Brides of the drug lords (un-edited version)

Brides of the drug lords (un-edited version)

By Fariba Nawa

Aziza’s pale green eyes flashed. Her 12-year-old body shivered. She took two steps back toward the mud wall in the hallway. It was a dead end.

“I’m not going! I’m not going!” she shouted at her mother.

Haji Sufi, a 46-year-old opium farmer, waited for her inside the room, sitting cross-legged on a thin mat drinking black tea with cardamom.

Even though Sufi and Aziza’s family did not speak the same language, the issue was clear. He had travelled hundreds of kilometres from the south to Ghorian to take Aziza, his wife of two years. She was his payment for taking care of her father’s £2,656 opium debt. But every time he came, Aziza cursed her husband and ran away from him.

Aziza’s father, Maroof Khoshsaraj, was a middleman in the drug trade, the only profitable business in Ghorian district near the Iranian border. But he was deep into debt when he bartered two of his daughters to drug barons. Then he disappeared.

Aziza looked at me for support but her mother, Khadija, scowled at her daughter and gave me a warning look not to interfere. “It’s your forsaken father’s fault that has put us in this hell. What’s done is done.”

Since the fall of the Taliban three years ago, what was once a regulated drug monopoly is now controlled by rival warlords, and is up for grabs by anyone with weapons and a piece of land. The United Nations estimates that half a million people are involved in the drug trafficking chain in Afghanistan and the overall turnover of illicit international trade in Afghan opiates is worth £14 billion annually. It has become the globe’s largest opium country and feeds two-thirds of the world’s and Britain’s demand for narcotics.

The drug trade is a formidable barrier to Western efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan. About half of the country’s GDP is from the illicit drug trade, hindering efforts to build a legal economy. Western officials also fear the drug trade is helping to fund terrorism. But the war against drugs is as shadowy as the war against terrorism, with no defined enemy or borders or end in sight. The British have poured millions of pounds into drug eradication in Afghanistan, with little success. The battle is further complicated by the fact that many of those who benefit the most from the drug trade are the same people who now run Afghanistan’s provinces, with Western support.

Afghan opium production shot up from 185 tonnes from the last year the Taliban were in power in 2001 to 3,600 tonnes this year. Twenty-eight of the country’s 32 provinces harvest poppy fields. About half of the opium leaves through the western border to Iran and from there it goes to Turkey and the Gulf, where it is refined into heroin and sent to Europe and the rest of the world. Donor countries are sceptical of giving aid to a narco state but they rarely take into account the tragedies at the source of the problem.

Aziza’s home is one of hundreds of villages that form the links in the drug chain, and have been devastated by it. Ghorian is a dusty district in Herat province, a two-hour drive from the border with Iran. Many of its 180,000 residents are drug addicts, dealers or widows. Drug lords rule the town, aided by a weak and corrupt local government. Husbands and sons carry kilos of opium on foot and donkeys over the mountains, where they come under fire from Iranian border guards. Many never return, either killed in ambushes or executed in Iranian prisons. They leave behind thousands of pounds of opium debt, which is inherited by the greatest victims: the women and children.

Aziza Khoshsaraj is the second of four girls and two boys, the fair-skinned, five-foot-tall imp of her neighbourhood. To her mother’s dismay who wants her inside the house, Aziza often plays barefoot in the dry creek or in the hot sand, a scarf tied under her chin. She is ecstatic that she can go to school after six years at home during the Taliban regime. But the carefree girl morphs into a raging, terrified child when Sufi arrives. He has come with gifts to take her away several times in the last two years. Her mother tries to convince her to go. Khadija is so destitute that she wants the entire family to become Sufi’s servants to have a livelihood.

The family knows what it’s like to be on top of the world and at the bottom of its pit. Khadija, 30, and her daughters say little about the marble-floored, 10-room house with the rose garden. They rarely mention the kilos of gold jewellery that hung from their necks and ears. The women try not to recall their motorcycle parked in the driveway. But everybody else in Ghorian remembers well.

