of Western troops, the country’s most basic social security is being called into question. In 2005, there were 130,000 heroin users in Afghanistan. Now there are 1.3 million.

2013 saw a record-breaking opium harvest: approaching 5.5 million kilos. The Taliban, who have long garnered funds through drug trade or by taxing local opium farmers, have taken advantage of this. They have grown markedly bolder, with offensives both in the provinces and the capital, Kabul. Meanwhile, as international aids funds are beginning to dwindle and NGOs are migrating elsewhere, thousands of people are newly becoming addicted to drugs.

A 2012 UN report blamed increasing drug addiction problem on three factors: decades of war-related trauma, unlimited availability of cheap narcotics, and limited access to treatment and employment. For the past three years, addicts in Kabul had been dispersed throughout the city as a consequence of the destruction of an old Soviet cultural centre that had served as a city-wide den. Now a new headquarters has emerged. In the western part of the city, within the shadows of the Pul-e Sukhta bridge, a veritable township for addicts, dealers and criminals has grown.

This new heroin haven plays host to squalor and degradation nearly beyond imagination. The smell alone from the innumerable intoxicated corpses is overpowering. Up to 2,000 addicts can be found here on any given day. They range from hardened criminals, to unemployed youngsters and war-veterans. Outsiders are threatened away with violence. The police meanwhile, when not bribed or complicit, can do little to control such a large mob. The addicts’ plight is only marginally mitigated by the assistance of under-funded state medical facilities and a handful of NGOs.

For a majority of Kabul’s residents, the addicts have come to symbolize a grave social danger—or, more likely, a source of shame to be ignored. Yet if nothing substantial is done, the problems under the bridge will only grow and begin to affect more and more of the country.

—Souvid Datta

note: This week, Souvid Datta is the guest photographer on LensCulture’s Instagram feed! Datta will be sharing other parts of his long-running series about Kabul. His work is both aesthetically moving and emotionally impactful—be sure to check it out!

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