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?

Post-2001

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.

Betrayal

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

Post-2001

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.

Our lives depend on cross-border trade

Childhood and marriage 

I was 13 years old when my father married me off to his nephew. At 40, I’m now mother to six children. A year before my engagement, my parents left their ancestral home in Chakhansur district to settle in the Kang district of Nimruz province. After moving neighbourhoods, my parents bought six jeribs of land [three acres] in a village on the border with Iran. We built a family home on some of it and used the rest of the land for agriculture purposes. 

My late husband also had a small business on the border with Iran. He imported fuel to be sold in the bazaar in Kang. In return, he transported sewing machines, irons and other appliances to Iran. He combined that with farming our land. We were satisfied with life. 

Life under the Taliban regime

I was too young to remember much about the communist regime and the civil war in Afghanistan but when the Taliban took over, I was in my early teens. As a newlywed, and because the Taliban didn’t allow women to work outside the house or go to school, I had to stay at home. 

Life under the Taliban regime was very tough. People didn’t have jobs; women didn’t have any freedom and poverty was everywhere. On top of that, we experienced severe drought, which was disastrous for farmers like us.

I have the worst memories from when the Taliban were in power. Every time I remember how they treated my husband, my mother-in-law and other women from my close circle, I become terrified. 

I still remember a woman from our village who had fallen ill and had to be taken to Zaranj city to see a doctor. Back then, there were no proper roads and the ones that existed were not paved.

When you travelled, the roads were so dusty that it would leave a sand trail behind you. People had to travel in big, lorry type cars that always caused car sickness. I was told that upon arrival in the city, the woman was asked to wait for her turn outside the doctor’s office. As she sat there waiting, desperate for fresh air because she was too sick from the journey, she decided to lift her burka and show her face in public. A member of the Taliban’s ‘vice and virtue police’ spotted her. He grabbed her by the hair, beat her and threw her onto the ground. She died there and then. 

On another occasion, a relative of mine was wrongly imprisoned by the Taliban. My husband tried to intervene in the case, appealing to the Taliban authorities but they refused to release him. One day my husband took some food and clothes to the man in jail unaware that he would escape that same night and cross the border to Iran. 

At two in the morning, on a hot summer night, while all of us including my small children were sleeping in the courtyard, two armed men stormed our house and started attacking my husband. I was very frightened. My children were terrified. The men kept asking my husband where he had hidden the prisoner, but my husband didn’t know anything about the escape or where the man was now. The Taliban wouldn’t stop beating my husband, so I had to send word for my elderly mother-in-law to come and ask the Taliban to stop. She came at once, apologising to the men and begged them to stop. She promised them that my husband would present himself at the police station first thing in the morning, but the Taliban turned their sticks around and hit my mother-in-law several times. 

There was also the time when girls and women of my extended family were refugees in the village of Dust Mohammad, [in Hirmand county of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province], came to Afghanistan to attend a wedding party in our village. In those days, people could cross the border easily as there were no restrictions. As is the custom, the girls were playing our local instrument called dayereh. They were laughing and singing. An elderly Talib who had a grey beard saw the young women having fun. He came and took the instrument from the girls and smashed it. He also hit the girls with the stick he was carrying. I asked the old man why would you destroy the dayereh and hit the girls!? His answer was, ‘because I’m a member of the “virtue and vice” [Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice] police!’

It was precisely due to this oppression and tyranny by the Taliban that my family and I decided to leave Afghanistan. We crossed the border to Zabul province, in Iran, where we lived for two years, but life for Afghan refugees was very hard.

Every time we went out, the Iranian authorities asked us for identity cards and other government-issued documents that we didn’t have. People were constantly harassed. 

Post-2001

In 2002, when Afghanistan had a new government and President Hamid Karzai took over [as the interim leader] we decided to return to Afghanistan, to our home.

The first noticeable change we saw was the construction of a road from the main city in Kang to our village. This led to many people commuting to and from the city every day. 

Village in Kang district
Village in Kang district

Most of the people in my village, and those in need, received food aid. Wells were dug up for clean drinking water in our village. That was soon supported by major water mains and pipes delivering water to the properties. Then came a clinic. It was the first to be constructed in our district. In the wider Zaranj city, the number of hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and other similar facilities increased. There were far more nurses, doctors and midwives than we had ever seen. 

New schools for girls and boys were built. Dozens of female teachers were hired. In bigger cities across the country, universities opened their doors and women took the opportunity to finish their higher education.

Women started to go to work. They launched their own small businesses. People were free. It was the first time that women went out to vote, free of any fear. We even had women who nominated themselves in the elections.

Groups working on issues of women and children started spreading their awareness campaigns about women’s rights, personal freedoms and [many other issues that were important to the local population] to far remote areas. 

In 2005, when my husband was busy farming our land, he suffered an accident. He later died from his injuries.

I was now the head of my household and had to provide for my four girls and three boys. I needed to start earning a living. I learned about a number of women from my village who were involved in the trading of goods from Iran to Afghanistan.

In 2006, I had saved up ten thousand Afghani [US$165] and borrowed an additional 10,000 Afghanis to start my small handicraft business. I bought embroidered clothes that were handmade by my fellow Baluch women on the Afghanistan side of the border. Then, I exported these and sold them on the Iranian side. 

Within a few months of launching my business, I managed to find a great number of loyal customers who worked in Zabul province in Iran. It took me an hour and half by car to take my locally sourced goods to Zabul. On the way back, I brought eggs, beans, chicken and other food items to be sold in my village. The Afghan border police knew that I and my other female partners were poor women trying to make a living, so they didn’t ask us for a bribe, but the Iranian border police charged us 1,000 Toman/Iranian Rial [under 50 US cents]. 