“They were the envy of this town. Few here had that kind of wealth,” Safia Hussein, a woman from the same tribe in Ghorian said.

Aziza’s father, Maroof Khoshsaraj, 35, was an opium recruiter, the intermediary between the couriers and kingpins. He made his small fortune buying opium and sending young men to their death.

He wore a Rodo watch, a sign of wealth in Afghanistan, and a gold ring that opened up to sport another smaller watch. In a matter of five years, he built the blue-tiled, two-story home and decided to marry a second time. He wed Shamira, a young girl from the city, and wanted to make her feel like the world was hers. On their wedding day, Maroof decorated almost every Toyota Land Cruiser in town with fresh flowers. With the couple in front, the procession of motorcycles and cars circled the bombed-out roads of Ghorian as guests fired rounds of gunshots into the air to celebrate.

But opium wealth is as fleeting as its high. Iran has tightened its border partly because of its rising population of opium addicts. Few Afghan couriers return, and the opium disappears with them.

Maroof owed about £5,800. The drug barons held a gun to his head and threw him in jail several times demanding their money. Maroof did not have assets so he offered his two daughters, Aziza and Rahima, 14. Their fair skin and curvaceous figures made the girls worth thousands of pounds. A year ago, Maroof went into hiding, leaving Khadija pregnant with her sixth child. Then came the drug barons knocking down their doors. They gave the family from morning until the afternoon to pack up. They took the house and everything in it – the Persian carpets, the gold, the motorcycle and the generator.

Maroof’s second wife Shamira moved to the city with her two children and lives with her parents. Some of their old neighbours say they see Maroof once in a while in the crowded markets skinning sheep in Herat city.

Khadija and her children, now ages 1 to 14, became homeless. She lives in a two-room shack that belongs to a cousin residing in Iran, with a charred kitchen and an outhouse toilet. The neighbours share the well and clay oven in her backyard. When her cousin returns, she will be homeless again.

Khadija serves others now, making a sporadic 12 to 20 pence a day baking bread or washing clothes. The family barely has enough to eat. They have two outfits each, a pair of shoes and several headscarves. The husband of her oldest daughter, Rahima, has not shown up. Khadija is too afraid to wed her to another man in case the husband appears.

Khadija is gaunt with a listless face. When she is not working, she sits motionless smoking her waterpipe; nearly all teeth are gone. She speaks with fatalistic absolutism: life and God have cursed her. Other widows cry as they tell their story and have a book’s worth of words to share out loud. Khadija’s words are sparse and her expressions unreadable.

She loses her temper whenever the children fight or scream. She hits them with a two-foot, wooden stick she keeps on a window sill. Her life seems cliché to her, from riches to rags. “I only live hour by hour, wondering when the next meal is coming from, when are the smugglers going to take my daughters, is my husband ever going to come home. We have peace now but what good is this peace when my family may go hungry tomorrow.” she said, as she nursed her 1-year-old.


A fierce wind cools Herat province in 40-degree summer temperatures. Some here believe that Herat, an oasis, will one day be destroyed by the wind. Genghis Khan razed it in the 13th century, but it came back to life two hundred years later as the cradle of art and culture in Central Asia. Today, the city and province of Herat form the wealthiest region in the country, thanks to customs revenues from goods coming through Iran. Yet Ghorian is a town on the edge of destruction – a slow, insidious haul.

The wind blows harder here than anywhere in Herat, carrying the dust into the Ghorian River. Many Ghorian residents are ethnic Pashtuns, but nearly everyone speaks Dari, the language of Tajiks. Two decades ago, before the communists seized control, Ghorian was a bastion of smuggling for tea and fabric, but only small amounts of opium. Residents depended on agriculture and sheep herding to survive. During Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet-backed regime from 1978 to 1992, many of Ghorian’s men joined the resistance and hundreds of its families fled to Iran.

The drug trade preys on lawless regions to flourish.

Farmers in southern and eastern Afghanistan turned their wheat fields to poppy fields to make money and help fund the resistance. Ghorian’s nomads, with their history and tradition of smuggling, handled the opium trafficking to Iran. After the Soviet-backed regime fell, the refugees returned and the only jobs were in the drug trade. What was once a business for a select few families became a source of income for half of the district.

