Hekmat the smuggler and I sat among a group of men in a wood-walled hotel room in Ishkashim, a town in Badakh-shan province in the far north of Afghanistan.
The room’s balcony took in a breathtaking view of the river Amu, which shimmered in the sunlight beneath the Pamir mountains.
The Amu, also known as the Oxus, is the greatest river in central Asia, and for several hundred kilometres its upper reaches mark the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan to the north.
Hekmat had been a simple shop owner four years ago, but by exploiting the different prices paid for guns and drugs on either side of the river during the war he has become a respected and well-connected smuggler, and a wealthy man.
He kept his eyes half-closed, his lips tight and his answers short. How was business, I asked him.
”Good,” he said.
A silence hung in the room and the eyes of other men moved between Hekmat and me.
Before I could ask a second question he motioned towards the door. The competition among smugglers is fierce, and he didn’t want to discuss his business in front of the others.
We walked along the muddy street of the frontier town, between two-storey wooden buildings that looked like the set of a Hollywood western, and sat behind the police station on a patch of grassy mound that doubled as a rubbish dump.
”Are you Afghan intelligence?”
”Are you ISI?”
”Then why are you asking questions?”
I’m a journalist.
”Are you Arab?”
Yes, I said. I asked him again how business was.
”It’s good. Powder [heroin] is good.”
He calmly dismantled a small chunk of hashish into small balls which he sprinkled into a cigarette. As he drew on the joint, he relaxed and his short sentences began to get longer.
”We can do around 50 kilos per week, and it’s increasing,” he said. ”Two years ago we only smuggled heroin from the local area.”
Opium grown locally in Badakhshan was processed into heroin in labs in the area, then transported across the border to Tajikistan, he said. A kilo of heroin in Afghanistan was worth $2Â 500; in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, it was worth $5Â 000. ”In Moscow,” he said, ”they say that a kilo of heroin can make a hundred thousand dollars.”
Hekmat also receives drugs from other parts of Afghanistan: with the war being fought so hard in the south, smugglers from those regions were looking for new routes for their produce. However, even in this small border town in northern Afghanistan, he is feeling the pinch of the global economic crisis.
”Heroin was very good last year, but there is a crisis in the economy all over the world, so there is less demand coming from Russia and Europe.”
He drew deeply on his joint and held the smoke. When he breathed out his eyes disappeared momentarily behind a haze of hashish.
”The fortunes are to be made in weapons,” he said. ”Prices are doing very well. If you bring in $20Â 000-worth over a month, you can make a profit of $5Â 000.”
Kalashnikovs, I presumed.
”No, Kalashnikovs are very cheap. They cost only $400. Sometimes the Tajiks buy them from us and we get them from the Chinese. But it’s the Kalakov everyone wants.” Kalakov is the Afghan name for a new model of Kalashnikov that is lighter and uses smaller bullets.
”The Taliban like it because it pierces body armour.” Hekmat tapped at his chest to demonstrate and showed me a small bullet.
”They cost $700 in Dushanbe and we sell them for $1Â 100. There is an extra charge of $150 if you want the weapons delivered in the south.”
If he was paid the extra, Hekmat would arrange for them to be taken to Baghlan province north of Kabul, to be handed over to the southern Taliban.
”The prices are so high now, a year ago the same Kalokov sold for $700 in Afghanistan.”
So the war in the south is very good for you?
His eyes narrowed. ”Yes, war is very good for business.” So good, he said, that a Pashtun from the south had recently come all the way to Badakhshan on a $100,000 shopping spree. So good, that Ishkashim could support 30 smugglers like him.
What about the police, I asked.
”That’s no problem. They take their cut. The border police chief is a smuggler himself, and no one can do smuggling without his knowledge. They have their prices and take a cut: $20 on each weapon, $100 for a kilo of heroin and $1Â 000 for each thousand kilos of hashish.
”If they catch you and you haven’t paid them in advance you have to pay on the spot — but it will be a lot of money. If you are taken to prison and spend two days inside and everyone hears about it, it is very difficult to sort it out. Better to pay in advance.”
His cigarette was almost done and rain started falling, so we stood and walked back to the main street. In front of the police station we shook hands.
”I know you are asking all these questions because you are trying to start a business,” he said. ”It’s good money, you’ll make a lot, but one day you will lose it all.”
We looked out across the river, to the majestic Amu. It has always marked the border of empires. Many armies that once crossed it with zeal retreated a few years later, defeated by the tribespeople on the other side.
The smugglers bring the heroin, hashish and sometimes opium to the Afghan side of the river, where they are transported across the fast-flowing water in small rubber dinghies or wooden boats. On the return journey they carry weapons and gemstones from central Asia.
At the border post, two Tajik truck drivers stood beside their ancient Russian truck. We gave a water melon to the Afghan guard and were allowed to cross to the Tajik side and back again.
From Ishkashim a rough road leads 100km west towards the town of Barak. The track is swept away by landslides and waterfalls, and took most of a day for us to negotiate.
Along this stretch of road there were 10 heroin labs producing around 30 kilos of heroin every day, a smuggler had told me. Along the way I made out a patch of opium poppies waiting to be harvested.
The town itself had the feel of a medieval bazaar, with sacks of rice, spice and sugar spilling from the shops into the streets, where donkey carts competed with trucks and SUVs. In the town centre, men and children squatted around a Sufi cleric who sold bright yellow saffron rice from a big cauldron.
The air was cold and crisp even in the summer, and shops sold ice-cream made with snow from the nearby mountains.
Barak is a key staging post on the smugglers’ route: from here, heroin and opium go north and east to China and Tajikistan, and guns flow south and west towards the fighting. Not everything here is quite what it seems. The grocers double as gemstone dealers. The currency exchange is run by a heroin baron. The carpet and antique sellers will gladly sit you on the floor and unpack small purses filled with precious stones from central Asia and huge lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
I sat with another smuggler on a charpoi in a small hotel. A few men were watching a dogfight on a small TV. Smuggling, he said, was dangerous if you were not well connected.
”The former mujahideen warlords run the smuggling rings and if you are not connected with them they will crush you. You can sell few weapons, smuggle a couple of kilos [of heroin], but if you want to make more money they will catch you,” he said.
The guns and drugs trade left most people impoverished.
”It’s the foreigners who make all the money,” he said bitterly. ”The people are poor. They farm opium and get a few hundred dollars, while across the river, fortunes are made.” — guardian.co.uk