Officially, Ashgabat Has No Drug Users

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- Kristina tapped the veins on top of her right foot and plunged in a syringe filled with cloudy fluid, slowly pressing the stopper down to deliver her dose of heroin.

"I'm home," the 29-year-old prostitute said, leaning back to let the high course through her emaciated body, satisfying the craving she's nurtured as a drug addict for eight years. The cost: the equivalent of $2.60.

This scene in a dingy backroom in the capital, Ashgabat, is not happening -- at least not according to the Turkmen government. Since 2000, Turkmenistan has failed to report any drug seizures to international organizations, and President Saparmurat Niyazov has claimed the country -- next door to Afghanistan, source of most of the world's opium -- has no drug problem.

But like much in Turkmenistan, behind the new marble buildings of what Niyazov has proclaimed the country's "Golden Century" lies a reality little touched by government riches, where drug dealers and addicts roam potholed streets lined with dilapidated houses.

Does the former Soviet republic have a drug problem? "We have no problem -- you can go into any house and find heroin," said Kristina, the name she gives clients who find her every night on a central Ashgabat street for $10 per hour.

Some estimates say as many as half of all Turkmen men aged 15 to 40 use heroin or opium. The country's borders with Afghanistan and Iran, another major drug transit country, are loosely controlled on both sides, if at all.

Turkmen authorities "believe there are no seizures because there is no trafficking," Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said during a recent tour of Central Asia. "I would like to be reassured that's the case."

Any estimate of drug traffic or addiction is a guess as long as the government does not publicize statistics.

However, there are some signs that the government's head-in-the-sand policy on drugs is changing. It has accepted a new UN project funded by the United States that aims to give $1.1 million in equipment and training for border guards to help stop drug trafficking, and foreign diplomats have recently been allowed more open access to assess the frontier.

Drug addicts say they are afraid to seek treatment from authorities for fear of being shipped to work camps where doctors and nurses meant to be treating their addiction actually fuel their habit as a way to make money.

One 31-year-old former addict, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was introduced to opium while serving a five-year prison sentence for assault. He quit when he was released from prison, but then started again after coming to live in Ashgabat, which he said was awash in drugs. The addict quit cold four years ago, telling himself "either I'll die or go to jail."

Kristina said she was introduced to drugs by her husband, whose bank salary allowed him to indulge. He eventually lost his job and sold their apartment and car to get money to support the habit.

When that money ran out four years ago, Kristina started working as a prostitute, seeing clients in one room while her husband waited for the money in the bathroom.

Kristina avoids a city AIDS center where she could get syringes for free, saying the employees would turn her in for being an addict. She buys them instead at a drug store, using each twice and insisting she does not share needles.

At age 25, Kristina was sent to prison for two years on drug charges. She was jailed again in April for prostitution but said authorities released her after two weeks, when she started showing withdrawal symptoms and they feared she would die in custody.

Despite her ordeal, Kristina said she has no desire to give up drugs.

"I don't want to stop, I live for heroin now. I have no other life," she said.