MAZAR-I-SHARIF (Afghanistan): In a grubby courtyard outside a simple two-room house in northern Afghanistan, six women are working on a single large carpet. There are four or five dirty sheep hanging around, as well as a cow and a barking dog.

There are a lot of children too: some of the older ones are helping with the arduous task of knotting the carpet; four of the small ones, aged between one month and one year, are sleeping peacefully nearby — with the help of a little opium.

“It’s usual here to give opium to small children so they do not disturb us during our work,” says 28-year-old Nazira, one of the weavers who have all pulled their burqas over their faces because unknown men are visiting.

The women work all day making the carpets, which for most families in this area — the Dawlat Abad district of Balkh province, near the border with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — is the main source of income.

And they need to have their hands free of child-caring duties and distractions to complete the task which in this case will likely take around four months and earn the group about $600.

Drug use introduced in the cradle sometimes continues into later life with northern Afghanistan home to around 51,000 opium users — about a third of the total number of users in the country, according to a UN survey in 2005.

Afghanistan is the world’s top producer of opium, which is also used to produce heroin, and while less than four per cent of the population is believed to use drugs or alcohol, according to the UN survey, experts have warned this could rise.

The husband of one of the weavers says he was first given opium when he was just months old by his mother, who also made carpets.

“While I was baby, my mother gave me opium,” says Aka Murat, 40.

“By the time I was around two years old, the eating of opium had become a habit. Now if I don’t take opium twice a day, I feel pain in my body and become like a crazy man.”Murat, who has a dress shop, says he spends around half his total earnings on opium, for himself and his family.

“We spend around 300 afghanis ($6) every day on buying opium,” he says.

Nazira says that simply by providing child care facilities at workplaces, the authorities could go a long way towards solving the problem of cradle-to-grave opium addiction.

There are some day-care centres in the Balkh capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, but none in Dawlat Abad district, about 50km away.

“If we had a kindergarten, we wouldn’t need to give our children opium and spend our money on buying opium,” she says. “And I know after 10 years nobody would use opium in here.”

Officials say they are aware of the need for child care facilities and that they are doing something about it.

“During the coming five years we plan to build four kindergartens in four districts and one of them is Dawlat Abad,” says the head of the provincial Labour and Social Affairs Department, Fawzia Hamidi.

“We know there are problems and I hope by building this school we will help.”

Government attempts to tackle the country’s drug problem, with the help of Britain and the US, have failed: this year Afghanistan produced 8,200 tons of opium, 34 per cent more than last year, a UN survey released in August said.

But Balkh appears to be bucking that trend, with the province this year added to a list of 13 considered opium-free, the same survey found.

The UN says the price of opium has dropped nationwide because of the increased production, but in Balkh buying or finding opium has become more difficult over the past two years, residents say.—AFP

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