Life amidst coffee, coca, marijuana and war

I’ve always lived in the Sierra Nevada. My parents were settlers who arrived in the ‘50s at the time of bipartisan violence. My dad came from Santander when he was 13 or 14 years old and got a job in Vista Nieve, one of the coffee haciendas boosting the economy in the Sierra at that time. He worked on that farm for several years until someone told him that they were giving away land in Ciénaga. It was far. It took 11 hours walking to get there. My dad went, and the locals told him: ‘as far as the eye can see, that land is yours.’ After walking along the edge of the mountain, my dad marked the land he wanted. It added up to around 150 hectares. The land was his because, at that time, people respected whatever piece of land you chose.  

Towards this side of the Sierra, there was nothing. It was all virgin mountains. To clear the land and build his farm, my dad worked in the Vista Nieve hacienda for a little longer. From there, they brought different kinds of banana shoots and coffee seeds to plant. Although the haciendas didn’t want to give away their coffee seeds, the land was fertile and the coffee grains fell to the floor, so there was virtually a seedbed under the crop. My dad told us that he and his friends went to the hacienda at night and collected the coffee seeds to plant on their farms. They carried them home on their shoulders – there wasn’t even a proper path back then, just a trail.

Around that time, my father met my mother, who was also the daughter of settlers. After a while, they decided to stay here and finish building the farm. First, they built a tiny house on the high ground, but it was too breezy, and the house fell apart. So, they decided to rebuild it on the lower part of the farm. My nine siblings and I were born there. Eventually, other families began to settle nearby too. We had more and more neighbours every day. They decided to call the hamlet Canta Rana because there were many frogs in the area, and they didn’t let us sleep at night with all their singing.

I spent the first years of my life surrounded by coffee bushes. That’s why I say I’m a coffee grower from birth or, rather, from the cradle.

I remember that there was only one variety of coffee in the Sierra, arabica, which produced tall trees and large grain. It lasted for many years, but it wasn’t that productive. And since there were good and not-so-good years, many people hesitated about whether to continue cultivating coffee.

coffee bush
Coffee bush. Photo by Catherine Setchell

My dad never stopped: he continued to grow coffee year after year. But others stopped looking after their coffee crops when they started to grow marijuana.

At the beginning of the ‘70s, anyone caught with a marijuana plant was tied up and handed over to the police. But by the time I was aware of the issue, a few years later, we were in a marimba [marijuana] bonanza, and practically everyone was in the business.

The most productive region at that point was La Reserva: there were marijuana plants wherever you looked. It was a sparsely populated area, and it was not easy to get there. It took four or five hours by foot from our farm. Not even the mules could cross that trail. So the axes, the machetes, the food, everything had to be carried on people’s shoulders. Only a few families lived there, growing coffee. Since they owned the land, they began leasing parcels to people who came to the Sierra to cultivate marijuana. They told them, ‘I lend you the land, and you give me four hundred pounds of marijuana per hectare.’

Four of my brothers had marijuana crops. They managed to plant almost seven hectares altogether.  Most of the crops were like theirs, small. But my brothers were a little more independent. Unlike the  settlers, who arrived with virtually nothing and had to find a ‘sponsor’ because maintaining a crop for several months was expensive, my brothers already knew the region and had tools and mules. In short, they already had what it takes to clear a few hectares and plant a crop. And since several of them were working on it, they didn’t need to hire more hands.

It all started by clearing a bit of land. People had to do it with an axe because there were still no chainsaws in the area back then. At that time, the weather was orderly, not like now, and you knew that it rained in April. So, my brothers burnt the land and started sowing in early April. Since the soil was very fertile, maintaining the crop was easy. It didn’t need fertilisers or anything, just cleaning from time to time. They would go up there for 10 or 15 days, and then they would come back to the farm. After a few months, the crop was ready to harvest. They cut all the bushes to collect the buds. Then, they stored everything near a creek in the forest where no one could see it. They piled the marijuana up in a shed they had built.

My brothers would wait for prices to go up, and when they had negotiated a reasonable amount, they transported the weed from their caleta [hiding place] to the mafia’s collection centres. That’s when I would help them. I was a boy, seven or eight years old, and I herded their mules. They paid me to look after them. I did many things like that.

Peasants would go to the collection centres where the marijuana would be weighed, and they were paid accordingly. The mafiosos paid everyone right away: the carrier, the worker, the cook. Then the bundles of marijuana that the peasants had brought were packed into fique sacks and converted into compact bales using a hydraulic press.

The mafiosos kept the weed in the collection centre for a while until they decided it was a good time to move it. Since we had mules, we would go there and wait for work. Sometimes we took it down to the road to be loaded onto trucks. Other times, we took it directly to a beach or an airstrip. The trip could take up to three or four days. It was hard because the area is dry, and I felt thirsty all the time. When the buyers came, they paid everyone according to the number of mules they had: ‘How many mules? Here’s your money.’

At that time, money flowed freely. Marijuana was more profitable than coffee.

And those who had no cash could quickly get someone to finance the planting of a marijuana crop. Some of my friends, who came to the region as coffee pickers, set up marijuana crops and made up to ten million pesos, which was a lot of money at the time. But they spent it all. Many peasants were not used to handling so much money, and since everyone believed that the bonanza would never end, they wasted it. Only a few decided to invest in their farms, buy a house or fix up their beneficiadero – the place for processing the coffee harvest. Of course, those wealthy families who got into the business already knew how to handle money. They invested in land, cattle and banana crops in the flatlands.

The bonanza didn’t last long. My brothers only managed two harvests. In the early ‘80s, it all got complicated. There were years when nobody was buying weed at all. Many people sold their harvest on credit and ended up losing everything; the buyers never paid them. Then, the government decided to fumigate the crops with glyphosate.

In addition, things became very violent. This was another reason some people stopped cultivating marijuana. Theft was common, so the mafia formed ‘combos’ or small groups of armed men, who they paid to guard the caletas and transport routes. But different combos ended up fighting each other, and anybody could be killed for their harvest, money, even their mules. There was violence all around. Everybody was armed. To be in the marimba business, you had to have a gun.

So, the bonanza ended, and we all had to go back to coffee.

Few people had cut down their coffee crops to grow marijuana, but we had to build the farms again because they were neglected during the bonanza.  And by then, conditions were even more difficult.  The environmental damage caused by the crops and the fumigations was noticeable. Also, armed groups had established themselves in the area.

The first time I saw the guerrillas, I was eight years old. Two armed guys and a young woman came to chat with my dad. My father sent me inside because children were not allowed to talk to adults in those days. Soon, local people were hanging around with them. With time, they were no longer four or ten rebels but a whole army. And, gradually, we got used to seeing them around. Many people my age got involved in that story. They invited me to join them, but, thank God, I never had that madness. Many of my friends and neighbours left to join the insurgency and died quickly.

When the guerrillas arrived, the first thing they did was to finish off the combos and ban marijuana crops in the region. I remember that, on the same day, they eliminated two combos, one in Nueva Granada and one in Parranda Seca. They also purchased guns from people; many peasants were armed. So they started to gain credibility because security improved in the area. They also spoke about social change in the country and encouraged us to form community action committees and organise ourselves – collectively – within the villages. Roads and other things in the region improved as a result. I remember that community leaders were encouraged and went to the city halls to demand resources. It wasn’t as dangerous then as it became in the ‘90s.

The guerrillas set the rules: you couldn’t go out at night; roads had to be clean; you had to attend meetings they organised.

We had to obey their orders, but we could still work, and governmental entities could still visit the zone. For example, the Coffee Growers Committee was able to come to the region and support the community. It was like that until the guerrillas killed one of their workers who provided technical assistance to the coffee growers. After that, they stopped coming so often. 

Over time, the guerrillas’ authority became stronger. We had to do whatever they ordered. They became more and more powerful every day until they were the lords and owners of the whole territory. In the beginning, when you saw the guerrillas, you weren’t afraid of them. They came to your house, and it was normal. If you had something to offer them, it would be welcome. If not, there wasn’t a problem. Later, they began to turn against those who wanted to earn more from their farm work, forcing them to contribute money or leave. They began to ask for the so-called ‘vaccines’, that is, to charge a fee that you had to pay with cash, animals, or something else. So, on top of everything – poor harvests and low prices – coffee farming families had to give what little they earned to the guerrillas.

Later, other guerrillas arrived, and each group had its own rules. And of course, if you paid one group, you also had to pay the other!

In other areas, some combos grew stronger and became paramilitary groups. The division of the territory between different groups made life really difficult. Family and friendships were broken. Hatred grew among people from different regions of the Sierra. Those here said people from over there were paramilitaries, and those there said people from here were guerrillas. Before, we could visit our relatives in other towns, but when the conflict began, they forbade people from there to come here and those from here to go there. When we had to run an errand  in the city, we had to go incognito without letting ourselves be seen.

Everything got even worse when the paramilitaries arrived in our area. That’s when our ordeal truly began.

One day they came to my farm and stayed overnight. They stole everything from us. They left us without anything to eat and without anything to eat with – they even took our spoons! They said they would be back in a month, so we were practically waiting for them when they came again. The first ones arrived one day in the morning and locked us in the house. By noon, there were four or five hundred of them. We were kidnapped for almost a week, and we could only eat what they gave us.

The paramilitaries and the guerrillas started fighting. We could hear gunfire every day. Then the army arrived, and we were trapped between the paramilitaries, the military and the guerrillas. We were terrified. You never knew when you, your relative, or your neighbour were going to be killed. 

I thought about leaving many times. In 2002, I felt I couldn’t take it anymore, but they wouldn’t let us go. If I went down the mountain, then my wife and my children had to stay. They had this rule that only one member of a family could go down the mountain. We couldn’t work for almost a year. Nobody was allowed to come up. The coffee crops were nearly lost. And they ate or took away the few animals I had.

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
A view of the low-lying banana zone from the Sierra Nevada mountains. Photo by Luis Castillo/Universidad Nacional de Colombia

Eventually, the paramilitaries took control of the region and drove the guerrillas out. Overnight, we went from being a guerrilla zone to being a paramilitary zone. The paramilitaries came with their own rules, and you had to comply with them. Like the guerrillas, they also took money from us, but it was even worse because they charged per hectare. Also, since they came from a coca-growing area, they wanted to replicate that here.

People hadn’t been involved in the drug business since the marijuana bonanza. Once, a group tried to grow poppy plants in the highlands, but four people were killed in a year, and the guerrillas imposed a ban, just like they had done with marijuana. But then the paramilitaries gained ground. They would approach people and say: ‘Look, you have good land to grow coca, and we can finance you. Take this two or three million and start planting’. Because of the economic crisis, and under their command, many of us began to plant coca.

First, the paramilitaries brought seeds. But later, since they wanted the crop to grow faster, they brought shoots. And since coca is so resistant, we carried the little plants up the mountain on our shoulders – it took us three or even four days walking. We planted them in the shade, and they started growing quickly. When the leaves were ready to be harvested, the paramilitaries sent some expert guys to teach us because nobody from the area knew how to raspa. They were like machines, very fast to collect the coca leaves. What we called ‘cooking the leaves’, that is, mixing the leaves with chemicals to make coca paste, came later. The paramilitaries sent an expert in chemistry, and he explained how to use the stuff.

Coca cultivation had just started to take off when the paramilitaries demobilised.

