PHILLIP ROBERTSON. Selected Stories.

January 2002, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan Villagers and farmers come out to greet a visitor to an opium market. Later, I returned with a local police officer who put them at ease.
Photo: Phillip Robertson

Jan. 24, 2002 | JALALABAD, Afghanistan

Aman, as a joke, stuck it to the glass of our Land Cruiser window, so opium rode back into Jalalabad with a view. Then I got nervous that we would get busted and mashed it between the pages of my notebook. On Jan. 16, the Hamid Karzai government issued an order banning the sale and production of opium, but the growers have yet to hear of it.

Getting there was easy. A friend knew where the market was and so we woke up early, knocked back some instant coffee and piled into the decrepit Land Cruiser that I'd hired more or less at a bargain rate. The car worried me; it had a creepy accelerator problem that involved a length of wire that Qasim would pull every so often to keep the engine running. If we stopped longer than 15 minutes, Qasim would hop out and make an adjustment. The car is on its last legs. That's what the pair of vise grips between the driver and passenger seats means. A couple of days until it's on the side of the road, burning out of control. It was 9 in the morning on Saturday, and since we couldn't wait to arrange reliable transport, we got in and went tear-assing down the road toward our village. Tear- assing is how Afghans drive. The best way to deal with it is to avoid looking out the window at the oncoming traffic. Usually this consists of a random mix of donkeys, motor rickshaws, passenger trucks, vegetable carts and pickups full of armed men. On Friday, I saw a Toyota Corolla going in the other direction carrying half a flock of sheep. They swayed and lurched, probably not really digging it, and the animals were packed so tightly, forming an ubersheep, that the Afghans in my car said they couldn't figure out what life form was being hauled down the road.

When Aman got out at the Jalalabad city security checkpoint, writing our names down in the ledger, it crossed my mind that we had left the area directly under the control of the Hajii Kadir provincial government and moved into a more open situation. But it didn't feel tense, the sun was out and the fighters seemed relaxed and relatively efficient at checking each car for weapons and smuggled al-Qaida types. This is something of a miracle, and soon we had turned off the main road onto the rutted track and clouds of dust that mark the Afghan landscape. Another several hours of high-speed bouncing and careening and we came to a cluster of green, carefully irrigated fields and mud-brick walls.

A sign advertising the presence of the Muslim Youth sits right next to a bigger sign that reads, "The Use of Illicit Drugs is the Greatest Threat to Humanity." The sign should read instead, "Where can I score?" The opium market is 300 meters down the road, and operates six days week, completely out in the open. When we pulled into the village, we got out of the car and walked over to the first line of stores in the bazaar. It's a long, low building, each store occupying a wooden cell about 8 feet across and 15 feet deep. According to Afghan custom, the floor is carpeted and men sit on cushions, drinking tea, waiting for business. Opium sellers sit in their stores with little except a scale and a few plastic bags, but in this part of the market, other products are sold as well. Lamb, cookies, batteries, small knives: an Afghan Wal-Mart where each seller has a section of the entire store. Bazaaris make displays of their wares and call out to passersby to buy this or that, sometimes asking them in for tea. When we walked over to the first dealer, he was so surprised to see us that he didn't have time to close the wooden slats and retreat to safer ground. Then, by way of introduction, Aman leaned down and opened the seller's plastic bag for inspection. The man with the stuff, a bearded old gentleman wearing a skullcap, was inclined to be gracious, so he just stood and watched me bend down to the sack and peer closely at a substantial part of Afghanistan's recent history. At first what seemed like a solid mass of melted Halloween candy soon became a cluster of disk shaped biscuits that had fused together under their own weight. A sticky, oily aggregate. I explained to the seller through Aman that we weren't here to get anyone in trouble, just to have a look around. For obvious reasons, foreigners are not welcome in the opium market.

Aman led me around a corner, to an interior courtyard of stores and straight into a crowd of several hundred agitated men. They closed in, and so I gave them the same hardly believable explanation about not revealing the name of their village, that the visit wasn't going to be a bust-the-Afghans junket, etc. A mood shift was coming on. The market had closed so fast, it seemed that they must have practiced it in a drill. Fifty pairs of shutters slammed, and men of the stores were quickly joining their colleagues in the crowd. This made me want to split, since nobody was going to talk, and our presence was just making them angry and nervous. So, when Aman finally said, "It's time to go," we went in a hurry, back to the car waiting on the main street. Here it comes, I thought, one angry shopkeeper is going to pull out his rifle and let us have it.

An early story in the road series, the Opium Men was originally published in I was able to learn from poppy farmers some of the details of the drug trade in Afghanistan. As I was reporting the piece, a line of cars from Pakistan delivered buyers to the market. The Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan is where a great deal of the opium is refined into heroin. Ultimately, Pakistani middlemen export the heroin to markets in Europe and the United States.

LEAD IMAGE: November, 2001, Taloqan, Afghanistan. An old fortune teller in the market making a prediction.
Photo: Phillip Robertson