‘Capsulisation’– Iraqis’ way to escape bitter reality
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.