The paramilitaries set up a collection centre in La Tagua. From there, they amassed all the coca paste produced in the region and supplied us, producers, with everything: food, tools, and chemicals. Of course, it was the only place where we were allowed to sell. The rule was that we could only sell to them. So we took the coca paste there, and the buyer paid us, discounting what we had asked for in food, chemicals, and the like.

We didn’t have experience with coca, so I decided to plant a hectare of it, but also one of coffee. I thought, ‘well, if it doesn’t work, then I will still have the coffee’. And so it was, because the coca boom was shortlived, around two years. I only managed to harvest twice. Coca cultivation had just started to take off when the paramilitaries demobilised. And since no illegal armed groups were left here, the authorities and the government army arrived, saying that whoever had coca crops had to destroy them immediately. Since most crops were still small, it was easy, and we put an end to that story.

By then, people in the region were enthusiastic about organic and special coffee. The idea emerged in the middle of the conflict, but it was stagnant for about seven years. We needed to associate with others for the plan to work, to form coffee growers’ associations. But just when the project was taking shape, the paramilitaries started killing the association leaders. So we all got scared. We started over again when the demobilisation began. At that time, we only had the Ecolsierra Network. Today there are more than 12 associations. 

There is still a lot to do in the region.  After the demobilisation, security did improve, but we have a development delay of about 15 years

The associations have helped raise coffee growers’ quality of life because the extra money from organic coffee can be invested in farms, housing and social programmes. But it isn’t enough to cover the region’s needs. Our roads should already be paved, but they are terrible, and we lose a lot during the harvests as a result. We need more support from the authorities. Before, the mayors and governors didn’t come to the region, supposedly because there were guerrillas here, later because there were paramilitaries here. Now, none of these groups are around, but they still don’t come. Coffee has great potential here, but the conflict slowed us down. Most of those who didn’t die left the region. Those of us who stayed are still struggling.

Cycles of trauma

My family all come from the jade mines region. I have many relatives in and around the Hpakant township close to the jade mines. None of my family is well educated. From my parents’ generation, my father, from what I can recall, couldn’t read or write, and his brother and sister were only educated to primary level education. They all worked as farmers. My father’s family was relatively well off when compared to others. My grandfather was village chairman. When my grandfather passed away, he had enough in his estate to be able to divide his buffaloes and cows between his two sons. So, their wealth was in land and livestock, not money.

Now there is only my aunt left from my father’s family and I don’t see her often, even though she is not far away.

My aunt used to do some trading as well as work on the farm. If you wanted to sell any goods in Hpakant at that time, you had to walk along the path through the forest to get there. She also used to do some jade business before the companies came and when the jade was all dug by hand. My father and uncle just concentrated on the farm and made a living that way; they never got involved in the jade mines.

My mother passed away several months ago. I was close to her but not to any of my other relatives. Her side of the family comes from Tanai and they were also farmers. It was a big family with seven children, but only three of them are still alive. None of the children went to school apart from my mother. They couldn’t read or write and just worked on the farm, but my mother, the youngest daughter, was sent to school and trained as a nurse. She worked in the hospital in Myitkyina. They weren’t as well off as my father’s family, but overall they had a comfortable life because they had land they could farm.

Like most Kachin at that time, the families of my parents arranged for them to get married. In fact, my mother wasn’t originally the one who was going to get married to my father. My father’s family had arranged the dowry and was preparing for their son to marry my mother’s older sister, but it turned out that she already had a boyfriend, a soldier in the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], and so she ran away to avoid getting married to my father. She had quite a lively character! But my mum had a simpler character and so it was agreed that my mother would marry my father instead. So, they got married because of the arrangements between the families and not because they loved each other.

My grandfather was a very forceful character and none of his children could refuse his wishes. It seems my father also had a sweetheart but my grandfather wouldn’t let him marry the one he loved. My parents’ marriage wasn’t happy. I don’t think my father liked my mother and he used to beat her badly when he was angry. They split up when I was eight years old but remained officially married until they were separated by death.

My father used to drink a lot and when he was drunk, he would become very quarrelsome and violent. When he wasn’t drunk, he used to love us, his children.

My father used to drink a lot and when he was drunk he would become very quarrelsome and violent. When he wasn’t drunk, he used to love us, his children. I have five siblings but one of my sisters and both of my brothers have passed away.

I was told that, when I was born, I was very cute. I used to blame myself for the beatings my mother received because one of the issues that would trigger this violence was that I didn’t really look like him. My elder brother and I don’t have the same dark skin tone, and I am a little bit tall and a bit fat, and so he said that my brother and I were not his children. He used to say that my mother was not faithful to him. Because of this, he would beat my mother, and I would be beaten often, too; but he didn’t beat my brother. When I was little, if the neighbours said that I was very cute; I would ask them not to say that because my mother would be beaten. Sometimes we tried to intervene to stop him beating her. I remember one time when I was eight, he even stabbed her in her thigh with his ‘Dah’ [traditional sword], which Kachin people use for farming. He was blind drunk and it was only because my brother was there that something even worse didn’t happen. Later in my life, my mother would also tell me frequently that I was one of the reasons that she would be beaten. She was quite simple and I don’t think she really knew what she was saying. My father would look for any opportunity to criticise my mother and to beat her.

My father used to believe in animist nat or spirits, but then our family converted to Christianity. My siblings and I were Catholics and other family members were Baptists. But I think sometimes when he was blind drunk that, although he had rejected animism, the spirits were still bothering him because he wouldn’t comply with their wishes and make offerings.

One day, when my father was drunk, my mother took me and my sister and she ran away with us.

My father always said that the reason she did this was because she was being unfaithful with other guys. The fact that she only took me and one other sister caused problems with my siblings. She left one of my sisters behind as she believed that my brother, who was looking after the farm, would need someone at home to feed him and make sure that he had enough rations when he was working. My sister was left behind with a sense of injustice and she developed a very cold relationship with my mother, even when she became an adult and had her own family. She refused to have much contact with my mother after that. My sister thought that my mother took me because she must love me the most.

My mother ran away back to her parents several times, but she was always sent back to my father. The family on my mother’s side felt that they had to send her back because the arrangements between the family were fixed and dowries had been paid. My father’s family never had to come and fetch her; she was always just sent back.

The last time I saw my father was when I was 12. At that time, when I went back to the village to see him, again people told me how much he used to beat my mother. My father took a second wife according to a tradition we have: when my father’s brother passed away, he had the responsibility to marry his brother’s wife. When my father died, he died in her arms. My mother passed away recently. Now both of my parents have passed away and I don’t want to be involved in the village anymore. I used to rely on my mother but now she is gone, I feel that I am just wandering and flowing in the current.

I remember when my mother grabbed me to go to Tanai to her parents’ house, it was a really difficult journey, and I became very ill. I cried a lot and my mother almost left me on the road while she went in search of her younger sister to stay with. I cried the whole night. The next morning, we decided to go to Kamaing where there were some more relatives. You could only travel there by boat and people would take it in turns to carry me on their backs until we got to our destination. My mother registered me at the local school and then she went to another village to stay with some other relatives and where she could do some trading.

Morning market in Tanai
Morning market in Tanai, Kachin State. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

So, I was just left in Kamaing. No one else from the family came to look after me or to give me money.

When I needed to pay for extra tuition at the school, I couldn’t pay and I was so embarrassed. Over time, I realised there was some water spinach around the house where I was staying and so I used to pick it and sell it.

This helped me to pay for school and also to buy rice. Gradually the water spinach ran out and so I decided to go to the place where my brother was living and ask him for help. He gave me some rice, but he didn’t give me any money. I still blame my brother for that. My brother was fairly well off and he could have given me some money. I also blame his wife; my sister-in-law is really immoral. They had cows and would get about five new calves every year; they also had a lot of paddy fields. But they never supported me. I think my brother had the same diseased blood as my father when he is drunk. My brother later died in prison. He started dealing drugs and was put in prison for that. While he was locked up, my sister-in-law had a relationship with a KIA officer, which my brother heard about. One day, he ran away from the work camp he was in, outside the prison, and shot his wife’s lover dead. He did it openly where people could see him clearly so he was rearrested. He was sentenced to death by hanging, but he was beaten to death first in the prison. The family had to pay a lot of compensation according to customary law and so we lost all the cows, which were each worth about 30,000 kyats at the time. The KIA could have handled the case differently, but we didn’t know anything about this legal process at the time and so we lost all the cows. I still bear a grudge because of that.

When I was in the third grade, I sent a letter to my sister. I could no longer bear the hardship anymore and so I went to stay with her. But it was difficult. She had a bad relationship with me and my mother. I went to another village for Grade 4 but the school only went up to that grade. So, I would have to go back to Kamaing to progress to Grade 5. But I couldn’t stand going to school any more in Kamaing because they used to beat me with a broom; my life there was so hard. That is why I stopped my education at the fourth grade.

I went to see my aunt in a nearby village, where she and her family are farmers. I was crying because I had been beaten with a broom. She thought it would be best if she taught me how to plant paddy and then I could work as a day labourer. That was in the time when they introduced the 200 kyat note. I have worked as a casual and day labourer ever since. My cousin is just one month older than me and so it was decided that we would both stop school at fourth grade together and my aunt would teach us what we needed to know.

I just continued planting and reaping paddy and never thought about doing anything else. I was paid 200 kyats per day. I did that until I was 16. Occasionally, a group of us would go to the shallow ponds and catch fish by bailing out the water. We just went from one job to another. Eventually, I went to the village where my mother had been living and stayed with her.

Close to where my mother was living there was a KIA post. They would often seize young people from the area, probably two out of every four people coming from nearby villages, although their parents would sometimes take them back later. It was a problem for us because, at that time, the KIA needed more women soldiers. Although I was younger than all my friends, I looked more mature than them and couldn’t dress like them, and often the soldiers would tease me. I would respond angrily and sometimes get into trouble. My brother didn’t want me to stay there because he was worried I would be taken by the KIA for military training, but my mother said that one of the commanders was a relative and this would help me to avoid it and she gave me a ring that I could give to him.

It was around this time that I met my first husband. The relative I was living with needed to move and I was worried that I would have to move too, and so I plotted how to avoid that outcome. My first husband didn’t like me but he had an affair with me secretly – his family had a shop on the opposite side of the road to my relative. My uncle, who I lived with, didn’t like him. Still, we got married and we had two children, but it was really bad, and I was in so much trouble.

As my husband was the youngest son, we had to live with his family. My father-in-law used to be a soldier in the Burmese army and he would curse me because I couldn’t speak Burmese.

He treated me badly. He also encouraged my husband’s drug habit. Whenever my father-in-law wanted my husband to go and work on the family farm or bring goods from the river, he would offer him money to do it, but my husband would refuse to take it. He would only go if he were given drugs and so my father-in-law gave him drugs. Because of this, we didn’t have any money. I didn’t like it but when I complained, my father-in-law would slap me. Lots of my husband’s relatives were drug users.

Mine workers Hpakant, Myanmar
Mine workers in Hpakant, Kachin State. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

I was beaten so much because of this drug issue. My husband used to beat me a lot, mainly when I tried to interrupt his drug taking. The family also wouldn’t allow me to cut my hair. My husband used to plait it and dye it and then he would loop my hair around his hand and beat me with it. My hair fibres became ruined because of it.

My husband joined the KIA and went to the front line in Hkaya Mountain. It was there that he started injecting heroin.

