‘Capsulisation’– Iraqis’ way to escape bitter reality

Sunday 05/06/2016
Iraqis receive drugs at the Bahrka camp, 10km west of Erbil in the autonomous Kurdistan region.

Baghdad - Ali’s hands shook exten­sively and his blank eyes were fixed on his hands as he spoke with broken words about his addiction.

Ali was kidnapped and tortured by armed militias in 2007 at the height of sectarian violence in Iraq. After his release in return for ransom, he resorted to “capsulisa­tion”, the popular word used to de­scribe the abuse of anti-depressives — or capsules — to overcome the “nightmare” he has gone through.

“I was tortured in such a savage way that I could no longer sleep. I was having constant bad dreams and nightmares because of the sufferings I had experienced and the images of torture of other de­tainees who were held with me. It made me use tranquillisers and drink alcohol,” Ali, 25, said on con­dition he only be identified by his first name.

Ali fears his future is lost. He says he feels incapable of surviving without pills and alcohol, which have caused him kidney problems and amnesia. “In my case, the treatment is very long and hard, which I cannot take… I simply don’t have the strength,” he said.

In Iraq, stories such as Ali’s are becoming common. Substance abuse is one of the many conse­quences of the country’s decades-long political, security and eco­nomic problems.

Addicts often start with anti-depressives and tranquillisers generally used to treat epilepsy, schizophrenia and other mental disorders.

“There are many medications that are used as an alternative to the real drugs,” pharmacist Moha Saeb said. “The most common is Valium 10 mg, the red or ‘bloody’ capsules manufactured in Iran, and drugs for the treatment of Parkin­son’s disease in addition to sleep­ing pills and tranquillisers contain­ing codeine, which when taken in large doses leads to hallucination and loss of memory.”

“Users also resort to codeine-rich fluids, such as cough syrups, while some grind the capsules and inhale the powder,” Saeb added.

Addiction has forced Ahmad, 18, to drop out of school as he lost the ability to concentrate and his in­terest in education. He spends his time in cafés and on the street in Baghdad’s al-Batawin neighbour­hood, where pills are easily ob­tained from dealers turning a quick profit from the trade.

“In the beginning, I was not aware that I would end up in such a miserable state. I missed out on education and was repudiated by my family, except my mother who is suffering because of my addic­tion,” said Ahmad.

His ordeal with “capsulisation” started when he lost the girl he loved in an explosion. “A friend gave me a couple of hallucinating pills to help me overcome my suf­fering,” Ahmad said. “Since then, it has been my way to escape real­ity.”

Trading in sleeping pills, pain­killers and tranquillisers is a wide­spread and lucrative business across Iraq since 2003 as the coun­try has been gripped by violence, lawlessness and rampant corrup­tion. This, compounded with pov­erty, unemployment and a deterio­rating economy, led to emotional trauma across much of the popu­lace, a perfect environment to en­courage drug use.

Smugglers were quick to take advantage of porous post-conflict borders to transport drugs from production centres such as Afghan­istan and Iran and sell them on the black market at prices affordable even for the poor. One packet of Va­lium is available for less than 1,000 dinars (49 US cents).

“Trading in medicines has be­come a source of income for many Iraqis who would otherwise be without a livelihood. They take advantage of the youth and adoles­cents who are mainly poor, unem­ployed and going through difficult times,” said Abu Reda, owner of a café in al-Batawin, which has be­come a hub for users and dealers.

“It is not only here but all low-income areas have become known markets for the ‘capsules’. Sellers are present everywhere… in the street, in cafés and in souks,” add­ed Abu Reda, who asked to be iden­tified by his nickname.

While “capsulisation” is grow­ing, it is hard to put exact figures on how prevalent the issue has become. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime is implementing a joint programme — currently suspended due to the precarious security situ­ation — with the World Health Or­ganisation and the Iraqi Ministry of Health to improve treatment but a lack of data has been a major issue for the project.

Ibtisam Mousawi, a psychology professor at Baghdad’s Al-Mustan­siriya University, said “document­ed data” from social workers in­dicate widespread abuse of drugs among teenagers and young adults.

“At this age people are normally more vulnerable, very sensitive and less stable psychologically. They want to experience excite­ment and pleasure which they can­not get in a difficult situation such as in Iraq,” Mousawi said.

With limited help available and only one psychiatric hospital in Baghdad, addicts are mostly left without assistance or in the care of family and friends, she added.