The Village of Widows

Women in Herat cope alone after losing husbands to drug trafficking.

The Village of Widows

Women in Herat cope alone after losing husbands to drug trafficking.

On the map the small village 75 kilometres south of Herat city is called Mir Ali, but locally it is known as the “village of widows”, because in its narrow, dusty streets there are few able-bodied men to be seen.

Instead, women struggle alone to provide for their families after their husbands, sons, or brothers have disappeared, either dead or in prison, because of the booming drugs trade with neighbouring Iran.

Eqlima is supporting a family of 14 single-handedly after losing her two sons in the drug wars. Her shoulder is paralysed because of the hard work she does, but she has no choice. She used to have a house and some land to grow vegetables on. “Now my children can’t even go to school,” she said. “They are busy all day helping me out.”

Massooma collects the grain that is left after fields are harvested. It is her only source of income.

“I sell some of it and keep some for my own use,” she said. “This is the only time of year I can make a little money. My only son died in a gun battle with drug traffickers in the village.”

Pointing to a young boy who was helping her, she said, “His father is an addict, and cannot provide for his wife and five sons.”

A staggering 800 families with no male head live in the village of widows, official figures show. Mir Ali, in Andraskan district, sits astride Highway 1, a major communications route. Iran is just over 100 km away, Turkmenistan about the same distance. Herat has become a main transit route for Afghanistan’s booming poppy industry.

Helmand, the Afghan province that alone produces nearly 60 per cent of the world’s raw material for heroin, is just a few hours away by car. The drugs come into Herat, where traffickers take them across the border to exchange for money or weapons. Sometimes they are caught or killed, and the women of Mir Ali lose another husband, son, or brother.

Andraskan is not unique; Ghoriyan and Kohsan districts are also affected.

Around 20 per cent of the families in Kohsan district do not have a male head and are barely surviving, said Belquis Karimyar, the head of the department of women’s affairs in Kohsan. The men have been killed in gang wars or caught by the Iranian police. Others get addicted to the drugs they smuggle and simply vanish.

“My father and grandfather have been in prison for seven years,” said Maryam, a teenage girl from Kohsan district, tears streaming down her face. “Now it is just my mother, my three younger sisters and me. Our only hope is our mother, but she is ill.”

Drugs provide a road out of poverty and unemployment for many Herati men, particularly those who cannot read or write.

“There is simply no other option to make enough money,” said Mohammad Nader, a young man involved in the drug trade.

But all too often the families end up worse off than before, as the example of Nabi shows.

He is sitting alone by the side of the main road in Mir Ali, begging for money from passing cars. Not so long ago, he said, his life was fine. With his five brothers he worked on the land, growing wheat and vegetables.

Then the brothers wanted to make more money and started smuggling opium across the border to Iran. At first, things went well.

“We made a lot of friends, and we were very well respected among the other drug dealers,” Nabi recalled.

Then their luck turned. Two of the brothers got arrested in Iran, and were hanged. A third brother was caught with 30 kilogrammes of opium paste crossing the border to Iran. “We don’t know where he is now,” said Nabi.

His other two brothers have also vanished, having become addicted to the drugs they were smuggling. Nabi, too, is an addict, which is why he has ended up a begging by the roadside.

Given easy access to drugs, combined with unemployment and disaffection, it is hardly surprising that addiction is on the rise in Herat province. According to official statistics, there are now approximately 50,000 addicts in Herat.

“Drug gangs use our young people,” said Noorrusalaam Khalili, a member of the provincial council. “This is a disgrace. We need government assistance and help from international organisations to deal with this. We need to modernise our agricultural system and we need to give our young men employment.”

Ghulam Hussain runs a shop in Mir Ali that has become a hangout for the men and boys who have not yet been killed or arrested. Hussain knows them all, and their stories. He can read the desperation on their faces.

“They have no income, so they go to Helmand or Farah to get drugs,” he said. “They use the drugs themselves, as well as smuggling it to Herat city and other places.”

Qasem is just back from Herat city, where he delivered opium to his boss. “Lots of young boys in this district are doing the same as I am. We have to. There is no other work for us. Our families’ income depends on this business,” he said.

Elsewhere in the village of widows, Habib lives with his grandmother. She has to tell their story, as Habib no longer speaks. He was severely affected by the death of his father in a gunfight between two rival drug gangs. Habib’s mother remarried and moved away.

“Now Habib and I are all alone,” said the old woman.

Ishaq Quraishi is an IWPR trainee in Herat.
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