He had two brothers but one brother had a broken hand and the other brother had many children to support, and so my husband joined up. I just waited for him, but by then I knew that he had a lesser [or second] wife too. I didn’t want to do any work in the family and I just bought rice for myself. As my husband was a soldier and on the front line, I was supposed to take rice to help support the army camp. We were supposed to take a bushel of rice to the camp every month. My husband’s friends went and took rice but I wasn’t interested in doing it. I just stayed away and fed the pigs and distilled liquor.

I think I am very headstrong and in the past I was very loud and rebellious, and could be rude to people. My mother told me before she died that I should not be too proud and outspoken but I think I am like this because I was never reprimanded or supported when I was a student. As the wife of a KIA soldier, I think I became even more fearless than I was before!

One time after my husband had left the KIA camp, a relative who was also his commander in the KIA and whose pigs I used to feed, bought some piglets from me. We agreed that they would pay 30,000 kyats. However, the next day, my husband told me he already asked for a 10,000 kyat advance from them, which he had spent on heroin. We quarrelled really badly and he beat me so much. In the past when we quarrelled, he would sometimes wait around for me and then beat me again, but this time I decided to leave. My children were still young, with a gap of just two years between them; my eldest son was just about to enter primary school. I wanted to take them with me very much, but I didn’t want my husband to follow me. My mother also didn’t like him at all and so I left my children and all the money I had with my sister-in-law, his first brother’s wife, to look after them. That’s when I started working in the opium cultivation sites, to provide money for my children.

When I moved to the new village, I started to drink more and more. Before this, although I would distil alcohol, I couldn’t drink it; but I missed my children and soon I found myself drinking a jug of liquor in a few minutes and getting drunk. I then also started to use drugs because I was very fat and I thought taking drugs would help me to lose weight. I wanted to wear jeans, but I didn’t dare to do so. I couldn’t wear skirts or short pants because I was very fat. With drug use, I soon became slim because I didn’t eat anything. So, I was able to wear whatever I wanted and I didn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. Ever since then, I have used drugs. I also started smoking, but when I smoked cigarettes my lips became very dark. Some of the camp commanders from nearby told me that I should be put in the pigsty with the hogs because my lips were very dark.

The first time I tried to detoxify from formula [opium mixed with cough syrup], I had withdrawal effects for about three or four days. I suffered a lot. I lost body weight, and my face was thin. I couldn’t sleep the whole night. After that, I started going to the opium farms and used drugs there but this time I used black opium. There were many people there, both men and women, living and working on the farms. The farm guard cooked black opium and the workers didn’t have to pay the farm owner for it. They didn’t tell you that you had to use it, it is your choice, but I used black opium for as long as the opium cultivation lasted.

Using black opium was different to using formula. When I used formula, I didn’t want to speak a lot, but with black opium although at first I was dizzy with its smell, I was very happy. We positioned the long pipe with the black opium in the middle and formed a circle around it. Then, we chatted and took it in turns to take it. When we use formula, we don’t need friends to take it, but when we use black opium, people crowd together.

The people who cultivate the poppy are the bosses. We were the workers. Young boys and girls from Myitkyina also came and worked there. After we had scratched opium, we weren’t allowed to go back home until the poppy cultivation had finished. Even the opium owners didn’t leave from that point. When the cultivation had finished, people could leave, but no one was allowed to carry opium with them; we even had to throw away our clothes and leave them behind. There were a lot of checks at the check points in Tanai. Sometimes they would even check your little finger to see if you had a small cut from where you had scratched the poppy with a knife.

I worked in opium poppy farms in Tanai for a few seasons, and also in Tarung. Altogether I did it for about seven seasons. When I was away from the cultivation sites, I didn’t use opium, but when I was there, I used it all the time. I didn’t suffer very much when I stopped using it at the end of the season. It wasn’t like when I stopped heroin. When I stopped using heroin, I suffered a lot and got a very haggard face.

At first when I used heroin, I didn’t like the smell of it. I first tried it when I went to Hkun Sar Kong to scavenge for jade stones.

Hpakant jade mine
The Hpakant jade mines, Kachin State. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

Initially, I brought some black opium with me, which I hoped would last about a week while I worked there. When I ran out, I gave 15,000 kyats to the person who used to examine our jade stones for quality and asked him to buy some black opium for me. He knew the area and knew a lot about the drugs scene because he was a drug user. He went out but he didn’t get it for me as he said he didn’t want to cook black opium. I was craving the drug by this point, and he went out again at 12 o’clock but came back after he had already used heroin and told me again that he didn’t get it. I asked him again to go and find some for me. He went again and this time brought back some heroin and a syringe for me. I told him that I didn’t want it, but by the time it got to 3 o’clock and I couldn’t eat rice because I was craving the drug, I took some heroin and it gave me a bit of relief. I then used it again that night.

This is one of the differences between opium and heroin. If we use black opium just once, it is enough to last all day, but with heroin, you can’t stay without it for that long.

When I was staying in the mountain area with my first husband’s family, I became very ill. All the family used drugs and when I got sick, they would always suggest that I use some heroin to take away the pain. When I had a stomach ache, they would give me a little heroin. Later, if my back ached, I was told to use heroin and when I said I didn’t want to, they injected me with it anyway. As soon as they had injected me, the pain was relieved. The next morning, they injected me again and from that point, I started to become addicted. I didn’t inject heroin myself as I was afraid. My friends injected me. I put the heroin in the syringes, but I didn’t dare to inject it into my body myself. This happened for about four months and I started to use heroin more and more. Also, in the village where I lived, the Pat Jasan anti-drug movement had made it very difficult to gather to use a long pipe. After a while, I chose heroin because I liked the taste. Soon I was spending all the money that I needed for my children on drugs. When I had money, I would just sleep all day. But as soon as I got up, I would wonder how I could get the drug.

After the terrible time of my first marriage, I married another KIA soldier. We have two children and my youngest became addicted when she was in my womb. I was living with my mother-in-law at this time and she didn’t know I was using heroin at first. She is very godfearing. I used to use heroin secretly when I was lying under the mosquito net, and it used to make me yawn after I had used it.

I was using more than one bottle of heroin a day when I was pregnant. For the first months of the pregnancy I didn’t inject, but in the last month, I started to inject. I gave birth to my baby at 11 o’clock at night by caesarean section and after the baby was lifted from my womb, I yawned because I had exerted myself and I really craved heroin. I asked my husband if he could go into Kamaing and get me some drugs but it wasn’t so easy to find there and he couldn’t get any. I hadn’t used heroin since 3 o’clock and I was really craving it so much that I didn’t even want to stay with my baby. Also, the baby was crying a lot because she was aching and also craving heroin. She wouldn’t stop crying even when I breast-fed her. As I was craving the drug so much, I left the hospital and went out onto the street. At that time, my husband came back and took us home. Before we arrived at our house, I injected heroin in the house of our brother-in-law. My husband held our baby and when my baby sensed the smell of heroin from my body, she started to cry. After I had taken the heroin, I breast-fed my daughter. From that point, I knew she was addicted to the drug. Since then, we have had to be very careful with her because of this problem. In the mornings, I would suck in the smell of the heroin and blow it into my baby’s nose. She really knew the smell. Since then, as she has grown up, she has come to recognise it even more. When she smelled heroin, she approached us. She wouldn’t take my breast milk unless I had injected heroin. We really had to look after her because she could have died. My daughter has got emphysema because everyone uses drugs in the place where she lived with me and she inhaled the smoke and fumes. I became very thin, and initially my child was even thinner than me. I saw her recently and now she is very plump and her face is very big and full. At least I never beat my child.

While I was breast-feeding my baby, she was taken from me and then I came here to this rehab centre. This was two months ago and I have really missed her a lot in the last few days. I didn’t like that my relatives did that to me and I cried a lot at that time when they took her away, but now I really thank them. We were all in trouble, my children and myself. It is not that I don’t love my children, but I don’t have strong feelings of attachment.

I haven’t had close relationships with any relatives apart from my mother, and she has passed away. I won’t go and meet my children when I leave from here in case I feel too attached to them.

It was very difficult when I had to look after the two children I had with my first husband in the past. I had to look after them, so that is why I went to the opium farms for work.

Poppy farm
Poppy farm. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

But my relatives then were not helpful. They didn’t like it if I left my children with them. That’s why I don’t have a close relationship with my relatives. I don’t like my siblings. I am not upset about it because I have never got anything from them and I have never relied on them. I don’t have feelings of attachment to my children, my sisters or my brothers.

My two eldest children are now in the old village where their father, my first husband, looks after them. I don’t want to go back to that house or to meet my children there. Who would feel the most hurt? Me or them? My married life was unfortunate, but I wasn’t unfaithful and I always fulfilled my duties, unlike others.

Some women who need drugs sell their bodies, I have never done that even though men have asked. They assume that if you are a woman user that you will sell your body. I usually take drugs with men and that has probably made my use worse, but I don’t sell my body.

I have a room close to the main place where you buy drugs in the town, near the bridge, and I was staying there with my baby and my young child that I had with my second husband because it was easier to live near the place where I could get drugs when I had two young children than have to travel a long distance. I built the room myself. People see me with my children, one holding my hand and one on my back and they are surprised – the police and the dealers are surprised. Sometimes if my child cries or if I hit my child, some of the dealers will give me a large bottle of formula because they feel sorry for the child.

I only buy from the big dealers, and I also sell some drugs. One of the big dealers, a woman, built a place almost like a house with small holes in it. Yaba [methamphetamine pills] was sold from one side and heroin was sold from the other side. They have their own security there and you can’t use your phone. If you do, they will beat you up, especially if they don’t know you. It was recently set on fire. But the police told them beforehand and such things happens sometimes. When I became a drug user I became shy and ran away when I saw my friends and relatives. In the past, because I needed to make money, I used to be very friendly with bosses and administrators, but now when I see them coming to me, I run away from them and hide in the alley. I don’t even want to leave home anymore. I am ashamed in front of those I know and I am not ashamed in front of those I don’t know. If there is no sense of shame, it is difficult to detoxify from drugs. If there is no shame, I might continue to use drugs without caring or paying attention to anyone.

Twelve years in prison was the price I paid for using drugs

My name is Sai Sarm and I was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the use and possession of illegal drugs. I have spent a quarter of my life in prison. Those 12 years were the lowest points of my life. I had to be apart from the ones I love, my daughter, my wife and my relatives.

Throughout my time in prison, I felt like I was living in the darkness and that I would not find my way back home. Sometimes thoughts of death occupied my mind, but I resisted, endured and survived. Whenever I got depressed and felt like I had lost all hope, I would look at a photo of my daughter and tell Myanmar 57 myself that one day I will be out of prison and I will see her and my wife’s faces again.

My life as a young man

I am from Muse, so I grew up on the Myanmar–China border in northern Shan State. I got married when I was 21 and we had our daughter after two years of marriage.

As I was the head of the household, I had to earn money and take care of my wife and daughter. It was not that easy to make money back then. So, in around 1994 or ‘95, I went to work for a man who owned a gambling business.

My job was to help the boss look after the customers. Of course, where there is gambling there tends to be drugs. When people lost money, some resorted to selling drugs to get more money to gamble. Others would use drugs as a way out [mentally].

Due to the nature of the work, all my time was spent there – even sleeping and eating. I had to go wherever they sent me and do whatever they asked me to do. Consequently, with more income, and having the nature of a man, I started to get involved in taking drugs and having lovers.

Later I got myself a mistress. Then my income reduced and what I earned was no longer enough to support my family.

