Afghan weavers unravel a trade tradition: opium use

Every day, from dawn until just after midnight, Abdul Ghaffer leans over a loom, weaving the lush, geometric Turkoman carpets that his family has made for generations. But Mr. Ghaffer says that part of the tradition - using opium to ease the pain of the job - will stop with him.

"When you eat opium, you don't become tired, and you can work late into the night," says the tall, lean Afghan refugee with green eyes. He has been off opium for a month, thanks to a drug-treatment center at Khurasan camp near Peshawar. "But I won't ever go back to opium."

These programs are few and far between. But through education, treatment, and sheer determination, a growing number of the Afghan carpet weavers who have called Pakistan their temporary home may finally be breaking the cycle of addiction.

It's a tradition so ingrained among northern Afghanistan's Turkomans and Uzbeks that some families give their children opium as a form of child care, to keep them passive while their parents work.

"Opium is a significant problem in the refugee camps," says Sifat Khan, director of the Nijat Center at the Khurasan Camp. "Thus far, nearly 250 to 300 people have been registered and treated for opium addiction, and almost half of them have stayed off opium. But there are more opium users among the carpet weavers that we haven't identified."

The roots of the opium tradition among carpet weavers are sunk into pure economics. Since carpet weavers get paid by the square meter, they have an incentive to work long hours to finish a carpet and move on to their next assignment. Ghaffer's family earns about 3,600 rupees ($60) weaving 3 square meters of carpet in a month. It takes three family members, working from 8 a.m. until 1 a.m., with breaks for meals and tea, of course.

Asked if he feels his labor should be better paid, Ghaffer says, "Why not?" He smiles, and his teeth are orange and black from years of chewing the resin from opium poppies. "But if I raise my price, the carpet dealer will go to someone else who charges less. And then I have no other option but to agree to the terms of the dealer. I have to survive."

But even without such economic pressures, breaking a centuries-old tradition is no small task. Aid workers like Mr. Khan say their greatest success stories are among the very young, since it's easier to teach a child alternatives to drugs than it is to convince a lifelong addict to break free of opium's grasp. The program in Khurasan camp combines the classic one-two punch of medication and education. It's education that seems to have the greatest impact on the hard-core opium users.

Nazar, a refugee from a village in the Kharkand region, has been taking opium for half of his life - about 22 years. Sometimes he quits when he runs out of money, but he always comes back. "When I started opium, I knew it was harmful, so I didn't give it to my children," says the grizzled carpet weaver, wearing the white skullcap of a devout Muslim. "I'm a poor man, and I can't afford it, but what can I do. I'm living on borrowed money."

But Maula Mehdi says a team of horses couldn't drag him back to drugs. He started taking opium three years ago to deal with his war wounds from seven years of fighting alongside Turkoman warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dustom. When General Dustom fled approaching Taliban forces in 1998, Mr. Mehdi turned to opium dealers in his hometown of Kharkand for relief. It was a fleeting high that brought this one-time farmer deep into debt.

"Taking the drug was like a kick in the head," says the small, taut fighter, causing other refugees to giggle around him. "But I'm determined," he says, pinching his ears in a Central Asian sign of good luck. "I won't start it again."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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