Heroin epidemic follows fighting in Turkish city

When a tearful mother-of-six told me that she had applied to the local prosecutor to either get her son arrested or put into a hospital for his heroin addiction, her neighbours warned me that the drug dealers were just across the narrow street in the ancient Sur district of Diyarbakır, the biggest city in Turkey’s Southeast.

Ushering me across the street, the neighbours changed the subject to talk about prayer times as we passed three men wearing expensive clothes before locking ourselves behind the heavy steel doors of an old house built in the traditional style of the historic neighbourhood.

A short while later, the woman’s son entered the house. Looking down at the handmade carpets, Naif Pamuk asked his mother for the pills he hopes will help him stop taking heroin.

His addiction began, 32-year-old Pamuk said, when the Sur district was besieged for more than three months from December 2015, when Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) separatist militants took over the area and declared it an autonomous zone. The Turkish army responded with artillery fire and sent in tanks and troops to crush the revolt.

His friends moved out of the area but, grief-stricken over the death of his brother, he remained.

“Our sorrow was immense and we were left on our own starving for a week," Pamuk said. "Syrians moved in at that time and they introduced me and my new friends to heroin in rolled up cigarettes at first. I would never have imagined myself doing heroin until the war started.”

While the conflict between the PKK and Turkish security forces has dragged on for more than 30 years, it had hitherto taken place mostly in the mountains of Turkey’s southeast, leaving cities like Diyarbakır tense, but relatively unscathed by open conflict. Like most of Turkey, the city has seen a large influx of Syrian refugees fleeing from the war in their homeland to the south.

Pamuk, like many in the poor, run-down neighbourhood, had smoked marijuana since he was a child, but heroin, he said, arrived in Sur with the street battles between the army and the PKK.

“During the war, my friends and I were sleeping in the streets in Sur. Since then we have been squatting in derelict houses across Sur and taking drugs in groups,” he said. In his part of Sur alone, he said there were some 16 houses occupied by Syrians selling heroin and marijuana.

Pamuk said he had travelled to a hospital in the nearby city of Elazığ, but staff there would not give him any medication to help him come off heroin so he left after a day. He said he then went to the psychiatric ward of a local teaching hospital, but there were not enough beds.

Staring at the ceiling to avoid eye contact with the women in the room, Pamuk became aggressive when his mother said it was because he could not give up heroin that his wife was divorcing him.

“I miss my daughter and hope this week I will hug her at my divorce hearing,” he then said after a brief silence.

His mother, Remziye Pamuk, works at a bakery in Sur and earns $200 a month. In tears, she said her son had forced her to give him money before disappearing for days. She had applied to the prosecutor’s office in the first week of November to have her son taken into custody, but received no response.

Naif's mother Remziye Pamuk. / Figen Gunes
Naif's mother Remziye Pamuk. / Figen Gunes

Muhsin Sayan, the local neighbourhood headman, has operated from a tiny television repair shop ever since his office was damaged during the fighting. The rate of drug use, especially heroin, had gone up immensely since the fighting, he said, with boys as young as 11 now using the highly addictive drug.

Fidan Yıldız, the mother of three young children, said addicts often knocked on her door looking for the Syrian dealers next door. They had rented the house, she said, after her neighbours moved out when the fighting erupted.

“My three children play in one room the whole day," she told me in a hushed voice in her courtyard for fear of being overheard. "I feel overwhelmed but I cannot let them play outside. Before the conflict, my children played outside, but now we are trapped indoors.”

The increase in drug use since the fighting is being exacerbated by the political situation, local drug outreach workers said. Since the violence, elected pro-Kurdish local mayors have been replaced by administrators appointed by the Islamist central government, who have cut funding to drugs programmes.

The Amed Fighting Against Drug Addicts Platform was founded by the city council in 2015 and brought together more than 100 NGOs to work together to help drug users beat their addiction. But the new city administrators sacked those working on the programme.

An advice centre called Hevra was set up under the aegis of the programme in 2015. But beyond the leafy entrance, near-silence now greets the visitor to the three-storey villa. The team of psychologists and social workers there said they used to meet families to reach out to users, but said that since the administrator was appointed, families had distanced themselves from Hevra.

In 2015, it counted 14,000 drug users across Diyarbakır, but has not kept any statistics since then. They said, however, that 80 percent of those who had come for advice in the last two years were heroin users.

One of the city’s newest centres for fighting drug addiction is Yeşilay, a religious institution that has long led the alcohol prohibition campaign in Turkey. Bending down to go through the low door at the Yeşilay centre in one of the towers of Diyabakır’s ancient city walls, one must take off one’s shoes as if entering a mosque.

Yeşilay Centre, Diyarbakır. / Figen Gunes
Yeşilay Centre, Diyarbakır. / Figen Gunes

Yahya Öger, the head of Diyarbakır Yeşilay, welcomed me with a big smile and gave me a pair of slippers. “We designed it like a mosque here,” he said, his voice echoing under the domed ceiling, flanked by three imams working for the centre. Yeşilay is to train imams to explain in mosques that drugs are haram, or forbidden, he said.

Öger, also an imam as a profession, said that his new office for coordinating the fight against drug addiction was operating as part of the state’s Religious Affairs Bureau.

Öger criticised the local Islamic community “for marginalising drug addicts”, but also said that Kurdish leaders did not do enough in the fight against drugs. He said authorities were negotiating with villagers in areas where marijuana was grown to give them grants and encourage them to begin organic farming instead.

Yahya Öger, the head of Diyarbakır Yeşilay. / Figen Gunes
Yahya Öger, the head of Diyarbakır Yeşilay. / Figen Gunes

Former social worker Ümit Çetiner said the Yeşilay model was bound to fail, as it had no psychologists to offer professional support. ''Now in Diyarbakır, the fight against drugs is in the hands of the imams and they only say that using is a sin in the eyes of God,” Çetiner said. “That won't work.”

Sending the message through the mosques seems less likely to reach many of the child drug users in Diyarbakır. One boy told me that heroin was sold at sesame seed bagel stalls in front of his school. The school is close to both the Diyarbakır police headquarters and Çematem, the city's only drug rehabilitation centre for the under-18s.

An official at Çematem said that in the past the centre would receive users of other drugs, but in the last two years, 65 percent of those coming in were heroin addicts. Ecstasy users would come second, he said. Family problems topped with changes in peer groups due to migration and displacement made youngsters disoriented and an easy target for sellers, according to the official, who asked not to be named.

"The same increase is visible in the number of girls who use ecstasy and heroin," he said. "Girls admit to sleeping with guys to obtain drugs, whereas boys tend to rob houses. On average they break into 200 houses a year to make enough money to feed their drugs habits.”

Referring to Yeşilay's seminars on what was religiously accepted and forbidden, the official said large amounts of drugs were taken in mosque toilets.

“These youngsters are in need of treatment, haramhelal training won't change anything,” he said.