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CLINIC HELPING PETRŽALKA YOUTHS BATTLE AGAINST INCREASING DRUG DEPENDENCY

Fighting to stay clean in the concrete jungle

Tears in her eyes, Barbora, age 20, ran her hands through her cropped, platinum-blond hair and gazed down the long, wooden table. Next to her, Veronika, a fresh-faced 16-year-old, explained to Barbora that she should stay at home and avoid going out if she wanted to stay clean. Both are addicted to heroin. The rest of the group agreed with Veronika. Isolation is the only way, they said. But Barbora still wanted to see her boyfriend. "You can't," Veronika insisted, tugging at the sleeves of Barbora's lime green t-shirt to emphasize her point. Presiding over the meeting from one end of the table, Ivan Novotný, the doctor, asked, "How old is this boy?"


"We wanted to get drunk on wine one night, but it took us two hours to buy it. If you want heroin, it takes 15 minutes."

Juraj, 22-year-old addict



"This is the worst neighborhood I know. I don't know any worse, except maybe the Bronx."

Ivan Novotný,Director of Osuského drug clinic



Petržalka's pre-fab concrete buildings, home to the district's 145,000 residents, stretch as far as the eye can see.
Courtesy of Petržalka District Office

Tears in her eyes, Barbora, age 20, ran her hands through her cropped, platinum-blond hair and gazed down the long, wooden table. Next to her, Veronika, a fresh-faced 16-year-old, explained to Barbora that she should stay at home and avoid going out if she wanted to stay clean. Both are addicted to heroin.

The rest of the group agreed with Veronika. Isolation is the only way, they said. But Barbora still wanted to see her boyfriend. "You can't," Veronika insisted, tugging at the sleeves of Barbora's lime green t-shirt to emphasize her point.

Presiding over the meeting from one end of the table, Ivan Novotný, the doctor, asked, "How old is this boy?" "Thirty," Barbora said, and the group dissolved into giggles, a moment of comic relief in an otherwise very serious conversation. These kids, whose average age is 17, are a cross-section of the thousands of Petržalka's young people addicted to drugs. The addicts' last names have been witheld from this story to protect their identity.

The Osuského drug treatment center is located in an abandoned kindergarten in the heart of Petržalka, a massive Bratislava district stretching along the southern side of the Danube River. Much like the patients engulfed in towering personal struggles to shake off drugs, the building itself is dwarfed by the stark gray pre-fabricated apartment blocks that surround it. These concrete buildings, home to the district's 145,000 residents, stretch as far as the eye can see, distinguishable from each other only by the color of the laundry hanging on balcony railings. If it were not a part of the capital, Petržalka would rank behind Košice as Slovakia's third-largest city. Yet unlike that city in eastern Slovakia, Petržalka has few stores, restaurants, or movie theaters - the places that make a city home.

A battery of statistics baldly portray that drugs have taken the place of more homespun entertainment. A recent report showed that 60 percent of all drug addicts in Slovakia live in Petržalka; for the young people, drugs are almost unavoidable.

"There is nothing else for us to do," said Juraj, the eldest in the program at the age of 22. "The state, the city, doesn't want anything to do with us."

"This is the worst neighborhood I know," said Novotný, the founder and director of the Osuského clinic. "I don't know any worse, except maybe the Bronx." "We are working to enliven the atmosphere in the neighborhood," Novotný added, "so people don't just feel, 'I wake up, I go downtown, I work, I come home, I go to sleep.'"

The Osuského clinic, which opened on June 1, is the first private drug treatment center in Petržalka. The service, covered by the state insurance system, is mostly ambulatory but will include long-term residential care in the future.

Still, the staff of nine can do only so much; as of January, there were 1,200 registered drug addicts in Petržalka, but the real number is estimated to be two to ten times higher. Regardless of exact figures, everyone agrees that the number of drug addicts is growing, especially heroin users. Heroin first appeared in Petržalka in 1986, Novotný said. In 1989, 30 addicts were registered. A year later, the number had soared to 600.

"I have never experieced this anywhere else," said Novotný, who has been working with addicts for 30 years. "I don't know of such dramatic change anywhere else in the world."

Most of the new addicts are children in secondary school, or even primary school. The dealers make it easy for them to get drugs, offering heroin for pocket-money to youngsters until they are too addicted to say no.

"We wanted to get drunk on wine one night," said Juraj, who first got hooked on drugs at the age of 16. "But it took us two hours to buy it. If you want heroin, it takes 15 minutes," he said, emphasizing how quick and easy it is to get hard drugs.

The dealers track down teenagers on the street, in the schools, and even in treatment centers. Veronika tells of a friend who went into the hospital for alchoholism, and came out addicted to heroin; Katarina, also 16, has the same story about a kid with a gambling problem. And the whole group knows about the mental hospital where the dealers climb onto the balcony every afternoon during the smoking break to supply the patients.

Even though drugs are everywhere, the older generation, sheltered for so long by impassable borders, is unaware of the younger's temptations. Novotný explained that his center's lectures target teachers and parents, though it took some time to convince them of the mission.

"There was a campaign against the center by people in the surrounding buildings," Osuského's director said. "They thought people would come here to buy drugs. This was the level of information people had." Now, Novotný said, "I have started to feel that people have accepted me here."

The young people in the program, who are most often brought to the center by their parents or doctor, definitely have accepted him. "I don't have a father," said Veronika, who wants to be a nurse when she kicks her habit. "When I am crying, he gives me a hug. He is like a father to me." With a smile, she added in English "I love you doctor!"

"We are satisfied [with the program]," said one spike-haired 17-year-old, on his first visit since he ran away from home two weeks before. "We just want to live a normal boring life, and to know what the grass smells like."

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