Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Kashmiri children pay a heavy price for “opium” use



By: Salman Nizami


Under a black- colored pheran that flows from the neck down over his body, Musaif sat cross-legged, spinning the wheel of a sewing machine and methodically stitching a seam into a flowing stream of white cloth. The 16 -year-old son of a farmer was working to burn off a consuming and deadly habit that is blooming across Kashmir specially in villages Munhviji Kakapura, Lalhar, Chursu, lLttar, Vuchi, Sangam of Awantipora, and Pulwama district in Southern Kashmir.

India is one of the world's largest producers of legal opium for medicinal purposes and poppies are grown legally throughout the country, including in Kashmir. Southern Kashmir, an area where illegal poppy fields are common, has seen a high number of Islamic rebels ever since an armed insurgency began in 1989.

Until a few days ago, Musaif who like many Kashmiris uses only one name, slipped opium in his tea, at a tea stall twice a day to combat depression. "It was," Musaif said, "more important than food.

"According to the J&K Drug De- addiction centre office Srinagar, Kashmir now produces about 30 percent of the Indian opium. The money typically benefits local warlords, and corrupt government officials .

The J&K DDA statistics also indicate the amount of opium cultivated here has increased every year since 1989, during the Kashmir Conflict.

It's now estimated that 4 million of Kashmiri’s 80,000 people are addicted to narcotics, yet there are only few treatment and rehabilitation facilities throughout the valley. Among those seeking help, "the number of addicted children coming to us requesting help is increasing every day," said Yasir Ahmed , who works with the DDA centre at Srinagar .


While statistics suggest children remain a sliver of all addicts estimated at only about 2 percent, the center has become an important outlet for addicted persons specially children’s who have no access to psychiatrists, counselors or other drug treatment professionals.

"We want to teach them a craft with the hope they'll respond positively and overcome their drug habits," said Mohammad Shafi, 36, a tailor who teaches at the center, sponsored by Jammu and Kashmir Police. "I'm always telling them to look closely at what people are wearing in their neighborhoods because they can make those styles of clothes and earn money selling them."

There are currently 10 patients at the center, battling addictions. They learn sewing, embroidery and carpet making so they later can work by opening any outlet hopefully alleviate financial burdens. The center also provides job training to children who aren't addicted but want to learn skills that will help them work . In addition to the job training, the patients receive food and some other eatable products by depositing Rs. 3000 admission fee.


Shahzad Ahmed 15 and one of the students in the jobs training classes, said any income from working will help his parents and six siblings. "It was my decision to come here because I wanted to learn how to make things I can sell," Shahzad said as he sat behind a sewing machine in a room on the ground floor of the center. A black Shawl with Kashmiri embroidery was swathed by him . "This is very good for my family's economy."

In a bright room in the center , where the heater is not working due to a cut in power, two children sat near the furnace in the centre. Each was positioned behind black sewing machines, diligently cutting and stitching pieces of white cloth , uniforms for boys and girls in government-run schools.

Between their lessons, the children spoke about their addictions and what it was like to be severely judged for their transgressions because the standards for their behavior are far higher and less flexible than what others face in Kashmir’s patriarchal society.


Dr. Muzaffar Khan, the head of the center, said consequences for children, women who become addicted to opium are far harsher and explained that "when these children use drugs, they feel isolated from society. They think other people around them don't value them."


Saleem, another student who also uses only one name, has sharp brown eyes and black hair under a pheran . The 16 year-old son of a cultivator also has a secret. "They still don't know," he said of his family's lack of awareness about her opium addiction. As an excuse to travel to the center, he has told his father he is seeking "to learn a craft so I could earn some money working by opening a shop."

Asked how he could afford to purchase opium about Rs 100 per gram here despite his family's economic woes, Saleem said without further explanation, "I found the money one way or another."


Things sounded more desperate for another student named Ajaz Ahmed ,he explained that he decided to fight his opium habit only after his father’s addiction nearly killed him earlier this year. Now with no means to feed his other four brothers , the 27-year-old mother of Ajaz is in the midst of a desperate struggle for the survival of her family. "My family already have many problems and I have to leave them home alone to come here," Ajaz said.

Though he said he takes personal responsibility for hir abuse of opium, he attributes part of the blame on J&K authorities for not curbing the bountiful accessibility of the drug on the streets. "It's no problem to find if you have the money because there are so many people selling it," Ajaz said of the opium trade in Kashmir. "The government should stop this. "It would be good if people couldn't find it so easily."


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