Meet the Remarkable Woman Who Is Saving Afghanistan's Heroin Addicts

By Dorri Olds 10/02/15

Laila at the Bridge follows Laila Haidari, a former child bride who runs two addiction treatment centers, as she offers hope and healing to addicts in Kabul.

Laila Haidari under the bridge with heroin addicts
Laila Haidari Mirzaei Films

Since the fall of the Taliban, the production of opium has skyrocketed. Afghanistan produces 90% of the world’s supply and 11% of the population there are addicts. Drug addiction is not recognized as a disease there and only a limited infrastructure for treatment exists.

Laila Haidari, 36, is an Afghan woman risking everything to save heroin addicts. Her older brother, Hakim, was an addict for 25 years. Laila is a former child bride, married against her will at age 12 to a much older man. She had her first child by 13 and by the end of her teen years, Laila had three children. 

She wanted desperately to help her drug-addicted brother and escape her own unhappy life. At 21, Laila left her husband. It was a bold decision for an Afghan woman then living as a refugee in Iran. By leaving her husband, she was shunned by her family and her husband took her beloved children. With no rights and no help, she returned to her motherland, Afghanistan.

Filmmaker Elissa Sylvia Mirzaei, born in Pennsylvania, has lived in Afghanistan for eight years. She speaks fluent Dari and is drawn to intimate stories that reveal the complexity, beauty and tragedies of Afghanistan from an Afghan perspective. Shocked by the number of drug addicts using openly on the streets, Elissa felt helpless witnessing passersby step over the huddled and skeletal masses of dying junkies. She and her husband, Gulistan Mirzaei, founders of Mirzaei Films, met Laila in 2012 and were inspired to make their first feature-length documentary, Laila at the Bridge.

Addicts using openly on the streets

Elissa had worked on the BBC World Service documentary The Killing of Farkhunda, which aired in August 2015. The Mirzaeis' first film, Stranded In Kabul, was one of 10 films from across Asia selected for Al Jazeera English’s Viewfinder Asia workshop in South Korea and was broadcast on AJE in 2013. Their second film, Farewell Kabul, premiered on AJE in 2014.

The Fix caught up with Elissa Mirzaei to learn more about Laila Haidari and the doc.

What does your film title, Laila at the Bridge, refer to?

Laila Haidari is an amazing woman who courageously fled her situation and with her intense drive created a documentary about Afghan women that won awards at numerous festivals in the country. But, when Laila crossed over a notorious bridge in Kabul, known as pol-e-sokhta, which means “burned bridge,” she found her life’s true calling. She was horrified by the conditions she saw people living in by this putrid river, drug addicts injecting heroin amidst corpses. Men and women from all classes and castes and ethnic groups were suffering. Inspired by Mother Teresa, and desperate to help her addicted brother, she decided to start her own free treatment center.

The title comes from Laila’s work, which is based around the notorious bridge full of tragedy and death, but also because she offers another bridge to a new life. She sees herself as offering a lantern, leading the way down a path out of the darkness, but it’s ultimately up to the individual whether they will follow that path and stay clean. Another unique aspect of Laila’s Mother Camp is that addicts help other addicts. Those who have withdrawn and are on the road to recovery welcome new arrivals, shave their heads, wash their bodies caked in months of dirt from living under the bridge, give them hope and tell them that they’re in this together and they can get clean once and for all.  

Elissa filming under the bridge

Elissa filming under bridge

Is Laila from a wealthy family?

No, not at all. She borrowed money from friends and opened two centers, both known as “Mother Camps,” where she offers free treatment to addicts in Kabul. The addicts all call her “Nana” or “Mother,” and she calls them her “children,” even though many are twice her age. 

What is the story of Laila’s brother?

Hakim is one of Laila’s success stories. After 25 years of addiction, he was able to get clean with Laila’s help. He went on to run the daily operations at Laila’s Mother Camp for men. Hakim had participated in the Narcotics Anonymous 12-step program in Iran and implemented elements of it into the treatment at the Mother Camp.

Do the Mother Camps provide methadone?