The government had started to crack down on gambling and was closing gambling sites. I became very distressed due to the reduced income and about my family affairs. I resorted to drugs to ease my troubled mind.

But drugs could only temporarily reduce the stress. Gradually, I found myself becoming addicted. Although I really wanted to stop, I could not and there was no one that I could go to for advice. I was so lost. I was in the grips of a serious addiction on the one hand, and had the responsibility of supporting my family on the other. I knew that there was no one to blame but myself. Nobody was pressuring me to earn a certain amount of money, not my parents, not even my wife. Still, I could not save myself from addiction. I could not work at all if I did not use drugs.

Later my family members and people around me started to notice that I was using drugs. They wanted me to recover from the addiction. Several times my older brother took me for treatment, but it never worked.

At first, I was only taking khaku [black opium mixed with dry gotu-kola, a herbaceous plant used as a medicinal herb]. Later on, it was more difficult to get khaku, so I turned to heroin. In the beginning my friend would lace tobacco with heroin. I noticed that after smoking I would feel a calmness and an easing of the mind. Initially, I didn’t think about the side effects and bad consequences. I learned about those gradually. After two months, I knew that I was seriously addicted. Khaku was 500 kyat a pack, while the same amount of heroin was worth only 200. So, instead of khaku I continued using heroin.

Although I was using drugs, I never asked my family or parents for money. I had also never stolen from anyone. I would find my own way to get drugs. After I quit my job working for the gambling business, to support my wife and children (and my addiction), I started to work for a businessman who was involved in drug trafficking. At first, the boss allowed me to take some of the drugs. However, I found myself using an increasing amount. In the beginning I would use about a teaspoon of heroin each time, but that increased to two teaspoons. Finally, my boss fired me.

My arrest and detention

In 2002, one late evening, I brought some drugs with me to smoke with my friend. I was so drunk and high that I couldn’t return home on the same day (back then there was limited accessibility from one place to another by road). Unfortunately, we bumped into the anti-drug police. They searched me and found some heroin. They also tested me and found drugs in my urine.

I was charged for both use and possession of an illegal narcotic. I was sent to Muse court. I told the court that I only used drugs and that I was not involved in selling or trafficking them. I had to seek a recommendation from my ward authority [the head of the local administration] who confirmed that I was not involving in dealing drugs. With the recommendation the court sentenced me to 12 years imprisonment.

After I was sent to prison, one of my older sisters came to visit me. I told her ‘Do not worry about me and cry, I will come back and see you again’. I was right; I would get the chance to reunite with my relatives and see my sister once again.

As it was a long imprisonment, I was so depressed and felt like I had lost all hope. There was nothing I could do. I missed my family and home terribly. I was not sure when I would return home or if I would get out of the prison alive.

I could not do anything but tell myself that Karma will decide.

My life in prison

During the 12 years, I got transferred to different prisons. First, I was in Muse, then I was sent to Lashio. After that I was transferred to Mandalay and finally to Taung Lay Lone Prison in Taunggyi (Shan State’s capital) where I served over eight years.

When I was in Lashio prison, one of my inmate friends asked me to join him and some others in an escape attempt. Just before we made our attempt he said, ‘you need to eat a lot of rice so that you will have the strength’. However, we failed. The prison guards made me kneel down and held my hand across my head, they beat us and interrogated us one by one. Back then I could not speak Burmese very well. So, they asked another inmate, who is a Shan guy from Lashio, to help with interpretation. They asked why I had tried to escape and where I was planning to go. I told them I didn’t know why or where we were planning to go, that I was just following my friend. So, the prison authority did not punish me.

One day in Mandalay prison, the Myanmar army came to ask for 50 convicts, most of whom were serving longterm sentences of a minimum of 12 years. I was one of the 50 prisoners to be used by the military as porters on the frontline.

We had to carry their ammunition and weapons all the way from Kholam to Keng Tawng and Keng Kham in southern Shan State, a journey that lasted about 20 days.

When we were on the frontline in Keng Tawng, one of my convict friends, who is a Burmese guy and only had a three-year sentence, asked me to escape with him. We had the chance to go when the two of us were tasked to collect water from the river in the valley and the soldier who guarded us was on the hill in the distance. My friend gave me a sign to escape with him, but I refused to join him. Even if I had managed to escape, I would not have been able to work and take care of my family freely. And if the attempt failed, I would have had to serve a longer prison term.

I met that same inmate again in the Taung Lay Lone prison [in Taunggyi]. He told me that he should have listened to me. He would have been a free man by then, but they added more years to his sentence for trying to escape.

Release from prison

Most of the convicts I met in Taung Lay Lone were Shan. There were also prisoners of other nationalities and ethnicities, such as Indian and Chinese descent. Some had committed general crimes like stealing, robbery and killing. But most of the Shan convicts were charged with drug-related crimes – either use, possession or trafficking.

Prisoners were often rented out by prison authorities (who collect the profit) to work as forced labourers in the farms or paddy fields.

Rice field in Shan State, Myanmar
Rice field in Lashio township, northern Shan State. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

The prison staff asked the inmates to raise their hands if they knew how to plough and till the land. I did not raise my hand, although I did know how. But a few other inmates knew that I knew how to farm and the prison staff approached me and told me not to lie. So, I had no choice but to work on the farm. There were four of us in our group. I had to take the lead in working 200 acres of paddy field owned by the military.

The paddies happened to be having a good yield and so the prison authorities allowed me to have certain freedoms. I stayed in a make-shift shelter that we built ourselves and worked in the field during the day. I was still a convict and under the prison department’s watch.

For five years I had to work, for free, in the farm and paddy field. During those five years I had many chances to escape. But I did not as I knew it would not be a true freedom. I wanted to go back and stay with my wife, my children and my relatives freely. So, I had to resist the urge to escape.

Throughout 12 years of imprisonment, I had different experiences involving all kinds of work and forced labour. Towards the end of my prison term, I was called in by the monks to stay and assist in the monastery. I used to accompany the monks to collect alms. I stayed in the monastery for about six months. The monks told me that I no longer needed to worry about anything and that I was a free man. I replied to the monks that I would not feel like I was a truly free man until I got the discharge certificate from the prison department.

On the day I completed my 12 years in prison, a monk went to the prison authority to get me the discharge certificate. As soon as I saw it, I was so joyful that I could not control my tears. There were a few inmates who got released on the same day. We were hugging and looking at each other. We were too numb to even feel the happiness. We didn’t know if we should cry or laugh.

Looking back at my life in the prison, it was ups and downs. I’m not sure if I should say that I was lucky or unlucky. I was unlucky to get arrested and put in prison and I was put on the frontline as a porter, carrying weapons and ammunition. But I was lucky to have had the chance to stay in the monastery and do the morning alms round with the monks.

Return home

Returning home was quite a journey for me too. It had been over 10 years. I could no longer recognise the surroundings, including the houses or the people I met. I had to ask the names of their parents to identify who they were.

I was so happy that I got the chance to return to my hometown. I still am. People in the community treated me the same and there was no discrimination at all. I returned to my community as a totally renewed person and with a full recovery.

Village in northern Shan State
Village in northern Shan State. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

When I first arrived, I did not go out much as I did not want my relatives and people in the community to think that I had gone to look for drugs. I would stay at home and help my family in the household so as to gain back their trust.

After a while I gradually interacted with the community and re-entered into society. Over time, my full status as a normal person was restored. With the help and connection of one of my friends who was working in the business department of one of the militia groups in the area, I got work in the same department. Only then did I gain my physical and financial strength, and my self-esteem, back. Working for this department that serves the people gave me a chance to restore and recover. I needed that courage and strength to reunite with my daughter.

Reunion with my wife and daughter

I hadn’t seen my daughter’s face since the day I was arrested. Throughout my time in the prison, I only had a picture of her taken when she was a little child. I had no idea what she would be like by the time I was released.

Not long after my release, I had the chance to attend my daughter’s university graduation ceremony. Please imagine that! I had wasted over 10 years of my life in prison. I had left my daughter as a young child and she had already completed university! The day that I attended my daughter’s graduation ceremony was the happiest moment of my life. I do not know how to express the joy that I felt on that day.

I was so ashamed and had no confidence at all when I saw my wife’s and my daughter’s faces for the first time. I had lied to them and left them for such a long time. I had made a lot of mistakes. But it was important to admit my mistakes and face the consequences of what I had done. The guilt struck me as I was taking a picture with my wife and daughter. But I told myself that I would work hard, behave myself and become a new person.

This is my life story and it is a huge life lesson for me. I would like to encourage young people to learn from my mistake and my life. I would like to urge you to stay away from drugs. Finally, I would like to encourage all the young people to study hard and seek to become educated and live their lives wisely

Life as the sole breadwinner of a family impoverished by drugs

I am so fed up with drugs. I don’t even want to hear people speak about them. I say this because my family has been badly impacted by drug addiction.

I am the elder sister of four younger brothers. Three of my brothers have used drugs.

Currently, we have no idea where my first younger brother is. He stole from people and left because he had no way to pay back the debts. My second younger brother has contracted HIV. My third younger brother used drugs, but not in a serious way. So, I sent him and my youngest brother to live in Taunggyi. We were afraid that if they stayed in our community, they would become addicted to drugs too.

My family and I live in a remote village in Hsipaw, northern Shan State. We rely on seasonal farming, like everyone in our community. In the past, when our father was still strong and healthy, our family was doing fine. All our siblings could go to school. But three of my younger brothers gave up on school. They were never interested in studying. They said that even if they finished school, it wouldn’t be any use. I was the only one who finished school. I struggled to support myself through university, and finally I graduated. Our youngest brother is still studying.

I went to university in Mandalay (in a different region). During that time, I didn’t get much chance to go back home and I didn’t know much about what was happening there. My younger brothers were living with our parents, doing seasonal work to get by.

After university I returned home. Two of my younger brothers took up a job transporting cattle into China. That was in 2012–2013 and cattle trading across the border was a really good business. Each trip lasted about 10–20 days, but sometimes up to two months. However, I never saw them bring home the money they earned. I guess they spent it all on drugs. They only came home once all the money was gone. Around that time, my first younger brother married a woman who is older than our mother! I was speechless.

Rural travel Lashio Shan State
Rural travel and transportation in Lashio Township, northern Shan State. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

In my village, almost every household has people living with drug addiction (there are only about five houses without anyone using drugs). In our community drugs are easily and cheaply available. Three tablets cost around 200 MMK [less than 50 US cents]. I learned just how serious my brothers’ addictions were after I returned home from university. They would use all kinds of drugs, including heroin and amphetamines. My parents knew about it, but they couldn’t intervene to stop it.

I feel so desperate for my brothers. I don’t think they wanted to fall victim to drugs, but I guess they could not resist the peer-pressure. I think another reason why young people start using drugs is the bad influence of seeing their family members use them. They’re everywhere in our society. I have seen parents or adults ask their underage family members to buy them cigarettes. This is giving young people a good impression of cigarettes and drugs. Traditionally we think that everything our parents, adults and older people say is true and good. We are taught to abide by and listen to older people, and especially our parents whom we regard as our first teachers. This way of thinking in our society might have contributed to my brothers becoming addicted to drugs.

Initially my brothers were able to sustain their drug use with their earnings. Later, they were no longer willing to work like before. At some point, they stopped working and started stealing to support their drug use.

