featured image

Taliban subject drug addicts to brutal rehab, fierce beatings and forced labour

By Matin Mehrab and Azada 

Massoud* was a relapsed drug addict, who would spend his days picking through trash for soda bottles, cans and plastic which he could sell to buy heroin, when the Taliban forced him into rehab. The 35-year-old was rounded up with five other addicts in downtown Herat as part of the Taliban’s campaign to tackle Afghanistan’s drug epidemic by moving addicts off the streets, into rehabilitation centres, and eventually into paid work.  

Massoud was taken to a facility in Karukh district, Herat province — one of 28,000 Afghans the Taliban say have undergone treatment for their drug addiction since August 2021.  

Inside the facility, Massoud found hundreds of emaciated shaven-headed addicts. They lay shivering in dirty beds and writhing in pain from the forced withdrawal from heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs. Their misery was compounded by being fed only scraps of food and ferocious beatings by Taliban guards using whips, sticks and rifle butts. 

Massoud somehow survived rehab, and after two months was ready to be discharged. But when his family refused to take him in, any hope of being released vanished.  

Instead, with his family’s blessing, Massoud was sent by the Taliban to work in Namaksar salt mine in Herat province’s Ghorian district. Located near the border with Iran, some 170 kms from Herat city, Namaksar is one of Afghanistan’s biggest salt mines with about 50,000 tons of salt extracted from it annually.  

“The Taliban took me to work in the salt mine because my family did not support me,” Massoud told Zan Times. 

At least 99 former drug addicts have been transported to the mine since March, when the Taliban struck a deal to provide the mine’s operator, salt extraction company Nasir Omid, with a labour force of 500 people taken from drug rehabilitation centres.  

The Taliban claim the agreement is part of an initiative to get people with a history of addiction in jobs, away from drugs and earning money for their families. According to a source close to the company, all Namaksar workers are contracted for one year and paid 6,000 afghani (US$68) a month, with the income going directly to their families. 

However, an investigation by Zan Times has uncovered numerous allegations of labour abuses at the mine. According to interviews with 11 people with knowledge of the salt mine, workers face dangerous and hazardous conditions. Wages that are promised are well below market rate. And even then, they are not paid.  

In addition, workers are forbidden from leaving the mine until their contract is complete, yet none of them has been given a copy of their contract.  

Unpaid wages for backbreaking work 

Years of addiction, combined with the beatings endured in rehab, have severely weakened Massoud. But the lack of proper mechanical equipment at the mine means he and the other labourers must extract the salt from the ground by hand, using pickaxes and shovels. The salt is then manually loaded onto wheelbarrows and trundled to the mill for processing.  

In the past, workers were paid at least 12,000 afghani a month for this backbreaking labour – double what the former addicts are being offered now – according to Jalil*, a former employee, who quit Namaksar mine in 2018. Unable to tolerate the working conditions, he left after just a year. 

Massoud said many workers get injured or fall sick from exhaustion: “But there is no clinic in the area, there are no facilities for treating diseases or dressing wounds.”  

The nearest clinic is 110 kms away and any worker requiring medical treatment must pay for it out of their own pocket. It is a luxury many cannot afford because wages are being withheld from workers, according to several miners and their relatives.  

Ayoub’s* brother, who works at the mine alongside Massoud, has yet to receive a single afghani in wages. “We agreed for our brother to work in the mine so that he would not return to addiction again. The Taliban were supposed to pay us his monthly salary to support the family, but they have not yet paid the money,” Ayoub said. 

In an interview with Zan Times, Nasir Omid, owner of the salt mining company, said: “In the agreement we have signed with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban), the wages of these workers will be handed over to the Islamic Emirate, and after that, the families will receive money from the Department of Anti-Narcotics.” However, he declined to provide a copy of the agreement to Zan Times. 

Hayatullah Rouhani, the director of the Taliban’s anti-narcotics police in Herat and manager of the project to put former addicts to work, refused to comment on the non-payment of wages to workers and their conditions at the mine. 

Rehab centres rife with disease, malnutrition and violence 

Since taking power, the Taliban have targeted both the domestic producers and users of opium in their “war on drugs”. 

But despite a decree prohibiting poppy cultivation, Afghanistan under the Taliban remains the world’s biggest producer of opium, supplying 80 percent of global demand for opium and heroin. Latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) show opium cultivation has risen by almost a third since the Taliban seized control.  

Drug addiction remains a problem in Afghanistan, where an estimated 3.5 million people use heroin and meth. Decades of conflict, humanitarian crises and economic collapse have fuelled despair, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder among the population.  

