The Zombies’ Bridge of Kabul

“Zombies Zombies…..” my little nephew Ali shouted with utter embarrassment when he first saw them approaching our car.

They were blooded and walking with their bodies shaking while some of them were holding different tools in their hands. Most of them looked too terrible and their long dirty hair and beards along with their dirty clothes had given them a further scary look while a few were looking normal but still identifiable.

These normal looking new zombies would look the same as their seniors within months because that is the rule of the game.

It was already dark and our car had just entered the area near the bridge. Their dirty burnt hands were approaching us, sliding over the window knocking non-stop. I winded up the window and locked the doors and started talking with Ali, trying to keep him calm and at the same time I wanted to get out of the area as soon as possible.

But as several other cars were stuck too, our car was progressing very slowly. All this reminded Ali – who had come from US along with his parents visiting Afghanistan for the first time – the fictitious character of zombies which he had probably seen in cartoons or movies or heard in school from his friends moving towards their targets, following them till they get them and then break them into pieces.

In movies, their typical look make them easily identifiable. Exactly the same as he had seen them in the movies except the bloody and horrible part, which made him suspicious and his curiosity further increased by not seeing the bloodshed part and seeing people calm and relaxed in their cars not even a little worried.

All I mentioned above was normal for me but Ali’s worried and scared face took me several years back and refreshed my memories when my family first moved to that part of Kabul city.

At that time, I was new in the area and most of the things around were also new for me. I would wonder how all these people passing through this place were not even slightly worried about the presence of these zombies but now having spent such a long time here, I have got used to their presence too. I have accepted that bitter reality.

These zombies have been living in or around the famous Pul-e-Sokhta bridge (the burnt bridge) located in the west of Kabul. I do not know how it got this name but when I see hundreds of zombies living under, or around it burning themselves with drugs (heroin, opium, and others) I get to understand that its name absolutely fits its current scenario.

The idea of zombie is fictitious but one can see them in most parts of Kabul city. Not one, two or three but in hundreds while their actual number is in millions all over the country.

After the end of Taliban regime and establishment of the democratic era in the country, the number of these zombies increased very rapidly. This is not a simple business where government would eradicate its production in months or years but the drug-mafia behind it is so powerful that years after years, the government could not stop its production and business.

Pul-e-Sokhta bridge has been built on Kabul river and once upon a time water used to flow giving a beautiful look when it would pass through the centre of the city. But for more than three decades, the flow of water has stopped and drainage water from the households has found its way to it.

The smell of dirt is unbearable and the zombies or drug-addicts have further polluted the environment. All the area in or around the bridge has turned into a drug addicts epicentre. The area under the bridge is now full and they can be seen all around it too.

There are shops and vendors selling fruits and vegetables around the bridge and at a short walking distance, there are residential areas. People living nearby cross the bridge twice, thrice or may be more a day. They meet these zombies begging on the way. Some people from across the city also come to buy cheaper fruits or vegetables from the vendors near the area surrounding the bridge.

One can see zombies in different situations begging, cleaning the windows of the cars for money, selling stolen items, helping their co-zombies in injecting heroin, washing themselves under the sewage water, eating and sleeping.

The problem is not only the presence of these zombies disturbing people for money, polluting the environment and making this place a major hub for heroin and other illicit drugs sale but there is a bigger risk that a pedestrian or a person going to buy fruits or vegetables could get infected by infectious diseases if they injure themselves accidentally walking over used needles of the syringes lying around.

Drug addiction is one of the main industries where we are progressing outstandingly.

During the past couple of years, the number of drug addicts has increased rapidly in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has become one of the leading countries in producing and exporting heroin to Europe, Central Asia and Russia where it is in a lot of demand and continues to be a lucrative business.

In Afghanistan, the money from the heroin trade goes to the drug-mafia including warlords or the militants fighting the Afghan Forces. Currently Afghanistan is not only one of the leading producers but also one among the leading drug consumers in the world.

