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Community spirit helps village addicts say farewell to opium

AFTER stealthily crossing an unnamed wooded hill along a crooked path, they reached the China-Myanmar border where they bought a pouch of opium from either familiar dealers or sometimes relatives. Then they quietly retraced their steps three kilometers back home.

This was what opium addicts of Bozhang, a village in the drug-afflicted Yunnan Province in southwest China, used to do for years. However, a "community rehabilitation" project, which started early last year, has almost wiped out opium abuse in the remote, mountainous and poverty-stricken village.

Under the program, 45-year-old Xiang Long has turned over a new leaf. He remarried his second wife after a yearlong divorce. And he enjoys family reunions, a sound sleep and a farming life, all once disrupted by his opium addiction.

"Before, we had no access to medical service. If one had a headache or fever, sipping opium from a bamboo pipe could alleviate the pain," says Xiang. Bozhang has a population of 463, all of Hani ethnic minority.

Xiang had an opium addiction going back more than 20 years. Time and again, he had been sent to a compulsory rehabilitation center in Jinghong City by police, but to no avail.

He picked up some opium again after each release. His first wife divorced him in 2003. His second, Che Xiao, also divorced him at the end of 2007. All of his problems were the result of his addiction, which cost him all of his property except his traditional wooden house.

Adjacent to the notorious drug-producing "Golden Triangle" region, Yunnan is a hard-hit province with about 60,000 addicts. In the first half of this year, the Xishuangbanna border defense troops seized 140 kilograms of drugs - nearly double the amount seized in the same period last year.

The village once had more than 100 addicts. Two years ago, urine tests conducted by the local police station showed 53 villagers, all men aged 20 to 40, had a drug addiction. Residents relied on a living from rubber trees and small rice fields and had a per capita net income of 600 yuan (US$87) a year.

But they did not hesitate to buy a pouch of opium for 60 yuan even if this only met their needs for one or two days. As a result, fighting, gambling and stealing were once prevalent in the village.

At the beginning of 2008, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture launched the "community rehab" program in border areas. Eighty-nine villages, including Bozhang in Damenglong Town, were pilots for the program.

The village established an 18-member militia patrol team in June last year. Its major task was to spread knowledge door-to-door about the harmful effects of drugs and help addicts beat addiction.

"It was my parents, police and fellow villagers who finally helped me give up drugs," says Xiang. His parents watched him at home closely. Xiang, realizing the losses his opium use had caused his family, was determined.

When he first became addicted, he was depressed and irritable. Sometimes he could not control himself and attacked family members when they refused him money to buy opium, Xiang says.

Advanced measures

Family members turned to the militia team to avoid the fights. But gradually, addicts began to drink strong tea to raise their spirits, chatted with relatives or went to the fields to work to overcome withdrawal symptoms.

For all of 2008, Xiang did not touch opium. His second wife remarried him at the end of last year after seeing her former husband had washed his hands of the drug.

Gong Jingfeng, chief of the Damenglong Town Border Defense Police Station, says in such a remote area, it was unrealistic to adopt advanced rehab measures such as the use of medicine.

Compared with other drugs such as heroin and crystal methamphetamine, the withdrawal symptoms from opium are usually not strong enough to induce shock.

"The rehab here has to rely on the help of police, militia teams and family members and the self-awareness, self-discipline, resolve and perseverance of the addicts themselves," the police officer says.

If an addict was found more than once by militia teams to have been out secretly buying opium, the police station would send him to the compulsory drug rehab center in Jinghong.

"We patrol once or twice a week," says Jia Hua, the only woman in the militia team.

Jia says they not only monitored addicts who were getting rid of drug habits in their own homes, but also prevented outsiders from entering the village to sell drugs. Dealers from Myanmar still tried to get into the village to sell drugs, she adds.

"If someone leaves the village, he must ask for leave from the team. And after his return, the militia team will check where he has been to make sure that what he has been doing has nothing to do with drugs," says Jia.

Meanwhile, in drug-afflicted townships, another team consisting of police, villagers' committee, Party members and families, monitors and educates addicts to help them overcome addiction.

Liu Qing, a Xishuangbanna Public Security Bureau official in charge of drug control, said the cooperation of family members was quite effective in helping addicts to give up drugs.

Now, 28 villagers in Bozhang are abstaining from drugs in their own homes. Seven others, including the former head of the village, are in the compulsory rehab house.

Gan Chun, a 26-year-old villager, is another one who has successfully got rid of drug addiction through community rehab.

"In the past, I always felt afraid of being grabbed by the police. But the militia team helped me completely get rid of drugs," says the young man.

Gan says he currently does construction work on a nearby road or harvests rubber for others, which earns him 40 yuan a day.

New life

Last year, the village had a verbal agreement with the prefectural public security bureau that if no one in the village took drugs, the bureau would award an ox to the village. But if any villager was caught taking drugs, the village would send the bureau an ox, according to Li Zongshou, the new head of the village.

"The result was that the bureau gave us an ox at the end of last year," he says.

The village was digging a small pond to breed lobsters. The village official said he was planning to save more land for farming by concentrating housing areas.

A clinic was set up in the village last year. Villagers now have access to medical services. Days of relying on opium to cure pain are long gone.

Xiang says he often hid in the nearby mountains when he saw policemen in the past, but now he was eager to talk to them.

"I remarried after getting rid of drugs. It is really good to have meals with my family, enjoy a good sleep, plant rice and harvest rubber," says the villager, pledging a farewell to drugs.


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