In Afghanistan, Fathers Barter Daughters to Settle Drug Debts

A journalist spends 10 years tracking down the tragic fate of one opium bride.

Afghan girls are increasingly becoming casualties of the county's drug trade. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

I had been looking for her for 10 years. I nearly got kidnapped searching for her. I wrote a book inspired by her. And tonight, I was about to talk to her.

My fingers trembled as I dialed the number her mother gave me.

We met in summer 2003 in a dusty village in Afghanistan. Darya was a green-eyed, 12-year-old schoolgirl who enjoyed playing barefoot in the sand. Her childhood was cut short when her drug dealer father sold her to a smuggler 34 years older than her. Her father was in debt to traffickers in the country, which supplies 90 percent of the world's opiates. He did what thousands of Afghan fathers are doing -- he bartered two of his daughters into marriage to relieve his debt, without the daughters' consent. I was in her village doing a story on the burgeoning $65 billion opium trade, and she was a casualty of this illegal business.

In the last 10 years since I met Darya, the number of opium brides has risen across Afghanistan, based on anecdotal evidence by activists and journalists there. Thousands of young Afghan girls are being bartered into slavery as second and third wives or trafficked across borders as prostitutes. The last decade's government eradication has made the problem worse. Farmers whose crops were destroyed chose to sell their daughters to pay back loans to traffickers. The skyrocketing addiction rate -- more than one million in a nation of 30 million are dependent on opiates -- further propels the sale of children. When addicted families no longer have the money for their habit, they sell their daughters and sometimes, also their sons.

Mrs. Parwanta, who did not want her first name mentioned for safety reasons, has been working on drug prevention and education in Afghanistan for three years. One family she talked to sold three daughters so the father could feed his addiction. "When a member of the family begins abusing drugs, everything from economic to social status breaks down. Usually, when men in the family have no other resource to fund their addiction, they prostitute and sell their children, boy or girl," she said.

Najibullah Quraishi, an Afghan journalist and filmmaker, said he met at least 100 families who sold their daughters to pay off traffickers. His award-winning 2012 documentary Opium Brides chronicles several of the girls' heartbreaking stories and the debts farming families fall into when the government eradicates their poppy farms.

In the wake of foreign troop withdrawal and the potential return of the Taliban to parts of Afghanistan, some analysts predict another opium boom. Already nine provinces that declared to be poppy-free two years ago are cultivating the plant again, mainly because of a jump in opium prices, according to United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. The drug trade is a business dictated by supply and demand, but it's also run by mafias that flourish in violent and impoverished areas. Many farmers who returned to poppy-planting cited insecurity and a lack of agricultural options in the 2012 UNODC Opium Survey.

Fading international aid and interest in Afghanistan also threaten hard-fought laws to protect women, although the United States recently pledged another $200 million for women's development. Activists are afraid conservatives in Afghanistan's Parliament will revoke the ban on child marriages. Under the law now, families can be prosecuted for marrying daughters under age 16. "But I have yet to meet a girl who is willing to press charges against her own father," said Manizha Naderi Parand, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women. The organization provides shelters and opportunities for Afghan women seeking safety.

Bartering girls in marriage to pay off loans -- and not just drug debts -- has been practiced in the region for centuries. But it has increased exponentially due to poverty brought on by 30 years of war. Parand said no opium brides have reached out to her group for help. These young girls mostly live on the borders of the country, where trafficking is rampant and access to foreign aid and NGOs limited.

That leaves many of these girls having to submit or resist on their own. Some of them commit suicide. Nasima, a member of a women's council in Helmand province, seized a guard's gun and shot herself at one of the council meetings in 2006. Some run away and may end up in prison or in one of the few women's shelters in the country. The majority succumb to their fate as the property of smugglers. And others, like Darya, may ask aid workers or journalists to rescue them.


The 22-year-old Darya picked up her cell phone after the sixth ring. Her voice was louder, more confident, more patient. She had been expecting my call. We asked about each others' families and well-being. Then I apologized for failing to rescue her from the life she had feared, from Haji Sufi, the man who had become her husband and father of her children. There was a pause.

"I waited a long time for you to come and save me," she said. "But this was my destiny. I'm used to it now," she said, letting out a 10-year sigh.

In 2003, when I first met Darya, her father Touraj had disappeared to avoid traffickers hunting him down. Even after selling two of his daughters, he remained in debt to smugglers. The older daughter's husband never showed up to claim his bride. But Darya's husband, who already had another wife and eight children, wanted to take the young girl from Herat to Helmand. He spoke Pashto. She spoke Farsi.