Meanwhile, demand rose. Iran became a major consumer of Afghanistan’s opium with over a million addicts. So did Europe as heroin replaced cocaine as the drug of choice. Afghanistan is closer to Europe than Burma and Southeast Asia, where most of the opium was previously grown and exported.

In 1995, the Taliban seized Herat province and encouraged poppy trade. They started to collect taxes from opium farmers and smugglers. At the same time, the drought killed 60 percent of Afghanistan’s livestock, destroying the shepherds’ livelihood. Many of these villagers had no skills or literacy. Even shopkeepers in the village market began selling opium. At first people in Ghorian did not know how to grow the crop. They were the traffickers until the Taliban brought their opium farmers from the south to teach Ghorian residents how to plant poppies.


“Jalal,” 18, just benefited from his first year of opium harvest. He learned from the Taliban how to turn his wheat and watermelon fields into poppy blossoms. His family’s half-acre yielded 20 kilos worth of raw opium this year.

“My father asked me if I wanted a wife and a car,” Jalal said. “I said I want two cars. I now transport passengers for $20 roundtrip from Ghorian to Herat city. I had nothing, not even a bicycle last year. Now I feel rich and I have a job.”

On the way to his best friend’s house, Jalal stopped to greet some men. One offered him eight kilos of opium for his car. Jalal eyed the station wagon’s steering wheel like a 5-year-old boy with a new toy. “I just got this and I can’t give it up for less than 10 kilos. Let’s talk later,” he said, accelerating.

Jalal’s best friend is “Tarek,” a chubby moustachioed 23-year-old who manages dozens of acres of land belonging to families who live outside the country. This year, he planted opium on that land and now has enough money for his wedding. He bought a shiny Honda motorcycle and painted his mud brick house white.

Over green tea, Tarek brought out his fresh batch of black opium, a bitter gooey liquid. “If you sell, you don’t use it. We have people test to see if it’s pure or not. They’re addicts,” Tarek said, tying the plastic bag filled with half a kilo of treasure and hiding it away.

Jalal and Tarek say they are taking part in a Ghorian tradition, but unless they are desperate, they will not cross the border with drugs. “We deal here and hire the shepherds as our fall guys. This is the only way to stay alive and become rich,” Jalal said with a smug smile.

Like two eagles taking off from a mountaintop, the best friends ride off on Tarek’s motorcycle, leaving a trail of dust.

The boys like the new government since they have the contacts that others do not. Jalal says the district government sends a 6-member commission to view the cultivated land in the fall and asks for a kilo per acre. In exchange, the government does not destroy the farmers’ crops.

Jalal sat in the office of the intelligence unit in the Ghorian police station with the assistant intelligence director.

“I’m upset with your father,” the bearded official said. “He didn’t give me my share. I expect that share.”

“I think my father gave enough this year,” Jalal replied under his breath.

The conversation halted when Mohammad Sobhan, the intelligence chief of Ghorian, arrived. He offered to show videos of the government destroying opium crops.

“When families don’t want to give a cut, the government eliminates their crop,” Jalal explained after he left the office.

In the office, Sobhan admitted that the government is being soft on the drug lords for political reasons but denied any collaboration with farmers and smugglers. He said drug smugglers can escape to Zir Koh, a nearby district under a different government where criminals cannot be prosecuted. Officials simply do not have the manpower and weapons to fight traffickers, Sobhan conceded.

Ghorian residents do not trust the government officials or the police. A crowd gathered around a fire burning hashish at the Ghorian fort, a landmark in Afghanistan that houses the district police station and prison. The police chief had just weeded out a handful of hashish plants from a local farm and was burning them in public to scare residents from farming drugs. It was show and tell and everyone seemed to know it. One of the bystanders whispered. “They probably kept most of it hidden in the fort to sell later.”


