Laila Haidari, called the “mother of addicts,” is an extraordinary advocate who cares for the dejected opium users living under the Pul-i-Sohkta bridge in Kabul, Afghanistan. In their debut documentary, Laila at the Bridge, Afghani power couple Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei follow Laila through her daily grind as she provides clothing, blankets, meals, and rehab services for this abandoned community. In her program, users must go cold turkey and are subject to unusual methods, such as head-shaving, fierce tongue-lashings, and freezing baths. Technically, her treatment is illegal—not licensed or approved by the Afghan government—but it’s the only viable option her patients have. Underscoring shocking clips of dead bodies and dirty needle injections is a call-to-arms regarding the crisis that began when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The U.S. Army’s destabilization of Taliban leadership, coupled with the egregious funding of tribal counter-insurgents, led to a massive opium boom. Today, Afghanistan produces 92% of the world’s opium. U.N. anti-drug coalitions and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics have vowed to slow things down. Yet despite millions of dollars of foreign aid and alleged progress, the opium trade continues to grow. Why, you might ask? Well, that’s where Laila would grab you by the ears and yell, “the Ministry of Counter Narcotics is actually the drug mafia!” Laila at the Bridge is a frustrating profile of a problem that’s far from solved.
What sort of awareness are you hoping to raise with this film?
Gulistan Mirzaei: We’re trying to show another side of Afghanistan with this film, and also one from an inside perspective. We want people to get a sense of the scale of the addiction crisis in Afghanistan. It’s at unprecedented levels, and this is also a cost of the war. At the same time, we hope audiences feel inspired by Laila, as a woman working in a very male-dominated society, who doesn’t let all of the many setbacks she faces ever stop her.
Do you think Laila’s claims about the Counter Narcotics Ministry being “drug mafia” are grounded in fact?
GM: I think that Laila’s claim is really one about corruption, and it’s bolstered by the fact that Afghanistan has been ranked the 4th most corrupt country in the world. There have been numerous instances of high-ranking officials in the government who are profiting heavily from their role in the drug trade. We did film several interviews with corruption watchdog officials, masking their identities. They had evidence proving certain government ministers’ deep ties to the drug trade, but we couldn’t find a place for the material in the film.
Do you think there is a future for Laila’s style of rehab in Afghanistan?
GM: Yes, I think that there’s a future so long as Laila and the men in recovery carry it on. Unfortunately, the worsening security situation is making it harder and harder for people to be able to attend [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings.
The modern American approach treats addiction as a disease. Comparatively, how is addiction perceived in Afghanistan?
Elizabeth Mirzaei: There was a widespread sentiment that people who are addicted are just better off dead. Many people berated Laila for spending so much time and treasure on helping who they saw as the most useless people in society, and Laila is constantly fighting against this mentality. The families of the people she has treated always seemed grateful to her.
In the opening slide, you mention 2001 as the turning point. What are some of the ways U.S.-led intervention has rendered Afghanistan a narco-state?
GM: Well, opium production didn’t start with the U.S.-led intervention. Opium has always had some role in shaping the fate of Afghanistan through decades of different wars. That said, there is no doubt that opium production has increased tremendously since 2001. According to the UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime], there was an estimated 75,000 hectares of land for opium cultivation in 2000. As of 2017, that number had risen to 328,000 hectares, which is up 63% from even 2016.
There’s a moment in the film where Laila points a loaded gun at y’all while you are filming. I feel like I’d be pretty scared. How did that make you feel?
EM: I was scared! So were Laila’s friends in the room when she started waving the gun around. Although it wasn’t funny at the time we were filming it, Gulistan and I get a good laugh out of that scene every time we watch it now, and so does Laila. When she first saw the film, she had no recollection of that night at all!
The U.S. premiere of Laila at the Bridge (directed by Elizabeth Mirzaei & Gulistan Mirzaei) will be screening as part of the Documentary Features lineup on Sunday, October 21 and Tuesday, October 23 at the New Orleans Advocate. For more information on the film and how to support Laila and her work, check out lailaatthebridgefilm.com.