Our father was also getting old and no longer able to make large amounts of money. So, the responsibility to support our entire household fell on my shoulders. I was working with a local non-governmental organisation in my area, so my income was not that good. But anyway, I had to struggle on to support my family. There was no other choice. My brothers’ situation gradually got worse. They would steal anything – furniture, people’s possessions, including motorbikes and cars. They would even steal motorbikes owned by the police and soldiers.

My brothers didn’t care how much the item was worth, they would exchange it for any amount of money to buy drugs. In many cases, the people they stole from would come to our house and ask us to compensate them for what they had stolen. When that happened, I would be the one who had to apologise, pay them and sometimes beg them not to escalate the issue to the police or local authorities.

I had to sell all my valuable items and belongings, including my smartphone, to pay people back for what my brother had stolen. I would find alternative ways to earn money, like selling groundnuts. Sometimes, I even had to sell my clothes. I borrowed money from friends. I had to beg and promise that I would pay them back when I received my salary at the end of the month. Some of my friends even made a remark that the only job I have not done is prostitution and how fortunate that I did not. They were right. I am lucky that I have managed to find better alternatives to earn the money. Otherwise, my life would be in ruin. Sometimes my brothers asked me for money and when I didn’t have any they would become verbally abusive and violent. At times, the debts left our family with not even enough money to buy rice. Things were very difficult throughout 2013–2016. No matter how much I earned and how hard I worked, the money was never enough.

We felt so embarrassed and humiliated. People would talk badly about our family. They would not trust our family at all.

For example, if one of our neighbours found something was missing, they would accuse my brother and come straight to our house to search for the item.

We don’t know where to seek help or who to rely on. We have to find the way out on our own. No government or organisation will come and help tackle this problem.

We have village leaders and a village headman, but they can barely do anything to tackle the drug dealing and addiction issues. Even when the community has brought up specific cases of drug dealers or drug users, the village leaders could not take any action.

Discarded syringes
Discarded syringes in northern Shan state. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

There have been some community efforts to help tackle and prevent the use of drugs. My friend used to carry out some community campaigning work, arresting drug users and asking the local authorities and the police to handle the case (for example by sending them to treatment centres). But the police and local authorities said there was nothing they could do, so my friend had to let them go.

The local authorities and the police are only interested in arresting young drug users from rich families; only wealthy parents are able to bribe the police to release their sons/ daughters. We can never expect local authorities and police to proactively arrest drug users or dealers in the Myanmar community. Local authorities and politicians are not interested in finding a way to help tackle the problem and help us. So, who are we going to rely on? We have to rely on ourselves and find a way out on our own.

In 2017, I received news that there was one ethnic armed organisation helping with drug treatment. I heard about this because of my work engaging with different local organisations, most people would not have heard about it. They said that there was a drug treatment centre in Lashio. I had never heard of that place before. It was not a drug-rehabilitation centre, rather a drop-in centre for drug users to get medication. Most people don’t know there is such a facility.

I contacted the centre to send my brother for treatment.

When he arrived, they tested him and found that he had HIV. He needed HIV treatment. We had the option to send him to Thailand for the treatment. But he didn’t have an identification card and the medication was very expensive, so we couldn’t.

We were so desperate. I had no choice but to seek help from one of the youth organisations in Southern Shan. I begged them to accommodate my brother and promised that I would try to pay for all the fees, including for the medication. The organisation was very understanding of my brother’s situation and accepted him. He is still receiving treatment there today.

As for my first younger brother, in 2014 he was arrested and sent to Taung Lay Lone prison in Taunggyi. Since then, we haven’t heard from him. We don’t know if he is dead or alive.

When he was in the prison, we couldn’t visit him because the travel expenses were huge. We did not even have enough money to feed our family, so we could not afford to visit him. Anyway, he had to pay for his own misdeed.

I brought my other two brothers with me to Taunggyi, where I am working now. If I let my brothers stay behind in the village, they would become addicted to drugs. My third youngest brother is helping the organisation I work for. He doesn’t use drugs anymore. As for my youngest brother, we let him stay in the dormitory and go to school. Once, I asked my brother living with HIV if he would like to come back home, he replied, ‘I am sick of seeing those people’. I teased him ‘is it you who is sick of seeing them, or are they the ones who do not want to see you?’

Our house in the village is empty. Drugs tore my family apart. We are all in different locations. Our parents went to stay with our relatives in another area. Only once in a while our parents go back to the village.

The struggles and difficulties caused by drug addiction are still impacting us today. This is such a huge problem, and it is very challenging to tackle. So, for me there is nothing that can be done but to console myself with Dharma [a Buddhist teaching] and tell myself that I am not the only one who has gone through this struggle and these difficulties.

I want to share the struggles of our family so that others might be able to avoid what we have had to go through. I pray and wish that I will not have to go through those same struggles and misery again.

Transforming war economies into peace economies

Over the past four years, the Drugs & (dis)order consortium has been addressing the question: ‘how can war economies be transformed into peace economies in regions experiencing or recovering from armed conflict?’

We have conducted research in nine drug- and conflict-affected borderland regions of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar – three of the world’s biggest illicit drug producers – and all have been shaped by peace processes alongside escalating violence.

We focus on illicit drugs because they are one of the main commodities fuelling war economies, and on borderland regions as they are major hubs in transnational drug economies. Even after the signing of national peace agreements, these regions often remain conflict hotspots, and are thus central to the challenge of transforming drug-fuelled war economies into sustainable peacetime economies.

There has been growing recognition that drug policies should be more pro-poor and aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. But the evidence base to support any such reform is patchy, politicised and contested.

Drugs & (dis)order sought to generate robust empirical data to help build a new evidence base. Of course, better evidence alone will not transform policies. Our research has also placed the policy fields of drugs, development and peacebuilding under the spotlight to better understand the agendas, interests and power struggles that shape policy dynamics and outcomes.

Contested transitions in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar

A lot has happened in each of the three countries over the course of these four years. The events that have unfolded show that war-to-peace transitions are rarely linear and that illicit drug economies play a complex role in these processes.

Our research in Afghanistan started more than two years before the Doha talks initiated in September 2020 between the US government and the Taliban, which led to the Doha Agreement in which the US agreed to a staged withdrawal from the country, conditional on Taliban security assurances. This set in train a series of events that emboldened the Taliban and weakened the Afghan government, which ultimately led to the collapse of the regime and the Taliban taking over power in August 2021. By the winter of 2021–22, Afghanistan faced a humanitarian catastrophe triggered by financial sanctions, the loss of foreign aid, the effects of COVID-19, and the impact of repeated droughts. As the crisis in Afghanistan worsened, illicit economies became increasingly important; human and drug trafficking and opium poppy production were the only economic sectors still thriving in the country. While illicit economies could not resolve the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, they provided a lifeline for many.

In Colombia, the Duque government, which was elected in 2018 on an anti-peace deal platform, reneged on many of the commitments written into the 2016 peace agreement; one of the key casualties was the illicit crop substitution programme. Violence involving both government forces and a range of armed groups was re-activated in many parts of the country. While war was being reconfigured in Colombia’s rural areas and borderlands, social protests, which often turned into violent battles with the police, erupted across the country. Community organisers and social leaders have been among the main victims in this messy reconfiguration of armed conflict, targeted for different reasons, including their work on the illicit crop substitution programme.

At the start of our research, the early optimism about Myanmar’s democratic transition and peacebuilding efforts had faded. Hopes that Aung San Suu Kyi’s re-election in November 2020 might offer scope to reinvigorate the peace process were destroyed by the military coup in February 2021, which resulted in a devastating and protracted political crisis across the country and a significant, sustained upsurge in violence. The military junta responded with extreme violence against protesters and opponents but struggled to consolidate control in the light of concerted and widespread resistance. Amid worsening armed conflict and the effects of COVID-19, the country’s economy contracted by more than 20{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} in 2021. In this context, the drivers of drug production and drug harms in Myanmar – poverty, conflict, poor welfare provision and limited opportunities in the legal economy – remained deeply entrenched.

These trajectories remind us that war-to-peace transitions commonly involve instability and contestation; in retrospect, they may prove to have been only brief pauses in ongoing and mutating conflicts, rather than genuine transitions from war to peace.

Voices from the borderlands

The perspectives of people living in the drug- and conflict-affected borderlands of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar have been at the heart of our research.

Participants in illicit drug economies (producers, transporters or consumers) across the global South tend to be poorly represented – or not represented at all – in global and national policy debates on drugs, development and peacebuilding. And yet, they are among those most affected by counter-narcotics policies.

Comic image of glyphosate spraying of coca crops

Policies that purport to address drugs, support development and build peace can only do so if they are attuned to how drugs shape livelihoods and power structures in borderland regions, and the uneven distribution of risks and opportunities for those that engage in illegal drug economies.

Hence, there is a need to listen to and learn from, in a serious, sustained and meaningful way, the voices and experiences of individuals and communities living in drugs-affected borderland regions.

‘Voices from the borderlands’, intended for a broad audience of researchers, practitioners and policymakers working on issues related to drugs, development and peacebuilding, is one of several Drugs & (dis)order outputs that shed light on the experiences and perspectives of people involved in illicit drug economies.

Our 2020 ‘Voices from the borderlands’ publication presented three key messages from each of the countries we work in. These messages were based on survey data, semi-structured and life-history interviews with those involved in the drug economy, as well as informal conversations and participant observation during ethnographic fieldwork. We hope this collection of stories will challenge readers to think and engage more critically about how illicit drugs intersect with development and peacebuilding processes.

This 2022 edition of ‘Voices from the borderlands’ again focuses on marginalised voices, but this time through a collection of nine life stories from Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar. Every life story is in some way unique. But we hope that that these stories of the everyday lives of those engaged in drug production, trafficking/trade and use, can illuminate how drug economies and policies shape the dynamics of violence and peace, poverty and development, and insecurity and resilience in borderlands.

We hope this collection of stories will challenge readers to think and engage more critically about how illicit drugs intersect with development and peacebuilding processes.

Illicit economies and political opportunity: The case of Colombian paramilitaries (1982-2007)

The role of narco-trafficking and illicit economies in the growth of paramilitary political power and influence in Colombia is ambiguous and complex.

This paper argues that there are four mechanisms through which criminal involvement politicized paramilitaries: escalation, extension, regulation and intermediation. These mechanisms gave them the opportunity to decisively broaden their constituencies, legitimize their activity, network with clientelistic actors from a position of force, and significantly broaden their inroads.

The risks and rewards of smuggling drugs

I was born in Ab Kamari district in the west of Badghis province. When I was ten years old there was a coup d’état that became known as the ‘Saur Revolution’ and my family was forced to leave Afghanistan. We crossed the border into Iran and settled in Zahedan province, living there for four years.

In the mid-1980s, when I was 14 years old, my family returned to Afghanistan. Instead of going back to our ancestral home in Badghis, they settled in the district of Lash Wa Juwayn in Farah province, because it’s a border town and it was close to where we used to live. When we arrived my parents bought livestock and started farming other people’s land.

Most of the residents of this district belonged to the Tajik ethnic group and there were only about 15 to 20 Pashtun families like ours. We were discriminated against, and the Tajiks did not treat us well. Despite all of this, we lived there for 12 years.

Then one day, a member of my extended family invited me to visit him. He had just bought some land and built a home in the Kang district of Nimruz province. His newly built house was in a village located on the border with Iran. I stayed with him for one night, and I noticed that people could cross the border between Afghanistan and Iran freely. They brought fuel from Iran and sold it in Afghanistan.