Despite their early support for the opium network, the Taliban banned opium production in 2000. Prices had dropped too low and they wanted to get rid of their stockpiles. All that changed when the American-led coalition drove out the militia three years ago and farmers took advantage of the power vacuum. President Hamid Karzai made the drug business illegal in January 2002, but the American-backed leader’s authority does not reach far beyond the capital.

In Herat province, Ismail Khan is the warlord and self-proclaimed emir. He has an army of 20,000 soldiers backed by Iran. Karzai has tried several times to draw him out of the province to Kabul without success. Khan has prohibited the central Afghan anti-narcotics office to open a branch in his fiefdom, saying there is already a bureau operating under his control. Publicly, he condemns the drug trade and supports a treatment clinic for the booming number of addicts in western Afghanistan. If he is reaping the benefits of opium trafficking, the evidence is hard to find.

Still suspicions remain. Despite the tight security in the region – Herat is the most peaceful province in Afghanistan – traffickers continue to cross the Afghan side of the border to Iran. Khan is said to dislike the Ghorian district. He is Tajik, while the Ghorian district is mostly Pashtun and has a reputation for revolt. Khan appointed a district mayor and police chief from elsewhere in Herat to strengthen the Tajik power in Ghorian. Last year, he had a Pashtun smuggler shot and killed.

But even Khan cannot control the Ghorian district. Residents say Ghorian is an outcast in the province. “We don’t get any government help here because we’re the armpit of the province. We’re considered the smugglers and thieves,” said Dr. Gol Ahmed Daanish, who is the head of the hospital in Ghorian. “Unfortunately, smuggling is the only income that has been encouraged.”

Daanish, delicate and polished in his western slacks and shirt, represents the small minority of educated residents fighting to change the district and its reputation. Several of the elite in Ghorian have formed a council and gather once a week to talk with the local government. They fight an uphill battle. The trend of trafficking has changed, Daanish said. “It was run by a few locals who are now dead or addicted. Now there are invisible drug mafias and bandits who control the trade and people here have become the pawns.”

The most feared drug lords in Ghorian are cousins, Ruhollah and Kader, who live on the dirt road from Herat city to the town. Their twin two-story houses with manicured gardens and locked brass gates tower over the rows of walled-in, dilapidated mud homes. The cousins hail from a smaller village in the desert called Haft Chah (seven wells), which breeds drug dealers with important connections in Iran, townspeople in Ghorian say.

Ruhollah and Kader are illiterate hajis – they made the obligatory trip to Mecca three years ago. Many Ghorian residents respect them for that title and their rise to affluence. They were shepherds, then refugees working construction jobs in Iran, and now they have carte blanche in the district as the leading drug lords. They’re the closest comparison to a mafia in Afghanistan. Their cronies terrorize women and families with opium debts.

Yet even they have lost men to the drug business. Ruhollah supports his sister’s and brother’s family since their men died smuggling narcotics. The 35-year-old agreed to an interview under the condition that he will not talk about his smuggling activities but would give his opinions on the issue. “This route has belonged to smugglers since Afghanistan’s history. It’s not a shame or a crime. People here do it because they are hungry and hapless.”

Inside his seven-bedroom, spotless house, the whispers of his wives and extended family echoed from behind closed doors. A jasmine scent of incense drifted in the room. Ruhollah sat on the gleaming Persian carpet next to his adopted daughter Soghra, 10, who sported sunglasses. Behind them were half a dozen vases with fake, colourful flowers and in the midst of the vases was a 14-inch picture frame of Ruhollah’s younger years, without the beard, turban and wrinkles he wears now.

Ruhollah, sitting cross-legged and spitting tobacco, said he has everything in life that he could want, except for children. He has three young wives and is allowed to marry one more, but instead he has decided to travel to Pakistan for fertility treatment. He said his family made their money from sheep herding and money exchanges. They have a currency trade in the main market which serves as a front for their drug business, according to locals. Ruhollah said his fortune amounts to only £12,000. He has not had any problems with any change of government – he was friends with the Taliban and now he’s friends with the new Coalition-backed government. “My family’s able to adapt to government changes,” he said

Ruhollah has taken over from the original opium trafficking family, the Soltanzi clan. The Soltanzis could travel the mountain and desert passes of the old Silk Road blindfolded and no one dared to stop them. But as Iran toughened its anti-drug laws, the clan lost its authority and income. Its women are now under Ruhollah’s power.

