New Internationalist

The Opium Bank

Issue 417

Though drug trafficking is increasing insecurity in Afghanistan and involves some pretty unsavoury characters at its upper echelons, the opium poppy remains, in some respects, the perfect cash crop. Opium has other uses, as Zuhra Bahman discovered when she met Belqees, an enterprising village woman in the north of the country.

Massoud Hussaini / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN www.ainaphoto.org
Massoud Hussaini / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN www.ainaphoto.org

She is a plump 28-year-old who, unlike other women in her village, wears her scarf tied around her head instead of flowing around and behind her. I first met Belqees about 10 years ago in a village near Balkh in Northern Afghanistan.

She was wearing a gold ‘set’ made up of a ring, a necklace and a pair of earrings. Belqees kept a keen eye on the price of gold and sold her set whenever the prices went up, making a small profit which she used to buy another bigger and better set.

When I met her again in the summer of 2008 her gold set was very small and plain. I assumed she had made a loss. I asked her about the set. She laughed and took me into the garden – a huge square full of vegetable plants and trees surrounded by three-metre-high walls. She pointed to one side of the garden and told me that her investment was buried there.

Belqees had bought two barrels of opium when the Government started to crack down on poppy farmers. Her brother was one of the poppy growers affected and, with the money she got from selling her latest gold set, she bought his last load of opium before he switched to growing cotton.

She put the opium into two big blue barrels and buried them deep in the ground. This happened in 2005. In 2007 she took one barrel out and sold half of its contents to a smuggler friend of her brother’s. She was astonished to find that the opium had grown five times in value.

She used the profit to become the silent partner in a business venture with her nephew, selling foodstuffs from a small kiosk. As a woman she could not appear in her shop, but she does all the behind-the-scenes work. She calculates profit and loss and makes all major business decisions – the most recent was to invest in a freezer and sell ice. She is wary of selling the rest of her opium, which she claims has grown eight times in value.

Belqees is very proud of her business skills and plans to buy a better set of gold next year from the profit she has made from the shop. Her wealth as a woman and her increasing years has made it almost impossible for her to get a suitable husband, however. Those who turn up these days to ask for her hand are almost always already married and wanting a second wife. One of these suitors is the man she sold her opium to.

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