KABUL: Drug addicts wait to register at the Avicenna Medical Hospital for Drug Treatment in Kabul. - AFP

KABUL: With shaved heads, oversized tunics and the terrified gaze of the hunted, the drug addicts rounded up by the Taleban brace for 45 days of painful withdrawal. For some, the hardliners' raids may potentially help them cast off the yoke of addiction. But for many the stay at Kabul's Ibn Sina centre will just mark a short change of scene, marked by a brutal approach to forcing users off their powerful dependence.

Before the Taleban marched into Kabul on August 15, police in the capital would sometimes arrest addicts and transfer them to the centre. But since the hardline Islamists took control, the frequency of raids on areas where addicts gather appears to have increased. Hundreds of users shelter in squalid conditions at Pul-e-Sukhta, under a bridge in western Kabul synonymous with hard drugs and violent crime.

They recognize the rehab clinic's ambulance, and those who can lift themselves off the fetid ground stagger down the rubbish-strewn Paghman River to avoid capture, while many are too intoxicated to wake up. Two Taleban fighters, armed with M16 and AK-47 rifles, prod the comatose heroin and methamphetamine users with their gun barrels as outreach workers wrestle with men before forcing them to the vehicle.

Raw sewage runs straight into the boggy river bed, and the stench of urine, faeces and vomit in the crowded drug den is overwhelming. Cushions, blankets, sandbags and tarpaulins make up the ramshackle camp, which is littered with the addicts' paraphernalia: syringes, wraps, foil and pipes. The gunmen fire a few shots into the air to assert their authority and shock the addicts, before about 20 are rounded up and whisked away.

Searches and checks

During their 45-day rehabilitation stay at the 1,000-bed centre, the men spend their time lying on cots in large dormitories or crouched in the yard, soaking up the autumn sun. There is little methadone available to help wean the opium and heroin addicts, and nothing to remove the withdrawal pains for those being weaned off of meth, doctors say.

This morning, Emal, 36, shuffles into the registration room. - A volunteer, who like many others working here is a former addict, opens his logbook. Name? Emal. Your father's name? Abdul Matin. Married? Yes. I have three children, two girls and one boy. Working? Not currently. What drugs do you take? Crystal (meth). Have you been here before? Yes, three times. This is my fourth. I was discharged 10 days ago. As Emal leaves, 22-year-old Bilal Ahmad, skinny and jittery, takes a seat.

He is also addicted to meth, and has been through the program before, "one or one and a half year years ago". "I am happy to be here," he tells AFP, casting fearful, furtive glances around the room that indicate he is not. "In 45 days, God willing, we can go home." The men are searched carefully when they arrive. "Open your mouth. Wider. Lift your tongue," another member of staff at the clinic tells the new arrivals, before checking their shoes and clothes for traces of drugs. In groups of six, they then shuffle to the tiled building that houses the showers.

There their baggy khaki tunics and trousers are removed and they are handed a packet of shampoo, but no towel. When they emerge, dripping, they are handed over to a team of barbers who shave their heads to prevent the spread of lice, but leave their scraggy beards. Some are taken to rooms lined with five beds, while others are ushered into a dormitory where around 30 men of all ages are already lying on top of their covers. One childishly plays a bamboo flute. Another gestures to his mouth indicating that he is hungry.

'Terrible problem'

Poppy cultivation was banned under the Taleban's last rule in the 1990s, but the export of heroin from Taleban-controlled areas provided the hardliners with billions of dollars during their insurgency against the United States and the Western-backed government. With poppies cheap and easy to grow, Afghanistan provides around 90 percent of the world's production of heroin. Crystal methamphetamine production has also surged, created from the ephedra plant which grows wild in the country.

According to anti-narcotics experts, 11 percent of Afghanistan's 34 million population are drug users, with four to six percent addicted. Since sweeping back into power, the Taleban have promised not to allow narcotics production. "It is the policy of the Islamic Emirate," said Doctor Ahmad Zoher Sultani, who heads the centre located in an old US army base. For now, the staff in the centre are all working without pay. Salaries have not been paid out for four months as Afghanistan's economy teeters on the verge of collapse.

Sultani says he was worried that the Taleban would shut his clinic when they first seized power. "Their intentions towards us were not clear," he told AFP, adding though that the country's new rulers had "quickly told us they wanted us to continue." In signs he is adapting to the new regime, the doctor has since mid-August swapped out his Western suit and tie for the traditional shalwar kameez, and has removed all of the photographs that once filled the walls of his office. "Drugs are a terrible problem," he said. - AFP