By Amir Khan Roshan
Opium is an addictive substance that has, for centuries, being used for recreational and ‘medicinal’ purposes. While the open use of Opium has gone down over the last few decades due to criminalization, there are still pockets of population using the drug, especially in far flung areas, where the rule of law is lax.
One such region is Upper Ishkoman Valley, located in the Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan, where a small, but significant, number of people continue to use the drug. Opium is not grown locally in the region. How, then, does the drug reach the area?
The local narrative is that migrants from Afghanistan introduced the drug in the region in the early 1950s. The use of the drug gradually spread among the locals. Since then, opium is being smuggled to the valley from different parts of the region, while the law-enforcement officials either do not pay attention or look the other way.
The purpose of using the drug, mainly, was recreation, but locals believe that the drug has medicinal value also; it numbs the nerves and is, thus, used as a ‘painkiller’, especially because the region lacks health facilities.
Being an addictive drug, the need for consumption of Opium continues to grow, often forcing the users to spend their hard-earned and scarce resources on purchase of the drug. There are scores of individuals in the valley who have had to sell even their lands to be able to afford the ‘recreation’.
The government has tried to ‘ban’ the drug, but with poor law enforcement and lack of political will, the scourge continued to grow for a long period of time, plaguing families after families, quashing dreams and destroying lives. The supply lines remained active, and the poison continued to flow.
Sensing the dire situation, the local community organizations and leaders tried to control the situation through different interventions.
One such effort was led by Mr. Hasan Riza, a former President of the Ismaili Local Council for Immit. In 1999 the Ismaili Council, in collaboration with the Aga Khan Social Welfare Board, and with the support of local political leader Mr. Bashir Ahmad, for the very first in the region’s history started arranging treatment camps with the aim and hope of eradicating Opium from the region.
This was pioneering work, which caused a paradigm shift in the region.
Later, in 2014-16, the competent and cog in a wheel young social activist named Sher Afzal and his team based out of Islamabad and Karachi started working on the issue.
The continued and sustained efforts, eventually, saw success, as most users gave up the drug.
All these activists and organizations played a brilliant role in controlling the drug, enabling many families to spend their resources on more pressing needs, like health and education. The success may not have been possible without the intervention of multiple organizations. It goes without saying that a hundred percent rehabilitation is almost impossible, and a few hardcore addicts may still be using the drug, but the awareness-raising and the treatment efforts have controlled the drug abuse in a big way.
Efforts to eradicate the drug are still underway. Supported by AKSWB and Social Economic Development Program (SEDP), the Ismaili Local Council has again started the treatment camps to help the remaining users escape the trap.
Tailpiece: It is disappointing, nevertheless, to say that the role of the government departments and agencies in the rehabilitation and recovery process has been minimal. There are reports that smuggling of the drug still takes place, which raises a question mark on the performance of the police and Anti-Narcotics Force.
It is hoped that while the local community leaders and organizations are working on the rehabilitation program, the government can at least put an end to the supply.