Stigma keep­ing drug ad­dicts quiet in Gaza

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

GAZA CITY: Af­ter Umm Mazen found her hus­band shiv­er­ing in his bed and com­plain­ing of a mi­graine, he con­fessed he was ad­dicted to painkillers and could no longer pro­vide for the fam­ily. In the Gaza Strip, the tiny Pales­tinian ter­ri­tory sand­wiched be­tween Is­rael, Egypt and the Mediter­ranean and rav­aged by three wars in a decade, drug abuse is of­ten a hid­den prob­lem. While no reli­able sta­tis­tics are avail­able, ex­perts and med­i­cal sup­port groups es­ti­mate there are tens of thou­sands of drug users in Gaza.

Young men are among those most af­fected in a ter­ri­tory suf­fer­ing 45 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment, ris­ing to more than 60 per­cent among the youth. Nar­cotics such as cannabis are sold il­le­gally in the en­clave of some two mil­lion peo­ple, but many of the most se­ri­ous ad­dicts are hooked on il­lic­itly bought pre­scrip­tion medicines. Gaza’s Is­lamist rulers Ha­mas, who have ruled the Strip for a decade and take a firm line on drugs, launched a fresh crack­down this year.

Ha­mas mil­i­tary courts have sen­tenced four Pales­tini­ans to death for drug smug­gling, the first such pun­ish­ments since Ha­mas seized the Strip in 2007. Raids have also un­cov­ered record hauls of drugs, par­tic­u­larly Tra­madol - a pow­er­ful opi­ate­based painkiller that is widely avail­able. Umm Mazen, a 32-year-old mother of three who re­fused to give her full name for fear of con­se­quences in Gaza’s con­ser­va­tive so­ci­ety, said the drug nearly ruined her life. Fear­ing a scan­dal, her hus­band re­fused hos­pi­tal treatment. “I warned his fam­ily and I even threat­ened to re­port it to the Ha­mas po­lice,” she told AFP.

Iyad Al-Bozum, spokesman for the Ha­mas-run in­te­rior min­istry, told AFP there was an “or­ga­nized plan to smug­gle large quan­ti­ties of drugs into Gaza,” say­ing deal­ers were tar­get­ing young peo­ple. While some drugs are smug­gled through the Is­raeli bor­der, most en­ter from Gaza’s south­ern bor­der with Egypt, the min­istry said. The Gaza Strip has been block­aded for more than a decade by Is­rael, which has fought three wars with Ha­mas since 2008.

The Rafah cross­ing with Egypt, the only en­trance to the ter­ri­tory not con­trolled by Is­rael, has been al­most com­pletely closed since the mil­i­tary ousted Egypt’s Is­lamist pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Morsi in 2013. Gaza has al­most no in­dus­try and suf­fers from a chronic lack of wa­ter and fuel. In­ter­viewed at a Ha­mas prison where he is serv­ing seven years for drug deal­ing, a traf­ficker ar­rested in 2013 said he had turned to sell­ing nar­cotics to make ends meet and pay for his own ad­dic­tion.

“It was easy to sell them - lots of peo­ple were us­ing them be­cause of un­em­ploy­ment and the bad sit­u­a­tion in Gaza,” he said in an in­ter­view mon­i­tored by prison guards.

Egyp­tian forces have since de­stroyed hun­dreds of cross­bor­der tun­nels and Ha­mas has launched a crack­down against deal­ers, but drugs have con­tin­ued to flow into the ter­ri­tory. In Jan­uary Ha­mas au­thor­i­ties an­nounced they had seized as many drugs in one month as in the whole of 2016, with a street value of around $2 mil­lion. They seized 1,250 pack­ets of cannabis and 400,000 Tra­madol pills in Jan­uary alone, the in­te­rior min­istry said.

As a re­sult of the crack­down, the price of a 10-pill pack of Tra­madol is said to have dou­bled in two years to $120. In a ter­ri­tory where more than two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion rely on hu­man­i­tar­ian aid, it is of­ten the in­abil­ity to pay that forces peo­ple to seek re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, said Sami Aweida from the Gaza Com­mu­nity Men­tal Health Pro­gram. Gaza has no cen­ter ded­i­cated to treat­ing drug ad­dicts, mak­ing reli­able fig­ures on abuse all but im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain. Ad­dicts who want to get clean of­ten avoid spe­cial­ists, Aweida said. “Peo­ple pre­fer to do it dis­creetly through a lib­eral doc­tor.” Umm Mazen did con­vince her hus­band to seek treatment, but mainly for eco­nomic rea­sons. “He could not af­ford (Tra­madol) be­cause of the high prices,”she said. — AFP

GAZA: A mem­ber of the Ha­mas se­cu­rity forces sets fire to a pile of con­fis­cated bars of hashish and anal­gesic pills, seized since the begin­ning of the year in Gaza City, on May 11, 2017. —AFP

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