Although, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) mentions that there was a decrease of 19% in poppy cultivation in 2015 but the estimated number of adult drug-users is between 1.9 to 2.4 million (equivalent to 12.6% of the adult population) where the estimated figure in 2012 was 1.6 million.

There would not be any family or household not dealing with this problem directly or indirectly and thus the problems are not only limited to the user but his/her family and friends suffer more or less the same.

A former American Base (Phoenix) is now working as the treatment centre for drug-users. This centre has the capacity to accommodate 1500 drug-users and a 45-day treatment program is scheduled. The Ministry of Public Health with the help of donors and other stakeholders started collecting the drug-users and putting them in that centre which seemed a possible solution to this problem.

Initially a slight decrease was seen in the number of drug-users in Pul-e-Sokhta bridge along with other parts of the city but after sometime, they started coming back to their drug-addicted life by escaping from the hospital and to the extent that the drug-dealers had also found their way to the hospital where they would supply the drugs.

Earlier this year, Minister of Public Health Dr. Feruzzudin Feroz was on a site visit of drug-addicted area when a drug-addict attacked him and inserted the syringe in his shoulder.

After tests, the minister was declared not affected with any diseases. It is not known whether there were some hands behind the attack or it was an individual act.

Besides this, there are many other centres all over the country, but the solution in terms of establishing the treatment centres does not seem to be working unless its production and easy availability is prevented.

There are different causes of this problem. The most important one is its large scale production and its easy availability. The government has not been successful to stop its production and sale, while tribal elders and religious leaders having influence on the society also did not play their role.

The other causes include depression, frustration, unemployment, bad network of friends and difficulties of life. A quiet good number of these drug-users got addicted in Iran and Pakistan.

Moreover, child-drug addiction is also one of the concerns in country. Mostly, people give drugs as medicine to their children to make them relieved from any wounds, pains or diseases that they suffer from.

The Afghan unity government is lacking one main component and that is unity. With continuous disputes from the very day of its formation, it has divided the nation along different political and social lines. Dealing with addicts under the Pul-e-Sokhta bridge is an excellent opportunity for government to find unity for the nation as the addicts under the bridge come from every ethnic group of Afghanistan.

One morning while going to office, I was stuck in the traffic jam near the bridge and saw an addict on the shoulders of his colleagues (dead or sick) who was being lifted out from under the bridge.

Dr. M. Zubair Harooni – currently working in the National HIV project states that the diseases connected to drug usage pose significant threats to the society. 

“Drugs have been a major issue in terms of cultivation and use in Afghanistan for many decades. However, the previous practice of drug use in the country was oral and inhalation, while the practice of injections has been dominated by the repatriation of Afghan refugees. Currently, based on the extrapolation report there are 40,000 injecting drug users throughout the country. The neighbouring countries of Afghanistan such as Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have the highest epidemic of HIV among injecting drug users. During the civil war, most Afghan citizens fled to these countries and lived there as refugees who are now being repatriated. Furthermore, prisons in Afghanistan can be considered a breeding ground for more IDUs (Injecting Drug Users) and is of concern for the Ministry of Public Health. The huge opium production capacity of Afghanistan and cheap prices increases the number of drug users which subsequently results in an increase in the prevalence of blood borne infections such as HIV, HBS and HCV, which is a major cause for concern for certain groups of the population in Afghanistan. It is worth mentioning that the prevention and control of drug abuse and HIV in Afghanistan is not merely the responsibility of one or two ministries or organisations, but instead it requires a multi-sectoral participation. Therefore, the government should establish a Coordination Committee in order to gather and link key ministries, implementing partners and stakeholders for one unique goal and aim to fight against drugs in the country.”

The issue of drug-addiction is spreading rapidly all over the country. The government has not been successful in eliminating the problem. It must take serious steps in terms of reducing the production and availability of illicit drugs to tackle this problem. The government must prosecute the drug mafia, ensure security in volatile provinces and create jobs so citizens can be protected against a major social threat that is affecting the nation.

Muhammad Idrees is a freelance researcher, writer and graduate of OSCE Academy, Bishkek. He writes on social and economic affairs of Afghanistan and the region.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the CSA BUSINESS.