QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) – Ragged men with sickly yellowed faces tread through trash and wastewater to the junkie slum in Quetta’s main drain – a pit of filth and disease where heroin from nearby Afghanistan sells like candy.

They call it home, this scene from hell in the southwestern Pakistan city of Quetta. For a dollar they can smoke away their troubles. If they die, the pushers will pay other addicts to dump the bodies by the road.

Tentacles of the booming narcotics trade reach from Afghanistan, 2½ hours’ drive away, into Quetta’s back streets where the drug is smoked or injected, and into the pockets of corrupt officials and police.

About 400 addicts live in hovels that line the wide, open drain. Hundreds of others visit daily, climbing in under a bridge near an entrance to the city’s vast military garrison with its smart army barracks and tended lawns.

Among them are listless, barefoot boys, gray-bearded men and even government officials who come for a fix before and after work. They huddle around charcoal burners and candles placed on upturned bricks, smoking hashish and brown heroin that bubbles and melts on tin foil before they inhale its fumes.

“It’s easier for us to get heroin than it is to quit,” said Jan Bibi, looking haggard beyond her 40 years as she stares from beneath a grubby shawl. Her brother introduced her to the drug to “relax” her after her husband beat her.

Her son, Dad Mohammed, 18, was already an addict. He started at age 11.

“Nobody accepts us in society. Everybody hates us. They abuse us in the street,” he said, his hands trembling eight hours after his last 70-rupee ($1.15) smoke.

Aftab Ali works for a charity, the Milo Shahid Trust, which runs detoxification and rehab programs. He sees new faces at the slum each time he visits the drain, twice a week – people from Quetta, refugees from Afghanistan, addicts from other parts of Pakistan who come for the cheap and plentiful drugs.

According to dated and imprecise statistics, the nation of 160 million people has half a million heroin users.

Ali said there are at least 5,000-6,000 addicts at about a dozen hangouts around Quetta.

But he added that the population is transient, so it’s unclear if numbers are increasing because of the huge output of drugs from Afghanistan, the world’s top opium producer. Last year it grew enough opium to refine 450 tons of heroin, much of it trafficked to Europe, and to a lesser extent, North America.

Addicts at the drain mostly smoke rather than inject, which is forbidden by the half dozen dealers who supply the heroin. “They’re thinking of their business. If addicts inject, they will die and sales will go down,” said Ali.

Nevertheless, each month at least two or three addicts die from disease or overdoses, rising to four or five during winter, he said. Dealers pay other addicts in heroin to haul the dead to a roadside to be collected by charity workers.

“Police don’t come inside the drain, as they get weeklies and monthlies (bribes) from the dealers,” said 30-year-old addict Saifullah, who like many addicts uses one name.

“If they try and arrest us outside, we have knives to cut our bodies or will bash our heads with stones. If we bleed, they’ll be afraid and leave us alone.”

Superintendent Qazi Abdul Wahid said police do pursue traffickers, but conceded that low salaries breed corruption. A policeman earns $65 to $83 a month, a superintendent $420.

A sad camaraderie exists among the addicts, who support themselves by begging and petty crime. They pick the lice from each other’s matted hair in the shacks they share, the grimy brick walls sometimes decorated with fraying posters of Indian movie stars.

Many complain they can’t afford to quit – a two-month rehab program at the Shahid Trust costs $65. But they get little public sympathy. “If we just shot three or four of these guys, then they would quit,” said Gul Khan, an excise department official.

Asamatullah, 37, who smokes eight to 10 times a day, runs what could pass for a convenience store in the drain, peddling hashish, heroin, sedatives and drug paraphernalia, including cigarettes, tin foil and string for wicks.

His youngest customer is 9.

“I’m ready to sacrifice this life if the police want to shoot me,” Asamatullah said, slurring his words and struggling to keep his drooping eyes open as clients smoked nearby and the stinking drain gurgled past.

“I’m ready to become a lesson for other drug addicts … I’ve already lost my life.”

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