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FAIZABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Jam Bigum, a drug addict in Afghanistan's impoverished northern province of Badakhshan, feeds her three-month-old son opium three times a day to keep him quiet.
"The baby got addicted in my womb. He will die of crying if I don't give him opium. When I give him opium he becomes quiet and sleeps," she said. The infant had an empty gaze and appeared drowsy throughout the interview.
Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer and exporter but most people tend to forget that it is also a huge narcotics consumer. A 2005 survey estimated that there are some 920,000 drug users in a country of 26 million.
For a long time, people living in remote parts of Afghanistan have had a casual attitude towards opium, using it as a panacea for just about anything due to a lack of medicines. Like Bigum's baby, they are fed opium so their mothers can work.
But such lifelong addiction exacts a tremendous strain, sapping people of their energy to work, slowly undermining their health as well as the general well-being of their family.
"Opium covers up the symptoms of tuberculosis, like cough and pain, and the condition worsens. This is a problem because the person is infectious," said a doctor in Badakhshan who helps drug addicts. He asked to have his name withheld.
"Addicts do anything to feed their addiction, they even sell their property. They lose everything."
For Naik Bakhat, a 35-year-old mother of four, her life and her destiny seem to revolve around her addiction.
"It helps relieve the pain, we are so poor," said Bakhat, who sells wild herbs to feed her addiction. "We spend $200 a month on opium. We even sold our land to buy opium. Now we have nothing. Almost all our income is spent on opium."
In recent years, the Afghan government has rolled out plans to help wean addicts off opium and eradicate poppy fields.
It is under pressure from the international community to stop poppy cultivation. Afghanistan is the source of most of the world's supply of opium, from which heroin is derived.
The bulk of Afghanistan's poppy production comes from the south, an area where Taliban insurgents wield considerable influence and over which Kabul has only partial control. Security sources say the Taliban takes a 10 percent share of poppy yields.
Christine Oguz, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, says the opium trade in the south is flourishing due to a mix of powerful landowners, organized criminal networks, corrupt officials and a lack of law and order.
"They (the authorities) have to really focus on the laboratories because that is where you have the most value added. They are mainly in the border areas with Pakistan and some are mobile. It's like a simple distillery. You can even have it on a truck," she said.
The fight against drugs appears more successful in the north, in places such as Badakhshan, where anti-drug officers have been actively eradicating poppy fields for more than a year.
"More than 100 farmers have been jailed so far this year, they are locked up for a few days to a week. They are released only after they promise not to plant poppies again," said an anti-drug expert, who asked for his name to be withheld.
Experts are now employing more sophisticated technology, such as satellite imaging, to search for poppy fields.
But the success at curbing opium cultivation in the north might be short-lived as farmers can easily return to planting poppies, which are up to 10 times more lucrative than other crops.
This might happen sooner rather than later due to a severe winter that killed off wheat crops and hurt farmers' ability to provide for their families, Oguz said.
"People really need food in Badakhshan. It is a very food insecure place. If you can't persuade the donor community to give more aid to Badakhshan, and I am talking of immediate short-term needs and long term development plans, they will definitely go back to opium cultivation."
Although opium prices have come down because of over-production, Oguz said farmers could still grow and stockpile it as it can be kept for up to 20 years without going bad.
Drug abuse in the cities has shot up, fueled largely by the return of Afghan refugees many of whom were forcibly deported from neighboring Iran and Pakistan in recent years.
"They get a culture shock. They come back and they have no work. They lose their livelihood. Imagine the stress," said Mohammad Raza of the Health Protection and Research Organization in Kabul.
Kabul's population was half a million in 2001. It has since ballooned to some 4.2 million. Unemployment is at least 40 percent.
"There is very little knowledge of drug abuse. Drug dealers will go to them and say this is good; the only thing to relieve psychological pain is drugs," Raza said, adding that heroin and tranquilizers were especially popular in the cities.
Increasing numbers of addicts are injecting rather than smoking opium, a habit NGOs say Afghan returnees brought back from abroad. The sharing of needles is causing health problems.
A 2005 survey of 464 injecting drug users (IDU) in Kabul found three percent were HIV positive, while 36.6 percent were hepatitis C carriers and six percent were hepatitis B carriers.
"There are concerns HIV will get into the general population as a lot of drug users have wives and children and there is unprotected sex," Raza said.
NGOs are distributing clean needles and operating halfway houses to help addicts kick the habit and the government is trying to legalize methadone to help wean addicts off hard drugs.
However, everyone agrees that the road ahead can only get harder as more refugees return.
"We don't have enough resources, people don't realize that this is a national problem," said Tariq Suliman of the Nejat Centre in Kabul, the country's oldest drug rehabilitation centre.
Editing by Megan Goldin