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In Chitral, home is the opium den for women and children braving cold

Updated March 25, 2015

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A woman is preparing to smoke opium. — Photo by author
A woman is preparing to smoke opium. — Photo by author

PESHAWAR: They are not junkies or a group of friends, but family members smoking opium on a freezing cold evening in Baroghil Valley — a small town situated in the extreme north of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Chitral district.

A traditional chillum (pipe) is passed from one member to another — including children — as they hunker on their knees, while thick smoke permeates the main room in one of Baroghil's households.

A man smokes opium. — Photo by author
A man smokes opium. — Photo by author

“We smoke opium because we have no other option; it helps us to ward off the biting cold,” says Ahmed Tajik, a resident of Lashkargash village in Baroghil — where the mercury drops below -15°C in winter.

While saying this, he puffs smoke in the face of his five- year-old son.

70 per cent in Baroghil addicted to opium

According to locals and researchers, more than 70 per cent of the population in Baroghil valley is addicted to opium smoking.

A view of Baroghil Valley. — Photo by author
A view of Baroghil Valley. — Photo by author

The valley is situated at about 12,500 feet in the extreme northeast and is nearly 280 kilometres away from Chitral town — the headquarters of landlocked Chitral district. It is located at the junction of Hindukush, Karakoram and Pamir ranges and borders with Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Wakhan Patti.

The mountainous valley comprises nine villages with nearly 4,000 households.

Opium procured from Afghanistan

Opium is not locally cultivated in Baroghil but smuggled from Afghanistan, which is the largest producer of the drug in the world.

Wakhi tribes living in Baroghil are given to the traditional way of smoking. They prepare opium in a chillum, a process which takes about 30 to 40 minutes.

"For a perennial effect, opium is mixed with aspirin and paracetamol," says local resident Amin Jan.

"It is then put into the burning chamber of the chillum with a flaming piece of charcoal at the bottom which heats up the mixture. Then people inhale the fume through a pipe."

The drug costs Rs1,000 per tola (11 gram). A tola lasts for about two to four days. Majority of Baroghil's residents spend their hard-earned money on buying opium.

Women and children huddle together in their house. — Photo by the author
Women and children huddle together in their house. — Photo by the author

"The entire population in the valley is deprived of a basic livelihood with no access to health, education and other facilities," says Jan.

He also states that a lack of entertainment activities in the area has compounded the addiction. "Heavy snow compels locals to remain indoors round-the-clock during winter; and given the lack of activity, they take to consuming the drug fervently."

An elderly woman smoking opium. — Photo by author
An elderly woman smoking opium. — Photo by author

A traditional Wakhi house consists of one bedroom. "Opium is smoked in the main living room. After dinner, every house in the valley begins to reek of its smell," he adds.

"Passive smoking triggers others, especially children, to take to the drug as well," he said, while sharing that he gave up on it some years ago.

The addiction has created serious economical, physiological and health problems among locals.

Local residents, however, say that opium usage is part of the Wakhi culture and can be linked back even before the creation of Pakistan.

In the past few years, the remote valley has also gained an international reputation for freestyle unique yak polo which is played in July every year.

People play a game of polo. — Photo courtesy: KP Tourism Corporation
People play a game of polo. — Photo courtesy: KP Tourism Corporation

Yak and cattle are the main sources of income in the valley. "Yak has a good market, but people spend mostly on opium,”said a native Zakirullah, who also quit opium smoking a few years ago.

"I was a daily-wage worker for rich employers and would accept opium from my boss in exchange of salary. But I'm not the only one in line; there are dozens of young labourers taking opium instead of money.”

According to Zakir, people nurture their animals only to sell them at a good price later, enabling them to buy opium for winter.

A man smokes opium. — Photo by author
A man smokes opium. — Photo by author

“I became addicted to it during my childhood but I have given it up now. I still get urges when I see someone smoking,” he discloses, while explaining the nature of the addiction.

Of brutal cold, cross-border movement and tradition

For Amin and other residents, the reasons behind the high addiction rate are the brutal cold in the valley and the tradition itself which begins from a young age.

However, local researcher, Dr Inayatullah Faizi, also sees free cross-border movement contributing to high opium smoking in the valley. “More than 80 per cent of opium is smuggled from Afghanistan,” he says.

"When teachers and other government employees belonging to lower parts of the district are posted in Baroghil for 2-3 years, they also develop an addiction."

Pointing out that people in the area are deprived of basic amenities in a modern world, he laments that the government is not taking a serious notice of the issue.

"Locals perceive opium as a medicine and administer doses to children, especially when they have chest and cough problems," he says.

In 2004, the Aga Khan Foundation had launched a rehabilitation centre to cure people of the addiction; however no visible results were seen due to a lack of funds. According to figures, 300 opium addicts, including women, were provided treatment.

People undergoing rehabilitation at the Aga Khan Foundation camp set up in 2004. — Photo by author
People undergoing rehabilitation at the Aga Khan Foundation camp set up in 2004. — Photo by author

Officials supervising the centre said they were not satisfied with the rehabilitation process.

“Almost 95 per cent of the rehabilitated people resumed smoking again,” an official of the rehabilitation camp told DawnNews.

People undergoing rehabilitation at the Aga Khan Foundation camp set up in 2004. — Photo by author
People undergoing rehabilitation at the Aga Khan Foundation camp set up in 2004. — Photo by author

He said they had requested the authorities to seal the border in order to curb opium smuggling, but added that the government was reluctant to stop cross-border movement because majority of the border force personnel (BSF) were involved in smuggling as well.

"Wakhi people are dependent on opium smoking and it has completely paralysed their lives."

An official, who works at Aga Khan Health Services, visited Baroghil several times in light of the rehabilitation project and told DawnNews that funds are needed to control addiction in the area.

"Without provision of funds and basic facilities, it would be very difficult to control the addiction," the official, who asked not to be named, opines.

“Our dispenser at the health centre also became addicted to the drug and was arrested by police on charges of smuggling opium to Baroghil,” the official reveals.