Kabul to Moscow with a suitcase full of heroin

A story told by Jangul

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.

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.