Afghan recovery report: The drug courier children of Herat

News and Press Release
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By Fawad Ahmadi in Herat

Thousands of street children in Herat, Afghanistan's third largest city, are being used as drug couriers, with the authorities seemingly overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.

Abdullah, aged 13 and the son of a drug addict, was working as a courier for a drug dealer. Now he has ended up in a children's reform and discipline centre in Herat.

He says it started when he was sleeping in the city's Shahr-e Naw park and a man came up and offered him 500 afghani (ten US dollars) to carry a package of narcotics to a friend's house.

The boy says the man introduced himself as Naser and made an excuse for not wanting to deliver it in person. They went together to the friend's neighbourhood, Abdullah knocked on the door and gave the package to an old man.

"I did this several times. One day Naser took me to his house and sexually abused me and gave me 1,000 afghani," he said.

"I did not say anything about the sexual abuse to my parents, because there was nothing they could do about it."

Finally, when he was carrying narcotics to a client, the police caught him and brought him to the children's reform and discipline centre.

Gholam Jilani Daqiq, director of counter-narcotics in Herat, confirms that children are used as couriers by drug smugglers. He said that statistics provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime show there are 50,000 drug addicts in Herat - a city of 400,000.

The director of the human rights commission in Herat, Abdol Qader Rahimi, says it has received reports that the child smugglers were also being sexually abused.

Mohammad Sediq, the local head of the UK-based charity War Child, says most of the street children are from the families of internally displaced people, IDPs, fleeing conflict in neighbouring provinces.

"There are 10,000 street children in Herat right now, but their number is increasing on a daily basis because of insecurity, poverty and a lack of official attention to the living condition of IDPs," he said.

Security officials say they have arrested 20 children over the past year who were involved in the couriering of narcotics and broke up two smuggling rings that were using youngsters.

Major Mohammad Idris, the administration and logistics director of the police in Herat, says there are plans to better coordinate the work of agencies trying to help children caught up in the drugs trade, but would not give further details.

Sediq said the current network of support centres was inadequate to deal with the problem.

Rahimi warned that unless it was addressed in the near future, the drug courier children will form gangs, which the security forces will find very difficult to control.

Engineer Wasi, a children's rights activist in Herat, said there are already indications that the latter is happening.

"Evidence shows that there are criminal gangs of mostly children active in Herat. They are involved in picking pockets, stealing goods, smuggling narcotics and even prostitution," he said.

He called on the security services to arrest the ringleaders of gangs smuggling narcotics to stop their flow into Herat city.

"Arresting children will not solve the problem. They have to get to the root of it," he said.

Twelve-year-old Abbas, who also lives in the reform and discipline centre, says he was arrested by the police a month ago in the Gowalayan area of Herat city. He said he has not smuggled narcotics, but was arrested for buying opium for his addict father from a dealer.

His father had gone to Iran for work but when he came back after two years, he was addicted to opium. Now, his father stays at home and cannot do anything.

"I would buy opium for my father with the money I earned by begging and would take it home. Then one day the police arrested me and brought me here," he said.

He said his mother washed and cooked for people in their homes to pay the family's costs and rent.

"I know I should go to school and I like school. I want to become a teacher and have a better future. I am begging because I have to. It is not my fault if my father is an addict," he said.