Afghani children held hostage in the drug trade

March 11, 2013

By Nishat Ahmed

Children pay the heaviest price for Afghanistan’s drugs trade – according to a powerful account by journalist Najibullah Quraishi and producer Jamie Doran in their documentary Opium Brides.

Opening to a packed screening at the Frontline Club on Friday 7 March, the film exposed the failure of the Afghan government and its international allies’ attempts to eradicate opium poppy cultivation in the region.

The documentary gave an intimate account of the stark choices made by ordinary farmers who are forced to hand over their children, especially young girls, to drug traffickers closely linked to Taliban when they fail to pay off their debts.

Farmers borrow money from drug traffickers to cultivate poppies in the hope of making repayment with the proceeds of their harvest. But, in line with the government’s aim to curb opium production, the crops are often destroyed, leaving the farmers indebted to the traffickers.

Internationally acclaimed director and producer Doran said:

“The traffickers will kill anyone who threatens their business. . . . One of the worst things for us is that we couldn’t show you . . . what happens to the farmers who say no. . . . We watched them beheaded in the most horrendous ways possible because they wouldn’t give up their daughters.”

The film claimed that 200,000 farmers and their families across Afghanistan produce 90% of the world’s opium, which in turn generates $200 billion annually for Afghanistan but very little trickles down to the poor farming communities.

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In an answer to a question from the audience on any realistic plans to find alternatives to narcotic problems, award-winning Afghani reporter Quraishi expressed his dismay at what he saw as the British and US governments’ failure to show commitment to tackling the drug issue in Afghanistan:

“Five or six years ago we went to Afghanistan and spoke to around 300 farmers and talked to some of the big warlords and traffickers. . . . The farmers said if the government gave us $1,000 per year we’ll stop growing poppies . . .”

Doran who was also part of the negotiations at the time added that he approached the British and US governments with this agreement but the issue was sidelined and the opportunity was missed:

“We went to the Foreign Office and said you can cut off (poppy growing areas) from north of Kabul right down to Herat if you agree to give farmers $1,000 a year . . . and the person in charge of the drugs eradication in Afghanistan didn’t want to know. . . . I think it was going to cost around $6 million in total to cut off Badakhshan, Nangarhar and Helmand . . . you are talking about cutting off 30% of the country’s poppy growth and they didn’t want to know. . . . I contacted the Sate Department in United State and they didn’t want to know . . .”

Explaining giving subsidies to farmers to grow alternative crops, Doran said there is very little real monetary incentive for them to grow wheat or maize:

“If they grow maize or wheat they are going to starve. . . . The countryside in Afghanistan is in a mess . . . despite all the million and trillions of dollars. . . . Eighty-five percent of the people living in countryside are in a bad way . . . we are leaving a mess behind.”

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A member of the audience who carried out field research on Afghanistan’s drug trade felt that the speakers had not given a fair account of the issue of subsidising farmers and claimed that it is only in pockets of Afghanistan that poppy is grown, and wheat and other diversified options can bring in a reasonable income.

Doran and Quraishi disagreed and said that it is in the rural areas where the Taliban have widespread influence and which is in the grip of poppy cultivation and rampant corruption. Doran said:

“If they had invested in the countryside things would have been different . . . for the farmers their biggest struggle is to give them security and food to their families.”

The documentary, produced by Clover Films, has been broadcast in over 30 countries, but despite this the main media outlets in UK have shown little interest. One voice in the audience reflected this, saying:

“I served in Kabul . . . and my view is that everything is focused in Helmand. . . . There is no media interest in the rest of Afghanistan – it’s incredibly narrow and very disappointing.”