The Taliban’s solution has been to force drug addicts into makeshift rehab camps, hospitals and even prison. Once inside, addicts are made to shave their heads, beaten and doused in cold water. There are often two to a bed. Many die from malnutrition, disease or the effects of the sudden withdrawal from drugs.  

Sultan, who was twice rounded up by the Taliban, described the squalor inside Kabul’s Ibn Sina Hospital where he spent three weeks. “Despite the cold, we only had one blanket which was full of lice. We did not get enough food. Each person was given half a slice of bread for each meal and only a little rice at lunch and dinner,” he told Zan Times. 

“Patients would pounce on the kitchen garbage bin for scraps of leftovers and fruit peelings. They would even go into the kitchen and grab potato skins from the bin to eat. After quitting drugs, you get very hungry and the little food available wasn’t enough.” 

Taliban mullahs would visit the hospital to preach and lecture on the sins of drug use. 

Another former addict, Mohammad Karim, 38, says one of his brothers is being forced to undergo rehab in Pul-e-Charkhi prison, Kabul, where patients are beaten, drenched in cold water and denied enough food as part of their “treatment”.  

Pleas for him to be released fall on deaf ears. 

“The moment we mention ‘addict’, they [the Taliban] reject our request,” Karim told Zan Times. “No one wants their family members to die of torture and hunger in Taliban custody, under the guise of treatment. We want him treated but not like this. We want him to be released from prison.”  

Karim was himself rounded up by the Taliban eight months ago and forced into rehab against his will with no family visits permitted.  

Taliban’s aggressive campaign to “cleanse” streets of drug addicts 

So far, up to 82,000 people have been rounded up by the Taliban in Kabul, Kandahar and other Afghan cities in an attempt to “cleanse” the streets of drug addicts.  

In the capital alone, nearly 27,000 addicts were rounded up between August 2021 and February 2023 and sent to rehabilitation centres, according to Abdul Nafee Takur,  spokesman for the Taliban’s Ministry of Interior.  

Many people are plucked from under Kabul’s Pul-e-Sukhta and Kota-Sangi bridges, infamous gathering places for addicts who are often seen crouched over rubbish, syringes and faeces, smoking and injecting drugs. The Taliban municipality in Kabul recently announced they had buried 144 unidentified bodies, some of them found under Pul-e-Sukhta during an operation to round up homeless drug addicts. 

Women and children are among the people the Taliban sweep from the streets. Wida, a woman addict, who spent time in a rehab hospital in Kabul, said: “I saw every kind of person in there. People with mental illness, women beggars, girls and women who had run away from home, young and old children. I used to forget my own pain when I saw them.” 

Wida was also subjected to harsh treatment and denied medication to ease her withdrawal symptoms: “They tied us to the bed, poured cold water on us, and hit us with pipes.”  

Many past and present addicts told Zan Times that the Taliban extort money from them or rob them of their drug money. “When I go to buy drugs, the Taliban think I am a drug dealer. They beat me and take my drugs and money and drive me away from the area,” said Wida, who has been whipped and beaten numerous times by the Taliban. 

Bribery is commonplace. Sultan was able to bribe a Taliban guard with 500 afghani to escape a second stint in rehab. Some Taliban forces are themselves addicted to drugs. 

Jamshid, a 22-year-old who has been using drugs for four years, said of one Taliban soldier: “Every day he comes to the bridge, he starts hitting everyone, asking for methamphetamine and heroin. After he takes the drugs from our pockets, he lets us go.” 

“The Taliban is colluding with dealers. They take drugs off addicts and sell them back to dealers. If we don’t give drugs or money to the Taliban, they beat us. They call us one by one and practise boxing and kicking on us just for fun. They talk in Pashto and laugh at us.” 

Another addict, who did not want to be named, told Zan Times that if addicts complain about Taliban forces stealing from them, they will be beaten or worse.  

“If we raise our voice, they will kill us and there is no one to give us a burial. The Taliban has turned us into a source of income for them. Those of them who are addicts take our drugs. Those who are thieves get lunch money from us. Who should we complain to? It’s better to pay and suffer in silence to survive a few days,” he said. 

Despite these abuses and human rights violations, the Taliban leadership appear determined to press on with their “war on drugs” strategy.  

At the opening of a new rehabilitation centre in Kabul on February 1, 2023 Taliban Minister of Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who also heads the ruthless mafia-like Haqqani network, noted past failures to tackle drug addiction in Afghanistan, despite billions of dollars of aid being poured in the country.  

“This is unprecedented in the history of Afghanistan that we eliminate drugs,” he said in a speech to unveil the 5,000-bed Aghush Hospital. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and journalists.