I returned to Lash Wa Juwayn and convinced my brothers and other relatives that we too should move to Kang district. Fifteen households agreed and we all moved together. In the first few years in our new home, I rented a house and paid 2,000 Toman [50 US cents] per month. As soon as I arrived, I bought 100 sheep, which I later sold at a profit. With that money, which came to about ten million Toman [US$2,380] at the time, I started importing fuel. In return I took rice, glasses, sewing machines and irons to Iran.

My life was set. I earned a lot of money from the fuel trade. I bought myself two jeribs of land [one acre]. The price per jareb was five million Toman [US$1,190]. I built a house on this land that cost me 100,000 Toman [US$24].

Life under the mujahideen

In the 1980s, life under the communist regime and the mujahideen was not easy. The mujahideen [an alliance of more than seven Islamist political parties] were fighting against the central government in Kabul.

We couldn’t go to government-controlled areas because they were forcing young men to join the army. There were also restrictions on travel by the mujahideen. It was very difficult to transport commercial goods on the roads because there were so many checkpoints and all of them were asking for money. They called it ‘tax.’ No one helped our areas during the resistance.

People were left to fend for themselves. That’s why I had to join one of the mujahideen groups. I was a mujahid for eight years, working with the Hezb-i-Islami party

Taliban rule

When the Taliban came to power in 1996, I was in our village, in Kang district. All mujahideen commanders and foot soldiers escaped to Iran [or chose civilian lives] because the Taliban outlawed all political parties.

The Taliban did little to help ordinary people. Instead they were collecting money from locals in the name of ‘Ushr’ [a 10{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} tax on the harvests of irrigated and rain-watered land and 5{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} on land dependent on well water]. There were no non-governmental organisations for people to turn to for help, so we relied on each other [our extended families] for support. But, what the Taliban did do for us was provide security.

Another noticeable change we saw was that the border between Afghanistan and Iran was open for everyone and drugs were freely traded in the bazaars in Afghanistan.

It was very easy to take them to Iran because there were no restrictions. Life for ordinary people that I knew in Kang district – including women – was good because they were all engaged in a business of some sort such as the import and export of machinery, textile, food supplies, fuel and much more.

We had choices. Some people chose to trade commercial goods across the border, some were busy harvesting their land and keeping livestock, while others started buying drugs in Afghanistan and selling them across the border in Iran. Smuggling drugs to Iran was the work of a very limited number of people.

For me personally, agricultural work was not lucrative. It did not make much profit. I didn’t trade drugs either because I was actually earning more money from importing and distributing fuel.

During the last years of the Taliban regime (1995–2001), the only people who were involved in the drug trade in Kang district were from Helmand. Those men rented some properties with big yards to store the drugs while waiting to make the journey across the border to Iran. They used donkeys to transport large quantities at night. In those days the Iranian border guards were not very strict – who would bother to search thousands of donkeys every night?


After the international intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, our lives genuinely started to change.

We felt secure. We saw significant improvements in health, education, reconstruction, freedoms, the lives of women and people’s personal wealth.

There were a lot of different development projects. For the first time, solar panels were installed to provide electricity.

Solar panel system in village in Kang district
Solar panel system in a village in Kang district

We began to have clean drinking water through the pipe system [instead of rivers, streams, wells, boreholes and traditional ponds that we previously used]. There was a big push to clean the canals. Roads and streets in villages were covered with gravel. Livestock vaccination campaigns arrived to remote areas. Farmers were given improved seeds and fertilisers [that were adapted to Afghan conditions]. Village halls were constructed so that communities could gather for shuras [assemblies].

We witnessed positive change in local and national politics. Elections were held at the local and national levels. Both men and women nominated themselves for seats at the provincial councils and parliament. Everyone, including women, voted in the presidential elections.

The lives of women were transformed. They went back to school to finish their education. They started to have jobs as teachers, doctors, midwives and so on. People’s incomes increased and so they moved from the villages and districts to the provincial capitals. There, they had better employment opportunities. Some worked as shopkeepers, others were traders, and some had jobs in the government.

‘Iranian wall’

Our good days were short lived. In 2009, Iran confirmed that it would build a wall on the border with Afghanistan. As a result, by the last years of Hamid Karzai’s administration, our lives had started to deteriorate. The people who were once busy in cross-border trade were now jobless.

More than half of the people in my district, Kang, were forced to emigrate to Iran or had to move to the city of Zaranj. I would guess that 90{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of those who stayed behind in the district and villages started trading drugs because all other work stopped and it was the only thing that people could still do.

Like many others, I was out of work. It was hard, as I’m the head of a family with 13 members. So, I began to smuggle opium.

I had 500,000 Pakistani rupees [US$3,000] saved up. I took that money and went to the Bakwa district in Farah province, where there were open opium bazaars/markets on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On my first trip there, I bought ten kilograms of opium and asked a neighbour of mine to take it to my house.

When Iran built the border wall, it was not just us on the Afghan side who suffered the loss of income and livelihood. The people I previously traded with, in the fuel business, on the Iranian side were also out of work. So, I got in touch with a Baluch colleague from my previous work and asked him if he’d be willing to join me in the drug trade. He agreed. I would send him drugs four times a month and he would sell them. I made 30–40,000 Iranian tomans a month [US$7–10]. Over time I increased the amount of opium I was buying, going from 10 kilograms to 60 kilograms. The Iranian toman was valuable then so I was making a good profit. My capital reached 40 lakhs Pakistani rupees [US$25,000]. I had a very happy life.

Because the border wall was still being constructed and there were intense controls, I didn’t use people to transport my supplies to my partner in Iran. Instead, the wall had holes in various places and I would place the drugs in those holes at night and my partner on the other side would collect it. Then he would place my share of the profit for collection the next evening. Only when the wall was fully built, did I hire people from the village whom I trusted to transport the drugs to my partner in Iran.

There are three ways to smuggle drugs to Iran. First, you find Iranian border guards and convince them to go into business with you – you pay them bribes and they turn a blind eye to your activities. Second, you and your partner agree to use the wall – you put up a ladder, place the drugs on the barbed wire on the wall and your partner, on the other side, collects it. Third, you use a catapult.

This business is not as simple as it sounds, though. In 2015, one of my transporters was arrested by Iranian border police. The price of one kilogram of opium back then was 20,000 Pakistani rupees [US$122], so when he was arrested with all the supplies, I suffered a huge loss.

Border wall at Kang district
Border wall at Kang district, and Iranian border police check point. Photo by OSDR

A group of transporters, made up of two to five people, has to pay officials at the National Directorate of Security, the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, the district governor and security commander up to 80,000 toman [US$20] per month each [Transporting drugs across the border is not possible without the cooperation of local officials]. If you use the catapult then you need to pay the person from whose yard you launch the drugs, the person who receives it and the person who stores it for you until it’s reached its destination. The landowner’s rate is between 2–3,000 tomans [US$0.5–0.7] per kilogram and the person who stores it charges 5,000 toman [US$1.25] per kilogram.

There is also the cost of transporters. The fare from Bakwa in Farah province to Kang district, in Nimruz province is 200 Pakistan rupees [US$1.20]. To take opium from Kang in Afghanistan to Zahedan in Iran, transporters charge between 350,000 to 450,000 Iranian toman [US$83–107]. The price for one kilogram of heroin and crystal meth is 1.5 million toman [US$357]. Three years ago, an Iranian trader asked us for supplies. He said he needed to smuggle 2,000 kilograms of opium into Iran. He was able to smuggle this amount through the gates – known as Burjaks – that were built 1 kilometre apart in the wall. He had an insider there. I gave him 30 kilograms of goods but the transporter was stopped at the gate and the Iranian border police confiscated it all. Luckily, all the men involved managed to escape. I believe the insider had played us. I suffered a huge loss.

After that incident, I was left with no capital. I asked my suppliers in Bakwa, Farah (the place with opium bazaars) to allow me to make payments by instalment so I could continue the trade. They agreed and I was able not only to keep myself afloat but make a profit too. Things were going so well that I built four rooms on my land and bought six cars. Three of those cars were for transporting passengers. One of the cars was mainly for my village and community. I was responsible for petrol and maintenance, but the villagers and the community used it whenever needed.


I had a happy life. Then one day, a contact of mine from the fuel trading days who was based in Iran called me. He said I should send drugs so his son could sell them in Iran because he needed to make a living. I accepted the request. We agreed that I would send his son opium six to seven times a month. We went into partnership. I supplied the drugs, his son sold it and sent me my share of the money.

Within a few months of our deal, I sent him 90 million tomans’ [US$18,000] worth of drugs. He sold it but didn’t send me my share of the profit. I went to ask my friend about his son and my share of the profit, only to be told that he had left home and was nowhere to be found.

I invited elders for a gathering to convince his father to pay me back, but his son was unwilling to cooperate or appear before the elders and his father said he had nothing to give me. My problem was that I was dealing with him in a foreign country. I couldn’t put in a formal complaint, with Iranian government officials, because then I would have been arrested too. So, the case is still not solved and I’m yet to recover my money.

Now, I have a debt of 5 lakhs [US$3,000]. I owe this to the suppliers in Bakwa, Farah. When I didn’t pay the money on time, they complained to the Taliban who called me to their court, in Bakwa district. They asked me why I wasn’t paying my suppliers and when I explained the reason, they put me in jail for five days.

I stopped trading opium two years ago because I don’t have any capital and there are restrictions on the border with Iran so it’s difficult to transport it. The Afghan authorities too have stepped up their fight on drugs. In addition, the traders in Bakwa have become stricter about lending goods because they don’t trust people anymore. The other issue is that I am afraid I may get further indebted and suffer further losses. Currency fluctuation was another major problem for many of us to continue the trade. We bought opium in Pakistani rupees, but we sold it in Iranian toman, which is losing its value by the day.

My family knew

My wife, brothers and father all knew that I was trading drugs. I didn’t tell my daughters and sons, though.

I started trading opium because there was nothing else to do. This became common employment for people in my district. When the border with Iran was open, people rarely felt the need to smuggle drugs. It was only when they lost their livelihoods and were pushed to poverty that more and more people started trading.

Since the wall was built, even the people-trafficking business has stopped. Some 300 to 400 young Afghans used to travel through our district every month. So, the end of the people trafficking trade had knock-on effects on other businesses.

People’s lives and livelihoods have been affected by corruption, the stricter Iranian border controls, a growing lack of personal safety and security. Many locals started to turn to the Taliban for solutions.

My life and the lives of most of my fellow villagers depended on cross-border trade but everything came to an end when they built the wall.

At the age of 52, I’m a father to 11 children. I have to support them. Drug smuggling has many risks, such as imprisonment and death, but high rewards too.

Kabul to Moscow with a suitcase full of heroin

I was born in 1963, in Achin district, in Nangarhar province. My father was married twice. My sister and l lived with our mother in our village, while my father and his second wife lived in Kabul. My father was a government employee. His salary was not enough to support two families, so I had to work to provide for the three of us, as well as going to school. It was very hard to do both, so I ended up dropping out of secondary school in grade 8.

Even though I was young, I remember it well. People were able to go wherever and whenever they wanted – they moved about freely. People were generally poor. Most families only had one room to share among three to six members and food was rationed. They cultivated wheat, maize and poppies on their land. Most people had cows, goats and donkeys. Our milk, yogurt and cheese came from our own cows, goats and sheep.