In Shau Bibi Soltanzi’s three-room mud house, one room is locked. It has no windows. When the door creaks open, the light shines on a row of photographs nailed high on the wall. There is no carpet on the floor and the dust blows, fogging the view of the pictures. Shau Bibi introduced the people in the photographs. On the left was her husband Shahpoor and her son Qader, both executed in prison in Iran 11 years ago. Her oldest son Kader died in battle against the Soviets. Her son Nader was captured by the Iranians and has left her with a huge opium debt. Her other son Wahid is a drug addict on the streets of Iran.

She did not put up pictures of her daughters, Bibi Shah and Gulaby, because it’s not proper to display women’s photos in Ghorian. But she brought her younger daughter Bibi Shah’s photo in a clear plastic bag with a death certificate from the local hospital. Bibi Shah was pronounced dead two years ago in her mother’s home from severe burns on her body. She poured cooking gas on herself and lit a match. The 17-year-old lived for two months moaning from her pains before she died.

Health officials said there are two cases a week at Ghorian hospital of girls dousing themselves on fire with cooking gas. Only a few live.

Bibi Shah’s husband was killed carting opium on the border. Her two brothers-in-law both wanted to marry her, according to tradition, but she refused. The in-laws accused her of wanting to remarry for a dowry. Her mother says her in-laws beat her until they tore her eardrum and locked her up in the house. They would not let her family see her. She kept a knife under her pillow when she slept, afraid that her brothers-in-law would rape her. One day, Bibi Shah lost complete hope.

Her mother — left only with Gulaby, also a widow with two small sons — is losing her mind. She believes she is between 50 and 60 years old. As she sits on the floor weaving wool into yarn, she is not able to articulate a thought without changing subjects and time spans. Yet Shau Bibi is active and able to support the entire family.

Shau Bibi and Gulaby borrow 60 pence to buy four kilos of wool, then they weave it into yarn used for carpets. It takes them 10 days to finish the job. They sell the yarn for £1. They spend 15 pence a day on expenses which include their daily diet of onions, bread, and dried yogurt curds. They have egg soup if their hens lay eggs. Shau Bibi in her chador and only tattered pair of shoes, searches for thorn and hay in the desert every morning. She makes a few pence selling them to the shepherds to use for food and fuel.

Shau Bibi said as long as she can remember, her family transported opium. “We didn’t make much money in the old days. For a kilo the men took across the border, they got a sack of flour. Now the stakes are higher and so is the cost to your life,” she said. Her son Nader, 24, was a well-known dealer recognized for his ruthless behaviour. He sent the younger shepherds to the mountains and they died on the way. Shau Bibi wanted him to stop and convinced him to get engaged. The bride’s family demanded a £2,300 dowry. Nader made the dangerous trip to earn the dowry and pay off his debts. He was gone for three years when Shau Bibi received news that Iranians had caught him alive with three dead cohorts and three Kalashnikovs. Now she owed southern Afghan dealers and Ruhollah £4,600.

“They were Taliban and they came and took the carpets, the motorcycle, the prayer rugs and the land. Haji Ruhollah sent his cronies and left me with nothing. And they’re still coming,” she said, weaving and weeping.

Khan, the Herat governor, has announced that all opium debts are forgiven, but Shau Bibi’s debtors keep coming – some of the debtors are the police, she said.

The women do not keep track of time. They have no clock or calendar in the house. But neighbours tell them when it’s Friday, the Islamic holy day, and Shau Bibi grabs her chador to go to the cemetery. A 10-minute walk from her house are several grave sites, mounds of stones, with no identification. She squats in front of two of her dead children, Bibi Shah and Kader the freedom fighter, and howls for 15 minutes. She wipes her tears on her dust-covered clothes and walks swiftly into the desert in search of thorns.

