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Afghan infants fed pure opium

By Arwa Damon, CNN
  • In a town where moms feed their kids opium, often entire families become addicted
  • The nearest medical help is 4.5 hours away at a center with just 20 beds
  • A doctor said: If a child cries, they give him opium, if he can't sleep, they use opium, if an infant coughs, opium
  • Parents in drug rehab said they never realized the dangers to their children

Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan (CNN) -- In a far flung corner of northern Afghanistan, Aziza reaches into the dark wooden cupboard, rummages around, and pulls out a small lump of something wrapped in plastic.

She unwraps it, breaking off a small chunk as if it were chocolate, and feeds it to four-year-old son, Omaidullah. It's his breakfast -- a lump of pure opium.

"If I don't give him opium he doesn't sleep," she says. "And he doesn't let me work."

Aziza comes from a poor family of carpet weavers in Balkh province. She has no education, no idea of the health risks involved or that opium is addictive.

"We give the children opium whenever they get sick as well," she says, crouching over her loom.

With no real medical care in these parts and the high cost of medicine, all the families out here know is opium.

It's a cycle of addiction passed on through generations.

Afghanistan's cradle-to-grave addicts

The adults take opium to work longer hours and ease their pain.

Aziza's elderly mother-in-law, Rozigul, rolls a small ball in her fingers and pops it into her mouth with a small smile before passing a piece over to her sister.

"I had to work and raise the children, so I started using drugs," she says. "We are very poor people, so I used opium. We don't have anything to eat. That is why we have to work and use drugs to keep our kids quiet."

The entire extended family is addicted.

This part of Afghanistan is famous for its carpets. It's so remote there are no real roads. The dirt ones that exist are often blocked by landslides.

The closest government-run drug rehabilitation center is a four-hour drive away. But it has just 20 beds and a handful of staff to deal with the epidemic.

The health dangers from opium

"Opium is nothing new to our villages or districts. It's an old tradition, something of a religion in some areas," said Dr. Mohamed Daoud Rated, coordinator of the center.

"People use opium as drugs or medicine. If a child cries, they give him opium, if they can't sleep, they use opium, if an infant coughs, they give them opium."

The center is running an outreach program to the areas that are most afflicted.

Most Afghans aren't aware of the health risks of opium and only a few are beginning to understand the hazards of addiction.

"I was a child when I started using drugs" 35-year-old Nagibe says.

She says her sister-in-law first gave her some when she was a young teenage bride, just 14 years old. Her children grew up addicts as well.

When her husband died, she remarried.

She said: "My new husband doesn't use drugs, nor does his family. Because of that I was able to come here and get treatment. Now as an adult I understand and I want to leave this all behind."

She has been clean for four months, but every day is a struggle.

Carpet weaver Rozigul, 30, is in the detox program with her three-year-old son Babagildi, his pudgy face covered in blemishes. She started using six years ago.

"When I was pregnant with this baby I was using drugs. So he was born addicted and was always crying. I would try to keep him quiet and make him sleep, so I just kept feeding him opium," she says.

Her addicted mother-in-law shares the bed next to her, curled up in a ball and mumbling to herself.

Three generations from one family, all struggling with a curse that afflicts well over one million Afghans.

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