But every time Haji Sufi came, Darya cursed her husband and ran away from him. Darya looked to me for support, knowing I had a different code of ethics and access to the outside world. One sizzling summer afternoon, I interviewed Sufi while Darya sat beside me. She grabbed my coat and trembled. "Please don't let him take me," she whispered in my ear.

That was the last time I saw her. She had come barefoot to my guide's house after I left that summer, asking that I return and free her from a forced marriage. I reported the case to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, whose members did nothing. Afghan authorities told me she was one of thousands. They said that if she didn't go with her husband, her mother and five other siblings would suffer the consequences.

I wrote a story about her that was syndicated in several different countries, and readers sent money to her family. The following summer I delivered the money, but it was too late. Sufi had taken her to Helmand, and her mother asked me to go find her. She was afraid Darya would self-immolate, a tragic form of protest that's somewhat common among girls who share her fate. In 2005, I went undercover in a burqa, with my guide and a photo of her husband, to Sangine, Helmand, which was the frontline of war then. We knocked on doors and showed people his picture. Taliban sympathizers quickly figured out I had come from the West and threatened to imprison me, but my guide, who was from the area, talked them out of it.

I didn't find Darya.

I returned to the U.S. feeling guilty for allowing a child bride to be forced into slavery. Darya became the heroine in my book, Opium Nation. While writing the book, I searched for her from the U.S. by calling everyone she knew. Her mother Basira finally had a phone number in Marjah, Helmand, an area the U.S. had bombed and was now reconstructing with roads, phone lines, and schools. She had been there all along. Darya's uncle had given me the wrong district when I went looking for her. Marjah survived on poppy farming before the U.S. takeover, but now crops like cotton, corn, and nuts were being farmed. Darya lived in a closed compound with 20 of her in-laws. Her husband and his family grew poppies until the Americans seized the district.

My first phone conversation with her was very emotional, as if I had known her all these years, even though she had remained a mystery for a decade. She recounted her life as a wife and mother with a mix of humor and tragedy. She considered herself unlucky, but luckier than opium brides who did not have the honorable title of wife. Darya knew other girls like her have been trafficked to become drug mules and prostitutes.

Darya's life has turned out better than I had imagined. She's the younger wife and has become the matriarch of her compound.

"Now they give me a lot of respect," she said.

She had cried for a year after arriving in Helmand, and she resisted by arguing with Sufi's first wife. Sufi beat her for disobeying. When she stopped rebelling and completed her chores, he stopped the beatings.

"Now my hambaq (husband's other wife) and I are friends. He no longer sleeps with her. I tell her 'you send him to me now that he's an old man. I have no use for him,'" she said, laughing.

She quickly learned Pashto, but it took her four years to get pregnant. At 18, she had a son, and he became her reason to live. She spent her days baking bread in a clay oven, cooking, doing laundry, and looking after her child. Twice a year, Sufi took Darya to Herat to visit her mother. Her father came out of hiding after he paid his debt in full. He still deals drugs though, she said.

On one of her trips to Herat, Darya confronted her dad for selling her to Sufi. "He told me I should be grateful because my husband can take care of me. If he had left me to the young boys in Herat, I would've become a drug addict's wife, which is worse."

Touraj gave her the cell phone she was using as a way of making peace. Darya has forgiven her father, but not his deed. "He should've found another way. What he did to me was wrong," she said.

During the first years of her marriage, Darya only left the Marjah compound to shop with her husband or to go to the doctor. Until the U.S. arrived with the Afghan National Army, women could not go out on their own because the Taliban demanded that male kin accompany women in public. One morning while Darya was busy with her household chores, Sufi took their 18-month-old outside the compound to play in the nearby creek. She heard Sufi scream, and then she saw her dead son in his arms. The toddler drowned in the creek because Sufi had failed to watch him.

"I had lost a lot until that point, but the worst pain hit me after I lost my child. I can never forget his loss," she said, choking up.

After her firstborn's death, she had a second son, Barat, who is now 2, and a daughter, Zahra, now 8 months old. She can roam the bazaar in her burqa with the other women from the compound. There are now fewer moral restrictions, but the night raids and house searches were a regular part of life for her family. American troops, who have left control to Afghan authorities now, searched their compound five times in the last three years. Darya has met many other opium brides in Marjah on her outings. A network of Helmand farmers and smugglers interact with traffickers in Herat, and bartering brides is a regular part of business for this network.

Darya's relationship with Sufi changed after she bore his children. He listens to her, shows her affection, and allows her to make many decisions, but she doesn't love him.

Darya plans to send her daughter to stay with her mother once she's school-aged so she can get an education in Herat. Darya has no choice but to remain in Marjah, where she still feels like a stranger. Women are restricted to their small village for life. She wants something better for her daughter, though -- an education, a husband of her choice, and chance to decide her own fate.