Shau Bibi said she knows why the government will not imprison Ruhollah and Kader. “Everyone knows that these two terrorize and control Ghorian. Why do they not put them in jail?” she paused. The incoherent old woman suddenly became lucid. “Because they can’t. They have more money and power than Ismail Khan and Karzai. Or the government cannot survive without them and their money.”

Ghorian’s story shows why the British and Americans have their work cut out for them.


In a rare moment of bewilderment, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters on a visit to Kabul in September that he did not know how the United States would tackle Afghanistan’s demise into a drug state that provided funding to Coalition opponents. But critics say the Coalition is not concerned about drugs because US and British policy toward Afghanistan indirectly supports the drug trade.

A US State Department official said the double standard to get rid of the opium trade and support the warlords who perpetuate it at the same time weakens any counter-narcotics efforts. “Catching terrorists is job number one. It’s at odds with stopping the drug trade.” The official added that it’s hard for the Coalition to minimize the warlords’ power and their profits from narcotics.

Yet British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made a promise to contain the import of Afghan heroin. From April to June 2002, the British compensated farmers £200 an acre for eliminating their crops. Boxes of cash were flown into the eastern and southern part of the country and distributed to local authorities to hand out to farmers. Authorities ripped out the soil with their tools and tractors. About 4,500 acres of poppy harvest was destroyed. But many of the governors pocketed the money instead of giving it to the farmers and farmers continued to plant poppy, according to the Dutch-based Transnational Institute, which studies drugs in Afghanistan.

The British defend the feat as an early opportunity to take action against Afghan opium cultivation. Despo Micheals, spokeswoman from the Foreign Commonwealth Office, said, “The UK provided £21.25million — this was a sound investment to help remove drugs worth billions of pounds.”

The British also introduced a 10-year counter-narcotics strategy that includes law enforcement, alternative options for farmers and reduction of demand.

Afghan farmers are open to alternatives, said Tom Brown, a consultant with the non-profit Central Asian Development Group, which works with drug farmers. “The idea is to find new markets for new crops like okra, and sell it,” he said. “The benefits may be less than opium in the short-term but in the long-term, farmers understand that it’s for the best.” The agency has tripled cotton production in Helmand province, with the help of US and British money.

At the local level, new anti-drug laws have been passed. So far, the achievements of the new drug policy include a noticeable reduction in the southern poppy belt, according to Mirwais Yasini, director of Afghanistan’s anti-narcotics office. Karzai’s recent reshuffling of ministers and governors is also an effort to root out drug traders. But halting trafficking is the hardest challenge because its dynamics and criminal network are unknown to authorities, said Adam Bouloukos, deputy representative of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. It’s nearly impossible to stop the problem from simply moving — more smugglers are now avoiding Iran and passing through the Central Asian country of Tajikistan because of its lax security.

Iran tackles the low-level war on its border head on. It has lost at least 3,000 troops on the border fighting traffickers in the last 10 years. Iran recently placed 25 additional border patrols specially trained to rout out traffickers, in addition to the 100,000 troops already in place on the frontier. The traffickers say the troops shoot to kill. Iranian officials did not respond to numerous calls for comment.

The 925-kilometer frontier of Iran and Afghanistan is a two-hour drive from Ghorian town through minefields and dirt roads. Signs of modernization make it clear which nation dominates.

On the Afghan side, three sleepy-eyed guards came out of a bombed-out barrack. They eat bread and drink tea all day and sleep with the glow of a lantern as night falls. Each has a rifle in hand but they say they have no communication devices, no vehicle or binoculars. They have little power to fight armed traffickers.

The guards deny working together with smugglers and say that this route is watched too carefully by Iranians for traffickers to pass through. In the last two years, they have only caught five men carrying 10 kilos in a sack on their backs.

Two hundred yards away is the Iranian border post – a two-story building with armed guards standing on all four sides scouting the vast desert with binoculars. Beyond a large, bullet-holed, black stone and bushes of thorns is Iran and its paved roads and electricity poles. Parts of this border are divided by trenches and barbed wire. A wild wind howls, blowing debris from Iran to Afghanistan.