By making five or six trips a month to Zabul, in Iran, and back, I earned between 100,000 and 150,000 Iranian toman [US$10 to 15]. This was more than enough for my family’s needs.

All of my kids were enrolled at school and were busy studying very hard. 

It was not all rosy though. I could never forget the day when I, along with seven of my fellow Baluch women, were stopped by members of the Afghan Security Forces. We were coming back from Zabul. Each one of us was carrying food items and other necessities: eggs, baked beans, bread and a gas cylinder. As soon as the soldiers saw us, they fired into the air. In a panic we stopped and dropped everything. We ran towards our homes. They took all of our goods. I cried all the way to my village. When I reached home my children were crying too.

In 2011, the Iranian government constructed a wall along the border with Afghanistan. It had several crossing gates. The wall is very close to our village. This meant that with a little bribe to the Iranian border guards, we could continue our trade, crossing the border with no trouble. It wasn’t just women like me whose lives depended on cross border trade but men too. As a Baluch woman, whose tribespeople live on both sides of the border, it was not just trade for me. It was also about community ties – attending each other’s wedding parties and funerals. 

Life was good and I was respected. I even managed to find a great suitor for my ten-year-old daughter. It was thanks to that business of mine that I was able to marry my eldest daughter in a dignified and honourable way. 

In 2016, the Iranian authorities further tightened restrictions on the border, closing all the gates. People who needed to cross to Iran were asked to provide a visa, passport and other official documentation.

We couldn’t afford the cost of any of that so we didn’t apply for any documents, which is why we couldn’t continue our trade and small business. 

Like me, other people in my village have relatives and family members across the border in Iran but because of these tough restrictions we can’t see them anymore. We can’t be part of each other’s happiness and sorrows. Our only mode of communication is by telephone, with mobile phones. 

Milak official border area, Afghanistan
Noozai village, Milak official border area, Nimruz-Iranian border. Photo by OSDR

These tougher border restrictions have pushed people out of work, which is why some men in my village have turned to drug smuggling.

Some of our male villagers are buying and transporting drugs to Iran. I’m not involved in this work myself because women can’t transport drugs when the gates are shut, and I don’t have older sons to do it for me. Keeping drugs at home and transporting them across the border is a very dangerous business. There is always a risk of being raided and imprisoned so I personally stay away from it especially in the current circumstances as I still have very young children. 

However, up until four to five years ago, I had been housing dozens of young men and women who were trying to leave Afghanistan. These people were paying human smugglers to take them to Iran, Turkey and beyond.

Smugglers would bring people from all over
Afghanistan to our village where they divided them into
small groups. Agents asked us to let them lodge with
us. I prepared them food and they paid me for it. That
was a vital lifeline for many families here.

Migrants bus station Zaranj city
Migrants at a bus station in Zaranj city

Each day, from our village alone, between 300 and 400 people crossed the border to Iran. Now, not a soul can cross because a barbed-wire fence splits our village and Afghanistan from Iran and there are security cameras everywhere too.

Currently, I sew traditional Baluch dresses and accessories for women. There are people in Zaranj city who send me orders with samples, and I sew it for them. I make between two to three million Iranian tomans [US$50–70] a month. This is how life goes by.

‘Peace with hunger and bullets is very difficult’: PNIS implementation monitoring report

This working paper, originally published in Spanish, presents the findings of the second of two surveys of participants in Colombia’s national crop substitution programme, the PNIS. It makes a strategic contribution to the evaluation of public policy, since it concerns how the measures have been received by the target population, which complements existing data on the progress of its implementation. It shows that:

  • the coexistence of substitution and forced eradication is a breach of the Peace Agreement
  • during the Duque government, state non-compliance with the PNIS has worsened
  • the PNIS has substantially decreased household incomes
  • there are systematic barriers to accessing substitution
  • substitution lacks security guarantees for leaders and participants in the programme
  • substitution lacks community participation or consultation
  • non-compliance with the Comprehensive Rural Reform affects the implementation of the PNIS
  • substitution has been successively de-funded.

Mangling life trajectories: institutionalized calamity and illegal peasants in Colombia

This Third World Quarterly article discusses the institutionalization of calamity – in the form of fumigation and exposure to lethal violence – and its consequences over coca peasants and workers in Colombia. It shows how this institutionalized calamity indelibly marks their life trajectories, through repeated episodes of ‘total loss’. Understanding illicit rural classes and economies in this way gives them specific characteristics that diverge from the typical identikit attributed to peasants in some agrarian studies. These peasants and workers are much more mobile and risk prone, less localistic and deferential, and have different demands with respect to markets, government and land. While they resist state sallies into their territories, and the violence, brutality and stigmatization associated with them, they also push for infrastructure and regulation, indispensable not only for coca crops, but also for any viable transit to legality.

Modes of governance and the everyday lives of illicit drug producers in Afghanistan

By Jan Koehler, Jasmine Bhatia and Ghulam Rasool Mosakhel

Studies on illicit drug economies in violent contexts are typically concerned with whether illicit drugs are a driver of insecurity, or vice versa. This paper considers the interaction between different governance arrangements and the everyday lives of people involved in the drug economy in Nimroz and Nangarhar, Afghanistan. It presents evidence from interviews and life histories conducted in 2020 and 2021, finding that governance in then government-controlled areas tended to be more fragmented, negatively affecting the livelihoods of small-scale drug producers and traders. Authority tended to be less fragmented in districts then controlled by the Taliban, but illicit drug producers fared much worse under Daesh rule, showing stark variation in the effects of insurgency rule on the drug economy. Contrary to prevailing assumptions that participants in the illicit drug economies thrive in ungoverned environments, our findings show that there is considerable demand for predictable rule-based political authority, albeit pragmatic enough to allow an open-access illicit drug economy to operate.