People in the village voluntarily participated in social and community gatherings. They helped with building bridges, mosques and roads as well as cleaning the canals and streams. We also had elections for local councils, provincial councils and the parliament. I remember election campaign assemblies in our village.

When I turned 12 my mother died so my sister and I had to go and live with our grandmother. I spent my time farming to earn a living. I cultivated wheat and poppies on our land through which I was able to put food on the table.

The situation began to change in 1978, after the communist coup against the then president, Mohammed Daoud Khan. My father decided to arrange my marriage. I was married the same year. In 1979, when I turned 16, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Anti-Soviet mujahideen resistance

Soon after the Soviet-backed coup, we saw the first groups of the mujahideen arrive in Achin. They knocked on people’s doors at night asking for money. They called it ‘zakat’. They also warned the locals against working with the government.

If people didn’t obey, they threatened to fine each member of the household or set their homes on fire. The fine for each person in a family was 1000 Afghani [US$25].

The armed resistance of the mujahideen felt like a full-scale war. The government carried out airstrikes regularly, which killed scores of people. Hundreds, even thousands, of others were displaced. Shops and homes were looted, lands were stolen and livestock were left abandoned. Communities were divided too – some were pro-government while others supported the mujahideen. Schools were bombed or left empty as no one dared to send their children to them. Trade stopped. Life came to a standstill.

As my father was working in Kabul and was known to have been employed by the government, the mujahideen warned me to either persuade him to leave his job and return to the village or risk our house being burned down. I decided to leave the village. I asked my wife, sister and grandmother to accompany me to Kabul and to go live with my father.

We arrived in Kabul after the Soviet invasion and settled in the Qala-e-Zaman Khan neighbourhood, which is in the south-eastern part of the city. I soon found out that life there was even harder because I literally couldn’t leave the house as men aged over 18 were obliged to serve in the military for two years.

Read the comic about Jangul’s life in Nangarhar province, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

From helping his father in the poppy fields as a child, to smuggling heroin all the way to Moscow as an adult, opium has been a part of Jangul’s story – through conflict and desperation, and relative peace and security.

Military service

Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t escape conscription, so I decided to go back to Achin to get my national identity card and submit my application to enrol at the National Military Academy. I was admitted to the academy in 1980 and was sent to Kandahar province for one year’s training. After completing my military training, I was assigned to a job at the airport in Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Balkh province. As a private, my monthly salary was 6,000 Afghani [US$76.63 in today’s money].

After two years in the job, I asked my wife to join me in Mazar-i-Sharif because by then I had settled down, had enough income, and was accustomed to how things worked. On top of my salary, I received government coupons that allowed me to get necessities – such as tea, sugar, flour, soap, shampoo and cooking oil – free of charge.

I remained in that job for 12 years until the civil war ended in 1992. Military installations were heavily damaged during the mujahideen resistance and under their subsequent power sharing government. In the north, where I was based, militia forces loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum were interfering in how the airport should be run. None of them respected military officers like me.

I was happy to have a job, but my salary remained very low and my family was growing. I couldn’t live on it any longer. So, by the mid-1980s I sent my wife and children back to our village in Achin, in Nangarhar while I stayed working in Mazar-i-Sharif. In the initial years of my assignment, Mazar-i-Sharif and the surrounding areas felt safe but they slowly lost their peace.

Nineteen ninety was the worst year for the people of Afghanistan. One, there was intense fighting in the bigger cities like Jalalabad. Second, [as part of their campaign against the government of Mohammad Najibullah in Kabul] the mujahideen blocked all supply routes to the capital.

I remember visiting my relatives who lived in the city of Jalalabad where I noticed that people were forced to cook the leaves of cauliflower to eat because nothing else was available or accessible. Food was scarce.

I felt the situation was better in the districts (which by then were completely under the control of the mujahideen) because people could at least farm their own land for food and keep livestock. Some villagers had even opened shops in the districts.

A sizable number of people were busy cultivating, buying and selling opium in the local bazaars of Ghani Khel, Khogyani, Chaparhar and Achin. Most of the mujahideen leaders were involved in the drug trade.

Ghani Khel bazaar, Nangarhar province
Ghani Khel bazaar, Nangarhar province. Photo by OSDR

Following the Soviet withdrawal, fighting intensified and that meant there were constant, heavy bombardments in both rural and urban areas. After the formation of a power sharing government in 1992, headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, security improved slightly but Afghanistan generally remained lawless.

Each area had its own warlord who established checkpoints to extort money from travellers and passers-by. Robberies increased. Many people emigrated to Pakistan, Iran or to other parts within Afghanistan to find safety, but this loosened social and communal bonds.

We couldn’t be part of each other’s joys or sorrows. Even close family members didn’t see each other for years.

In 1993, I left my job in Mazar-i-Sharif and went back to my village to join my wife and children. I had 300,000 Afghani with me [US$3,831]. When I arrived in the village, I asked my sister who had recently become a widow to lend me another 50,000 Afghani [US$639] with which I opened a shop in the bazaar. Another priority was to build a room in my old house, which had been burned down by the mujahideen in 1979 because of my father’s association with the communist government. I built the room with timber I bought in the local bazaar.

First trip to Moscow smuggling heroin, 1993

The shop was a good investment but I was now providing for two families – my own and my sister’s. The Afghan currency had lost all of its value and most of us were using Pakistani rupees. I was going through a very tough time. All my friends and relatives were struggling too.

That same year, a friend (a communist lieutenant who I had met during my time in Mazar) visited me in Achin. His cousin had been involved in the drug business. He had a heroin factory in the Abdul Khel area of Achin. He transported the heroin to Mazar-i-Sharif where another dealer smuggled it into Russia via the crossing point with Uzbekistan. The person who smuggled the heroin to Moscow charged the Abdul Khel trader 17,000 US dollars for one kilogram. My friend – the lieutenant – had an idea. He said, what if he asked his cousin – the heroin trader in Abdul Khel – to suggest to the smuggler in Mazar-i-Sharif that he could do even better with the help of two human mules.

The Abdul Khel trader agreed, and the lieutenant and I were hired. We were offered 50,000 Pakistani rupees (US$304) each to start, plus another 50,000 PKRs each – or 100,000 total – once the mission was complete.

I agreed but didn’t inform my wife. Instead, I told her I was going to Mazar-i-Sharif to work as a labourer. When it was time to leave, I said my goodbyes and was met by the lieutenant at my doorstep. From there, we headed to Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Abdul Khel trader, the lieutenant and I arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif and went straight to the property hired for us by the Abdul Khel’s dealer. The Mazar-i-Sharif dealer came to the house, and we all met. He was responsible for preparing passports and Uzbek visas. It took three months to get all our documents. The plan was that the lieutenant and I would take the heroin, by road, to Moscow using the border crossing between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. He would fly to Moscow and meet us there.

On the day of travel, early in the morning, the Mazari dealer handed me a professional looking ‘made in Pakistan’ suitcase in which I placed the drugs. Trusting my gut instinct, I bought two kilograms of almonds and two kilograms of raisins and sultanas and placed them, with my clothes, in the suitcase.

We drove towards Hairatan crossing point. The lieutenant carried a small empty bag, whereas I was carrying the suitcase that contained two and half kilograms of heroin.

Border crossing Durbaba district
Sasobai border crossing, for the re-import of transit goods back into Pakistan, Durbaba district. Photo by OSDR

On arrival at the crossing point, there were two long queues of people. I stood in one while my friend and partner in crime queued in the other. Once the check on the Afghan side was done, we needed to go through the same process again on the Uzbek side. This time I saw two police officers – a male and a female – who were scanning everything. When it was my turn, my heart sank, and it was pounding very fast. The female police officer placed the suitcase in the scanner and opened it on the other side and commented ‘you’re carrying almonds?’ I said yes and immediately gave her some. She thanked me and started eating them. I left as fast as I could.

The lieutenant came out too and we met by the designated smoking area. That’s where our contacts in Tashkent were waiting for us. The four of us got in a taxi and headed towards Tashkent. There were two or three more checkpoints on the way to Tashkent, but they didn’t have scanning machines. Midway, we changed to another taxi that took us to the railway station where we got a ticket to Moscow. There were several more checks but luckily no one found the heroin.

After 48 hours on the train, we arrived in Moscow late at night. Since both of us had worked with the Soviet-backed communist regime in Afghanistan, we were fluent in Russian. As per our plan, we called the Mazari dealer to come and meet us, but he was nowhere to be found so we went to a five-star hotel and were about to pay 100 US dollars for a room. But as we were getting ready to enter the hotel, a woman ran towards us and said she would take us both to her home for that money. She took us to her apartment. We asked for food, so she went out and brought us some. She left us in the flat on our own.

The next morning, I called a friend of an uncle who was living in Moscow to inform him that I was there and had time to meet. He came to the apartment straight away. I asked him to find us somewhere to stay. He found us a house, belonging to a single mother, who charged us US$40 per night. We called the trader again to come and collect his suitcase, but he was not interested. After a few days, my friend – the lieutenant – found him in a building. The dealer had allegedly told him he couldn’t collect the drugs because he had not yet found any buyers.

We ended up spending 20 nights in that house. After that we had enough, so we decided to go and find the dealer again. We started our search in the block of flats where the lieutenant said he had seen the dealer. We knocked on every door, but he seemed to have vanished. When we got to the 19th floor, and rang a doorbell, a young girl answered. We asked which floor the Afghans were living on. She said, ‘the people with dark skin tone?’ We said yes! She pointed up to the 20th floor. We ran upstairs and knocked on one of the doors hastily. Our man opened the door himself!

We rushed inside and left the suitcase with the heroin before leaving quickly.

A huge burden had been lifted from our shoulders. We returned to the house we had been renting and noticed that the landlady was drunk and incapable of having a conversation. So, we decided it was best to pack our things and leave for the railway station right away, to catch a train back to Tashkent.

The journey from Moscow to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Mazar-i-Sharif and finally to my village was hasslefree but when we arrived and my partner received our payment from the Abdul Khel trader, he didn’t give me my share. I asked but he just made excuses. He left Nangarhar to go back to Mazar-i-Sharif. He sat on that money for a whole year. I returned to my shop and continued farming.

Taliban rule

When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, security improved dramatically. People were free to travel without any fear of being stopped or robbed but poverty remained a problem. There was no governmental help and non-governmental organisations didn’t dare to enter Afghanistan so people did what they could to survive.

It was legal to cultivate opium and trade drugs during the Taliban regime. That’s why there were big open-air markets in places like Ghani Khel in Achin. All of us were struggling and that’s why we continued to buy and sell opium, albeit on a smaller scale. I was desperate for any work that was better paid.

Second trip to Moscow smuggling heroin, 1997

My second trip to Moscow, smuggling heroin, was not with the lieutenant transporting the product of his cousin from Abdul Khel but for someone else. My new boss was a young man from Laghman province. This young man had an agent who found suppliers in Abdul Khel, in Achin. He had found out about my first trip to Moscow and reached out to me through his agent in Abdul Khel, asking if I would be willing to go a second time. He offered me 2,000 US dollars for this trip and said there would be another man – someone I didn’t know – accompanying me.

On the first day of the job, the agent came to collect me from my home before we both headed to Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban had captured Kabul but beyond the Salang Pass was the territory of the Northern Alliance. The two of us reached Mazar-i-Sharif and waited for a meeting with the Laghmani dealer. The young man’s entire family was in Pakistan, but he had been living in Moscow for seven years, smuggling heroin out of Afghanistan. I found him to be a very humble person.