The Afghan guards said they had a row recently because the Iranians shot sheep at night for crossing the black stone – the border mark. Their orders are to shoot anything that moves past the foot-long rock. “We told them that the sheep don’t understand borders and they are people’s livelihoods,” said Khan Mohammed, one of the Afghan soldiers. “They say they have to follow orders. They stick to the law and are scared to do anything without their superiors’ orders.”

To establish contact with the Iranians, the Afghan guards went to the stone and shot two bullets in the air. One guard took off his army fatigue and twirled it around above his head. “If they get permission from their superiors, they come out in their truck. If not, we go back.” An Iranian guard emerged on the roof with binoculars and waved the Afghans away.


It’s a dangerous life for traffickers, as retired smuggler Nasim Siah knows. About seven years ago, Siah used to load up 10 men, each armed with a Kalashnikov, in his Nissan truck and head for the Iranian mountains carrying massive kilos of opium. From 21 of his closest trafficking allies in Ghorian, he is the only who is free and alive.

Ghorian residents say the Siah brothers quit trafficking opium because they were losing money. Now they rob jewellery stores and money exchange shops. Siah discussed the smuggling business like a scientist eager to show off the latest invention. Siah’s “Great Adventures,” as he put it, into the drug business began with his desire for a woman. Siah, 32, wanted to marry a second wife. The father of the girl asked for a £7,000 dowry, and the opium trade was the fastest way to get it.

Siah borrowed 1,500 kilos of opium from farmers in the south and took it to Iran. In two instances, other traffickers shot at them from afar and Siah turned onto unmarked trails to lose the gunmen. Many traffickers die in battles with other smugglers wanting to steal their dope, arms or money. Siah’s crew reached the mountain where the opium was to be unloaded, buried it underground and hid their vehicle behind trees. It took 30 days before their Iranian contact appeared at the bottom of the mountain.

Iranian shepherds deliver messages between Afghan vendors and Iranian buyers and in return, take a cut of opium from both sides. The same shepherds serve as informants to the Iranian government.

Siah considers himself lucky. He made it back to present the £7,000 to the girl’s father. His son, Sherzad, from that marriage sat next to his father proudly listening to how Siah used to traffic drugs. “I know more than a dozen girls sold to farmers in the south for opium debts and more than a thousand women who have been widowed,” Siah said.


Under a searing July sun, 3,000 women gathered at the girls’ high school in Ghorian, where the district mayor gave a fiery speech on how they as mothers are responsible for keeping their sons and husbands out of the opium trade. Two girls, one dressed as a man, performed a skit about a mother who convinces her son to give up smuggling and addiction. Some of the women cried as they silently watched, tears of anguish and hope.

For Aziza, the bartered child bride, the hope may be dim.

Sufi, Aziza’s husband, says he does not want to force Aziza to come with him but she will eventually have to agree. “In our traditions, girls do not have the right to decide who they marry. It’s the father’s right and her father promised her to me. I will be patient but I am her husband.”

She hunched next to me with her baby sister Karima in her arms and pleaded in my ear, “Please don’t let him take me.”

Sufi did not look at her. He stared at his glass of tea and said he wants Aziza to become his first wife’s friend. “My wife is ill and needs help around the house. I expect this girl to help her but she is too unruly and rebellious right now. She needs to be trained and we hope in time, she will change.”

“He wants me to become his slave,” she whispered.

The next morning, the Ghorian police questioned Sufi on smuggling charges but they let him go after a two-hour interrogation. Khan’s government has banned bartering girls for opium debts but the couple has already been married under Islamic law, making it nearly impossible for an annulment under tribal values.

I left Ghorian shortly after. I heard that Aziza came looking for me a week later. She had walked an hour barefoot against the wind seeking a saviour.

“He has left but he swore to come back and take me. Can she make him go away. Please tell her to make him leave me alone,” Aziza told my hosts.

I was long gone.

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