Shaken by the extent of drug addiction in her city, Afghan filmmaker Laila Haidary used her own money to set up a camp for recovering heroin addicts. But despite assisting 400 desperately afflicted people, she has been harassed and threatened, and now the project faces possible closure by the government.
Laila Haidary (second from left) at Mother Camp with colleagues and a heroin-addicted family. (Photos: Momin)
As if lifted from one of her films, it was a scene of Kabul life that played out time and again through Laila Haidary's car window until one day she decided to stop and dig deeper.
“I used to see a lot of people under the Pul-s-Sukhta bridge and I wondered what was going on there,” says the documentary filmmaker, who used to pass hundreds of homeless and abandoned addicts on the way to visit family on the other side of the city.
“One day, I decided to get out and see what was going on. When I went there, I found out that there were many young addicts," recalls Haidary. “It smelled terrible, they were living in dreadful conditions.”
The next day Haidary drove by again, this time in the pouring rain. “The police were there to kick the addicts out,” she says, describing how the harrowing images of the forcefully evicted addicts, alone and mishandled in the rain, began to haunt her.
“I just wanted them to have a shelter,” says Haidary, who initially created some makeshift roof cover and some flooring for the homeless addicts, but never really contemplated attempting to provide any treatment for them.
She went on to invest over 10,000 USD of her own money to open Mother Camp, the first privately funded, independent, drugs rehabilitation centre in Kabul. “At first I managed to give shelter to the 28 addicts I found under the bridge,” says Haidary. But every step forward brought increasing efforts to drag her back from her quest.
Local religious leaders in particular initially objected to the relationship she has developed with this shunned section of the populace. “Everybody was wondering what I was doing with this many addicts." Chief opponents were won over when they saw the progress with the target population, Haidary says. But there is still some anonymous intimidation.
“I frequently received threats face-to-face and by telephone from individuals I did not know. These threats still continue,” she adds. But she is adamant that the results of the work, coupled with the energy and the strength she gets from the people she works with, far outweigh the occupational hazards.
“I frequently received face-to-face and telephone threats from individuals I did not know. These threats still continue.” Laila Haidary
A year after Mother Camp opened, the project has treated 400 addicts, borrowing from similar foreign rehabilitation models, emphasizing abstention, cooperation, exercise and work.
Mother Camp not only provides for abandoned addicts. Often it takes in orphans, runaway teenagers or widows, giving them shelter and hope. For those in a more advanced state of recovery, Haidary set up a restaurant in Kabul’s 6th District where reformed addicts work to help support the camp community, and start to reconnect with a life they had given up on.
Talking from behind one of the few vacant tables on a busy Saturday morning at the restaurant, Haidary says 25 addicts are taken in to Mother Camp in every new round of admissions. The treatment period lasts 21 days, during which addicts learn to fly kites, play the Dambora – an Afghan instrument – while taking on chores at the restaurant, such as cooking or cleaning, to engender responsibility. And of course, abstaining from heroin through monitored use of methadone, a technique employed in western programs. Every day, they participate in a 90-minute programme developing their awareness of the harms of narcotics.
“What is important and a point of strength in this process is the encouragement and support of addicts to one another,” says Haidary, outlining how the problem can become the solution: “We use the experiences of those who were addicts and are now living a life without addiction.”
Mohammad Jawad is one of the more recent success stories. The 28 year-old waiter from Bamyan passed through Mother Camp and now works at the restaurant.
“I was missing something. Nothing could make up for it. Eventually, I chose heroin as a friend,” says the recovering addict, who spent ten years hooked on the drug.
Ali Walah, a recovering heroin addict at Mother Camp.
Ali Walah has been smoking opiates for twelve years. The recovering addict, who was brought from Pul-e-Sukhta Bridge and has been in treatment for the last 45 days, says he turned to narcotics due to "homesickness".
At the female camp of the same name, women of all ages have their own sad stories. Zahra Mohammadi, a 65-year-old family head, says. “After my eldest son fell from an electricity pilon and died and then my son-in-law died in a traffic accident, my eldest daughter started using narcotics. Then we all started to use narcotics," says the pensioner, who started using at the age of 50.
"I used to buy a pill of heroin for 100 afghanis (2 dollars),” says Zahra, who is happy about the treatment at the camp but complains about the shortage of food and clothes.
Haidary admits both camps have been struggling financially. “Since I created Mother Camp, no government or private institution has come to help us,” says the filmmaker. If it were not for the profits from the restaurant, the project would have already collapsed, she adds.
The government has visited and begun turning the screws on the project. “Three months ago, a private TV prepared a report about Mother Camp. After that, we sent a delegation there," Zabihullah Daem, Legal and Public Awareness Advisor to the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, told Afghanistan Today. "They reported that Mother Camp is not licensed, health issues are not taken into account, there is a lack of registration of addicts and that the treatment at the camp does not meet international standards."
While there is no precise data available, social workers estimate that Kabul has 80,000 heroin addicts.
State anti-addiction projects exists and are being steadily rolled out across the country, he noted. An extra 30 government treatment centres were opened in the last year, bringing the total to 81 nationwide, according to the official. Funds for addiction treatment are allocated from the World Bank and USAID, he said.
"The Ministry of Counter Narcotics plans to build seven complexes to provide treatment to addicts in seven zones of the country within three to five years. Each complex will have a 200-bed capacity. With these complexes built, treatment of addicts will increase by 30 percent,” Daem said.
Former addict Mohammad Jawad works at the project's restaurant.
While there are no confirmed statistics, social workers estimate there are 80,000 heroin addicts in Kabul alone. If the government is to successfully tackle the problem, Mother Camp’s ‘addicts-treating-addicts’ approach could be crucial.
Yet the government looks intent on closing the camp rather nurturing the useful experience it can offer, its founders say. Daem also said authorities will decide any day now whether to enforce closure.
If the project can continue work, Haidary still has big plans for expansion.
“If Mother Camp succeeds, I want to open up more throughout Afghanistan, particularly in remote provinces,” she says.