Torkham border crossing, Daka village, Mohmandara district. Photo by OSDR

My trip happened at a time when the Taliban were planning to attack Mazar-i-Sharif, so most foreign consulates, including Uzbekistan’s, had stopped issuing visas to Afghans. After meeting us, the Laghmani dealer flew to Moscow, while the agent applied for visas for Turkmenistan for the two of us. We stayed in Mazar waiting for these visas to be issued. I didn’t expect a positive result, but we were lucky and received the visas, although they were only valid for 20 days.

When it was time to leave Mazar, we got on one of those Mercedes buses that were supposed to have been contracted by the government of Turkmenistan.

The agent bought a suitcase, in which he placed two and half kilograms of heroin. We decided to use the Aqina crossing point because I knew, for a fact, that they didn’t have scan machines.

The journey to Aqina and the security checks at the crossing point there went smoothly. There were no scanners, so nothing was suspected or detected by anyone.

We stayed on the bus as it continued to drive deep into Turkmenistan, but midway we were stopped for a random security check. This time the police found a cigarette box with hashish inside it. This box was under the seat of a man who was sitting in front of my traveling partner. The police removed four people including my friend from the bus for further questioning. They were searched again but nothing was found. So the police prevented the bus from moving until the culprits were identified. We stayed there for 24 hours. Finally, the passengers gave up and pointed to two young men who were known to the driver as well. Once the police had their suspects, we were allowed to continue our journey.

After arriving at the bus station in Turkmenistan, the bus driver took our passports and told us to stay in the hotel otherwise the police would stop us. We did as we were told and stayed there for several hours. The next day, the driver refused to return our passports and ordered us to go back to Afghanistan. Then around lunch time, as we were going through our options, a young Afghan man approached us and said he was able to take us to Moscow. We told him the driver was refusing to hand over our passports. He said we didn’t need to have passports. It was news to us, but we jumped at the opportunity. He charged us 100 US dollars each for the journey to Moscow.

The young man said that we would depart for Moscow the next morning but we had to leave the hotel to escape from the bus driver who was holding our passports. The young man said he would go and look for somewhere else for us to stay and store our luggage for the night, but we had to somehow leave the hotel without creating suspicion. We agreed and did as we were told. We handed over the luggage to the young man. When night came, we left the hotel quietly. The manager saw us leaving and asked us where we were going, we replied to ‘the night club’. He let us go.

Of course, we were not going to the night club. We went directly to the house that the young man (who was taking us to Moscow the next day) had found. There were ten other people there. It was then clear to us that this young man was a professional people trafficker.

The next morning, all of us got in a car and were driven towards Moscow in the rain and snow. When we were halfway there, we came across a checkpoint by a river where the police had a small hut for checking passengers.

Other people were searched before me, and I had been told about this check by the trafficker but thank God there was no scanner.

From there we headed for the railway station and took the night train to Moscow. There were even more checks en route, but the trafficker bribed the police each time they approached us. After a long journey, we arrived in Moscow, but to leave the station we needed to show our passports to the police officers who were standing by the exits.

We were busy working on a plan when we came across a family from Badakhshan, Afghanistan. Suddenly, the head of that family vanished leaving his wife and five children with us. In the middle of the panic, people started to notice and stare at this one Afghan woman who had so many children. People were surprised as women didn’t have more than one or two children in Russia. Using the opportunity, we called the Laghmani trader to say we had arrived, but we didn’t have our passports and couldn’t leave the station. He advised us not to worry and that he would be with us shortly. It wasn’t long before someone put his hand on my shoulder and whispered ‘let’s go’. The Laghmani had bribed the police, and we were out of the station.

He first took us to his home where we were offered food and tea. He said he was being watched and that we couldn’t stay with him for long. So, he would take us to a safe location the next day. There, he prepared a feast for us. We were well looked after. He had given me 50,000 Pakistani rupees [US$305] in advance and the reference number for the 2,000 dollars that he had transferred to a money exchange shop in Peshawar, Pakistan. Additionally, he gave me the 300 dollars that would be needed to withdraw my 2,000 dollars from the exchange place in Peshawar and a tip of 100 dollars. On top of that, he took us to the Afghan embassy in Moscow to get us a letter so that we could travel back to Afghanistan.

As we were leaving Moscow, the Laghmani trader asked us to take back the suitcase we had used for transporting the drugs and return it to the agent in Mazar-i-Sharif.

We missed our train back to Turkmenistan, so the Laghmani trader bought me and my smuggling partner train tickets for Kazakhstan. On the train to Kazakhstan, police asked to see our passports so we showed them the letter, but they refused to accept its validity and issued a fine of ten dollars to both of us. The journey to Kazakhstan was okay but we were stopped by the police a second time and had to pay another ten dollars in bribes. Then we had a change of heart halfway through, so rather than going on to Turkmenistan to cross into Afghanistan, we decided to go to Uzbekistan to cross over. In Uzbekistan we had to pay another ten dollars each for not having our passports with us. That was not the end of it.

On the way towards the Afghan border, some Uzbek police stopped us and accused us of being heroin smugglers. They said that was the reason we couldn’t show our passports. They were very rude and were shouting for no reason. After a long discussion and argument, we managed to convince them to let us go in exchange for 20 dollars. It was there we found out that we couldn’t cross the border into Afghanistan because we needed to have a letter from the Afghan embassy in Uzbekistan, like the one we had received from the Afghan embassy in Moscow. Once we had received that letter, we were then able to cross the border.

In Mazar-i-Sharif, I did two things: first, I handed over the suitcase to the agent and second, I went to find the lieutenant to get my money for the first trip. I had been informed that he didn’t give me my money, after the first trip to Moscow, because he had bought drugs with it, and that he continued to trade with other people. I was also told that three of his partners were arrested at the border with Tajikistan very recently. All of their contraband had been confiscated by the police. The lieutenant himself had managed to escape.

I found out where the lieutenant lived, turned up at his door early one morning and knocked. He answered the door himself. We had a fight and I forced him to give me the money he owed me. After that I went back to Nangarhar and from there to Peshawar where I collected my 2,000 US dollars. I converted it to Pakistani rupees; it came to about 80,0000 PKRs. With my Afghanistan 21 pockets full, I went home to the village. I invested my earnings in the shop. I used that shop to buy and sell opium on a smaller scale.

Many agents visited me after my second trip to Moscow. They offered me lots of money, but I didn’t accept their offers because I had made a promise to myself that I was never going to smuggle heroin to Russia again, no matter how large the profit might be.

I had enough money now. I bought 12 biswa of land [1,200 sq. metres] and, together with my widowed sister, we built a house on it to make a new home. All of us, including my sister’s family, moved to that house. It was nice and close to the main bazaar in Ghani Khel where I worked in my shop.

Ghani Khel bazaar Nangarhar province
Ghani Khel bazaar, Nangarhar province. Photo by OSDR


Soon after the September 11 attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan, local warlords looted the Ghani Khel opium market. Everyone’s opium products, worth hundreds, even thousands of Pakistani rupees, were stolen from the shops and stores. Local small traders were badly hit by the incident. At the time of the plunder, I had about four ser [3.7 kg] of opium but luckily, I had taken it home the previous day. As a result of the robbery and subsequent shortage, the price of opium went up dramatically, so I sold mine for 120,000 Pakistani rupees [US$731].

Then came Afghanistan’s interim government. Hamid Karzai was appointed as the interim leader. Security started to improve. People began to embrace the new reality. Many young people went to join the army while others got jobs in the government and with nongovernmental organisations.

I remained in my home in Ghani Khel and continued my small-scale business buying and selling opium. I knew someone in Kandahar who regularly needed my product, so I hired drivers to take it to him. That contract went on for 18 months. I noticed demand was high, which is why – together with four of my friends – we bought a Toyota HiAce Super Custom car to transport the product to Kandahar ourselves.

On each trip we managed to take 30 ser [28 kg] of opium. On the rare occasions that we were stopped by the police we just bribed them, and they would let us go.

We were in this partnership for 12 months, after which they sold me the car and I continued the business on my own.

I would make one trip to Kandahar every 15 days, and I made about 30,000 to 40,000 PKRs [US$182–245]. After a while I felt that I needed a new partner, so I went to the village of Siya Chub in Ghani Khel and found someone. We agreed that we needed to replace the car we had because I suspected the police may have gathered some data on us and it was important to be cautious.

Later, another man joined our partnership, so we were three. He claimed he was the brother-in-law of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s wife – the founder of the Taliban movement. He was from Kandahar. He said: ‘bring me the product and don’t worry about the cost of transportation and other expenses’. He was well connected. It was not long before he had found a new client who was seeking ‘best’ heroin’ [or sometimes spelled ‘beest’, a specific brand of heroin paste] in Afghanistan. He asked us to find it for him. He told us that we might be able to find it in Badakhshan province, in the north of the country. So, he sent us to the Darayim district in Badakhshan. He had already been in touch with a couple of suppliers there, whom he said would guarantee we get the best. And, to get the best of the best, the Kandahar client had paid the trader (Omar’s alleged wife’s brother-in-law) 100,000 US dollars in advance.

When we arrived in Badakhshan, we saw the production process with our own eyes, and it truly was a highquality product because they processed seven kilograms of heroin to get the purest one kilogram. It was a time-consuming task but one that was worth it. My partner and I stayed in Badakhshan for three months for the sake of the heroin. During that time we managed to source 120 kilograms of ‘best’ heroin. Transporting that amount to Kandahar meant we needed to make two trips. Each one of us received 40,000 PKRs [US$245] excluding expenses.

Our partner in Kandahar was a very good man. I was very fond of him. Sadly, he died in a suicide attack on a trip to Kunduz province. When I heard the news, I was devastated so I went to his home to pay my respects.

It was there that I decided that I couldn’t continue the trade in Kandahar any longer.

I spent a couple of months in Ghani Khel, after the death of my Kandahari partner, before buying 15,000 US dollars’ worth of heroin to take to the western province of Herat. I drove there and rented a place to stay so I could sell my product. When I bought the drugs, the prices were on the rise but when I arrived in Herat the prices went down causing me to extend my stay there. I was there for nine months. It was only after I returned home that I realised that I had made a loss. That’s when I decided that it was no longer profitable to continue the trade, so I stopped.

From 2001 onwards, it was more difficult for people who worked in the drug trade, like me. But, overall, life improved after the US invasion. Security was better – at least, until 2013. Ordinary people went back to living, studying and working as new opportunities, wealth and technology came to Afghanistan.

Elections took place with men and women taking part in huge numbers. Developmental projects started. Schools, clinics and roads were built. Villages, districts and provinces were connected by roads, the media and the internet. People’s social and communal interactions increased, partly because of the advent of social media, and because people found the means to go and see each other. Unlike the 1990s, when we could barely afford to travel to the district centres, in the last 20 years people’s wealth increased to the point that trips to Kabul became an almost daily or weekly affair. This is because people who had jobs in Kabul moved some of their family members to the capital and they made regular trips back to the provinces to visit the remaining family members.

But the economic and security situation has deteriorated again since.

With the passage of time, as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan became a focal point of tensions and restrictions were increased, we lost the sort of connections that we previously had with our people on the other side of the Durand line.

Now, everything is official, and people are asked for passports, visas and other documentation, which we can’t afford. I now head a family of 28 members, of whom only four are working. The rest are either women or young kids who go to school. All I can do is farm my land and take care of my loved ones. Thank God, I don’t owe anyone any money.