No, Laila’s center is a simple, low-cost operation that relies on cold-turkey withdrawal and the 12-step program. While cold-turkey withdrawal from heroin may shock us in the West, in the three years I’ve filmed the documentary about Laila, I have never seen it cause any medical problems for those in recovery. In fact, the opposite is true. In private conversations with addicts who’d been treated at Laila’s Mother Camp, many said they’d been treated with methadone at previous clinics but became addicted to methadone. Most of the addicts had lost everything. Their families often abandoned them because of their addiction and they had been sleeping on cardboard boxes under the bridge. So, after coming out of treatment centers that use methadone, addicts found themselves alone again, addicted to methadone, still craving heroin, and the Burned Bridge was in sight.

Gulistan Hakim at Mother Camp

Gulistan Mirzael at Mother Camp

What types of people have you met under the bridge?

Men and women forgotten by society, unwanted and outcast. Before their fall into addiction, they were soldiers, poets, doctors, professors, students, journalists, and artists. Many of them got addicted as refugees in Iran, or turned to drugs to ease the pain from war trauma. 

How does Laila earn money?

She started her own restaurant in Kabul called Taj Begum, which means “Woman’s Crown.” The staff is recovered addicts. It was a way for them to find a livelihood while also beginning to reintegrate into society. It’s the only restaurant of its kind in the country and a unique approach to addiction treatment in Afghanistan. I saw the confidence of these men and women grow during their work in the restaurant. The income from Taj Begum is the only source of funds she has to support the operations of her Mother Camps.

What is the relapse rate?

It is very high in Afghanistan and Laila’s “children” are no exception, many do return to addiction but for Laila, even if she could help only one person stay clean, that would be enough for her. Thankfully, though, there have been numerous success stories. 

Is Laila in danger?

Yes, the world under the bridge is dangerous but not only due to the desperate addicts under the bridge, but also from the many drug dealers. By treating addicts, Laila is taking away their customers. She has been attacked on several occasions and threatened numerous times, but refuses to give up. Another huge threat is the corrupt policemen that take a cut from every dealer in exchange for not arresting them. As a woman in Afghanistan doing this work on her own, she faces many challenges but Laila is no victim. In our film, one of our intentions is to make sure that Laila never comes across as a victim, despite her hardships. She’s an incredibly strong, brave, and complex woman who is determined to change things. 

My husband and I have had some risky situations. Corrupt policemen who became aware of our frequent presence at the bridge for our film have followed us. There are good policemen in Afghanistan, but even high-level government officials are involved in the drug trade. We in the West hear that it’s the Taliban who are profiting from the drug trade but we found out that’s only part of the story. The drug mafia is far more dangerous than the Taliban. One of the aims of our film is to show how complex Afghanistan is and that it’s not always clear who the enemy is. What the West understands about the Afghan people is actually very little. Our film is about a country that is broken after many wars, where every Afghan family has a scar and part of the collective trauma is addiction.

Laila and Elissa

Laila and Elissa

What Laila is doing is extremely difficult, both emotionally and financially. She has received no support from the government, and none of the $100 billion in aid that went to Afghanistan. She has undertaken this work solely on her own and accepted all of the risks that come with it. But she has to struggle to stay afloat. With many people fleeing Afghanistan now and no real end to the war in sight, business at Laila’s restaurant Taj Begum is precarious and she struggles to keep her free Mother Camp afloat.

There is heartbreak; seeing a teenager whose life held such potential lose his life to heroin under the bridge is tragic. Laila has tried to give proper burials, but the police often come and take away the corpses and the bodies get buried in a large field of unmarked graves, among suicide bombers.

During the making of this film, Gulistan and I have had our hearts broken many times. People that we loved and cared for have died. Despite Laila’s efforts, she is not able to save everyone from the fate of heroin addiction. But there is joy every time we’ve seen someone get and stay clean and begin their new life. All of these human beings with inherent dignity have been restored with hopes and dreams for a better life. Laila, with her very limited resources, does everything she can to help them make that happen.

Click here to learn more about the Mirzaei film, Laila at the Bridge.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.