KABUL, Afghanistan — Watching a drug addict going cold turkey in a rehabilitation center is hard. When that drug addict is 3 years old, it is heartbreaking.
But this is the shocking reality for some children in Afghanistan — an addiction that is passed on through birth and breastfeeding, or becoming dependent from second-hand smoke, often from their parents.
The Sanga Amaj Center in Kabul is one of just 40 drug treatment centers in the whole of Afghanistan. Just 40 centers for a population of more than 28 million, one million of which are believed to be addicted, according to the United Nations.
At the center, the U.S. representatives of the State Department’s anti-narcotics program — which funds 30 of these centers — give out gifts donated from U.S. schoolchildren. The children start to smile, smiles that hide the suffering for a while. Just long enough to trade presents with each other until everyone’s happy with the toy or teddy bear they’ve received.
Mothers and children are treated together at the center in a 45-day course to break the habit before they return to their family – and unfortunately, sometimes back to easy access to opium and often back to an addicted husband. Doctors say they wish they could keep them for longer but there are others waiting to get in.
A 35-year-old mother at the center says she unwittingly passed her addiction on to her 3-year-old daughter.
She is now eight months pregnant and says she came to the center because she was worried her next child could be addicted from birth. Like most women in the center, she says she started smoking or eating opium because her husband did.
“I was breast-feeding her so she got used to it,” she says with her daughter on her lap. “When I stopped giving her milk she was not well, her eyes became red and she was crying.”
She then gave her opium tea to soothe her. She says she had no idea it was addictive. Her daughter stares vacantly, barely moving.
Doctors say some of the mothers use opium as a painkiller for themselves and their children because they have no medicine and no other choice.
Dr. Homa Mansory has worked at the clinic for a year and a half and says it still upsets her to see children addicted. “These kind of treatment centers are vital, but we need more, especially for women and children,” she says.
Only two of Afghanistan's 40 centers are currently equipped to treat children. There are no proven clinical treatments developed for addicts this young as the problem was only recently discovered.
Meanwhile, the mother at the clinic proudly shows off her daughter who has some color back in her cheeks. One child has had a second chance. What is less certain is how many more may not.