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Heroin in Bratislava: The needle and the damage done

A scrawny, mottled young man who could be anywhere between the ages of 15 to 25 works the Bratislava streets on a seemingly constant patrol for spare change. Sometimes he says he has AIDS and that he needs money for medication. But on a recent afternoon when a passer-by offered to buy him lunch, he crossly insisted on the money instead, making a jabbing motion at his arm and saying: "I need the money for my pleasure. You don't know what it means to me!"
With his ravaged skin and wizened frame, this young man is a pitiable reminder of the toll levied by heroin since it first appeared in Bratislava in 1991. Now, almost 10 years later, Slovak health officials say that the boom is over, that they have learned how to treat addicts, and that the country has dodged the drug's most serious side-effects (Slovakia has the lowest number of registered HIV cases in Europe and a rate of hepatitis among users comparable to that of the general population, officials say).


On June 13, a car carrying 49 packets of heroin with a street value of 750 million crowns ($16.7 million) was stopped at the Slovak-Ukraine border.
photo: TASR

A scrawny, mottled young man who could be anywhere between the ages of 15 to 25 works the Bratislava streets on a seemingly constant patrol for spare change. Sometimes he says he has AIDS and that he needs money for medication. But on a recent afternoon when a passer-by offered to buy him lunch, he crossly insisted on the money instead, making a jabbing motion at his arm and saying: "I need the money for my pleasure. You don't know what it means to me!"

With his ravaged skin and wizened frame, this young man is a pitiable reminder of the toll levied by heroin since it first appeared in Bratislava in 1991. Now, almost 10 years later, Slovak health officials say that the boom is over, that they have learned how to treat addicts, and that the country has dodged the drug's most serious side-effects (Slovakia has the lowest number of registered HIV cases in Europe and a rate of hepatitis among users comparable to that of the general population, officials say).

"Drugs will never completely disappear," said Dr. Ľubomír Okruhlica, director of the Centre for the Treatment of Drug Dependencies in Bratislava during a speech earlier this year at the annual day against drugs. "But in Slovakia the number of heroin users has been stabilised at 4,000 to 7,000 over the past several years, which is significantly better than surrounding states. In addition, criminality related to heroin has decreased."

While encouraging given how bad things might have been, such statistics belie the thousands of Slovak lives that have been destroyed, and continue to be destroyed, by heroin addiction. And while heroin abuse in not abnormal for any country, Slovakia is unique in that most of its addicts are relatively young - according to Okruhlica, the average age of a Slovak heroin addict is 22, compared to 30 in Europe.

Adam Š, a 22 year-old auto mechanic, is one such case, and agreed to let The Slovak Spectator witness him shooting up.

He began using heroin at age 17 and has been injecting the drug on a daily basis for the last two years. He's not yet a dead give-away as a junky - his body remains squat and energetic, and his demeanour is upbeat - but his conversation is increasingly disjointed, and his arms ever more scarred.


Adam Š., pictured above at right injecting himself with heroin, has been a junkie for two years.
photo. Matthew J. Reynolds

Once an aspiring artist, he has become estranged from his hobbies and goals. A year ago his parents figured out why his eyes were so frequently dazed, and why little things kept disappearing from the house.

"Heroin is a bitch. I haven't lived in five years," Adam says, ducking out of a pub in the Bratislava suburb of Dúbravka to avoid a confrontation with his approaching mother.

Behind the pub, Adam meets a friend and the two walk a couple blocks to the neighbourhood dealer, open every day from 10:00 till 18:00. Adam has again managed to scrounge together the requisite 200 crowns for 1/6 of a gram of heroin. It is brown and powdery and comes wrapped in a piece of paper folded like a grade-school love note.

Ten minutes later the pair sit in the stairwell near a pile of human faeces on the top floor of a Dúbravka block of flats. While his friend assembles a crude water pipe, Adam mixes the heroin with water in a teaspoon, cooks it with a lighter, and draws it into a brand-new syringe. After taking a puff of heroin mixed with marijuana from the water pipe, Adam removes his shirt, crouches in the corner, and, braced by his friend, injects the muddy concoction from the syringe into his arm.

The effect doesn't take full hold for five to ten minutes. First comes a tingling sensation Adam calls "flesh". Gradually, a different mood drives into him. His eyes crash back into his head, and his limbs wander ethereally as he cuts and pastes his story together.

"I'm the kind of guy that wants to try everything," he says. "In the beginning, I was careful. I'm not so bad that I would kill somebody or something like that. Some people need 2,000-3,000 crowns a day. I'm not like that. In the beginning I used to be careful."

Adam says that since his parents check his eyes regularly, he does not usually take more than 1/6 gram every day. It lasts him about four hours, enough given how hard it is to raise each 200 crowns needed to buy the drug. He gets the money through every conceivable avenue, but most often he turns to thievery. "I'm not stupid. I only steal when it's sure, and I never steal from my friends."

Some of the things Adam steals and pawns are copper from wires, steel from equipment on railroad tracks, and fluid from batteries. "In the past I've stolen from my parents, too - things like meat from the refrigerator. I love them, but when I know that I can get heroin something clicks and I don't see anything else. I might leave home so I don't keep hurting them."

Emerging from the building, Adam meets a group of youths from Dúbravka he has known most his life. Although friendly, some of them recoil when he moves to hug them. Instead of joining them he sits down on a bench next to a former heroin addict, Jason P. Although clean of heroin for seven months now, it is midday and Jason is already falling-down drunk.

"Heroin takes your family, your money, your friends, your childhood," Jason says. He should know - at 31 years-old, he has served three years in jail for theft and for drug possession, and has just been kicked out of his apartment by his father. He says he would like to find a job, but that no one will hire him because of his criminal record.

As the two sit on the bench, the sky blue behind them, they ponder heroin addiction with an odd detachment. They are unwilling to blame Slovakia and its poor economic prospects (as many do) for what has become of their lives. Like addicts everywhere, they cite curiosity and inner emptiness as the main reasons they started. "I know 50 - 60 people who do heroin," says Adam. "In over 80% of those cases, their lives are now ruined. I knew four people that died last year alone."

"I want to quit... of course I want to quit," Adam continues. "I want to quit this second. Even when I am doing heroin, I want to quit."

Additional reporting by Zuzana Habšudová

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