Mired in war and poverty, Syrians resort to narcotics and psychotropics in increasing numbers
by Dario Salvi

The story of a family in Ghouta, from the suffering of the conflict to hunger-induced despair. People are caught in a 'collective depression' and  resort to increasing use (and abuse) of drugs. According to some estimates, 70% of the drugs sold last year were psychotropic. A demand that fuels the black market. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - "When I first met Haifa for the first time, some years ago, while the war was raging, I saw a woman from Ghouta [eastern suburbs of Damascus, ed] who still had the strength to smile, despite the horrors and suffering she had experienced. At the time, I was so impressed that I saw in her the symbol of many Syrian women in terms of strength, resilience and hope. I saw her again a month ago, and it was a shock to read concern and extreme tiredness in her eyes, beyond mere physical fatigue". This is the situation described to AsiaNews by Maria Sargi [a fictitious name to protect her identity, ed.], an institutional figure involved in diplomacy and international activism since the early days of the Syrian conflict.

Haifa has three children and, for the past few months, the family has surviving on one loaf of bread a day. "What does disease matter in the face of hunger? Where is the logic of events, in the face of hunger? What is the meaning of life, when your children go hungry? We are hungry!" 

We have hit rock bottom

The Syrian people suffered greatly during the years when the conflict raged across the country, when jihadist militias controlled much of the territory and the entire system that had held the nation together seemed on the verge of collapse. Today the weapons claim fewer victims, but the sound of explosions has been replaced by the bomb of poverty, no less dramatic and deadly, which has helped push a large section of the population to the brink of depression. So much so that today sedatives, tranquillisers and psychotropic drugs are among the most widely sold medicines in an attempt to stem increasingly frequent cases of illness or mental breakdown among ordinary people. 

"At the end of her testimony," our source continues, "Haifa began to cry hysterically, shouting several times that she had hit rock bottom. And this is the feeling that emerges when observing the country and its people, who seem to have regressed in time thousands of years, almost to the Stone Age when the sole and only purpose was to scrape together enough food for the day and stay alive... "to survive!". This, in short, is what has happened to the Syrians who, after having gone through long years of war and having hoped for a better future, are now 'living in a collective state of frustration and disillusionment: from the violence of an external conflict," the source concludes, "we have moved on to an internal despair". 

A collective depression

One of the results of this 'collective depression' is that millions of Syrians are increasingly resorting to psychotropic drugs and medicines to combat their ailments and to cope with a situation that is becoming unbearable. Although they do not have official data, but based on personal and daily experience, many pharmacists in Damascus and Aleppo interviewed by AsiaNews confirm that the figure for sales is "very high", today certainly "higher" than at any other time in the country's recent history.

Another burden weighing on the plight of the citizens is the growing disinteresst of the international community, which after having long maintained its focus and pressure on Syria has now shifted the spotlight elsewhere, first and foremost to Ukraine where Russia itself, crucial to the fate of the conflict, is now concentrating most of its military resources. This is why many Syrians are appealing for 'the lifting of Western sanctions' to give some respite and relief to the local economy and reverse a picture in which a very wealthy few "are growing ever richer with the war while the ordinary citizen is increasingly poor, depressed and desperate."

The feeling of misery, abandonment and anxiety about the future is driving more and more people - at least in the government-controlled areas, where the figures are more numerous - to resort to tranquillisers and sedatives. Wafaa Keshi, at the head of the Syrian pharmacists' union, raises the alarm, explaining that the use (and abuse) of narcotics and psychotropics is increasingly frequent due to the parallel increase in mental disorders. Among those affected by depression and ill-health are war veterans and survivors with permanent disabilities, who need - in addition to drug treatment - therapeutic and psychological support under constant medical supervision. 

The black market

According to some indicative estimates, 70% of the drugs sold last year belonged to the category of psychotropics, which people resort to in order to 'escape' from a reality characterised by the high cost of living, insufficient wages, lack of medical care and education. In view of the high demand for psychotropic drugs and tranquillisers, an increasing number of pharmacies sell the products even without a prescription; at the same time, a parallel circuit to the official one has formed, which is increasingly flourishing.

Ahmad Shams al-Din, a pharmacist in Jaramana (Rif Dimashq governorate), tells al-Monitor that Syrians "are discovering new narcotics every day", which are widely available on the black market. These include a local compound called Cemo, a green cough syrup, which contains a large dose of codeine, like the heroin-based Baltan and is often used - improperly and without medical supervision - to treat psychosomatic disorders or for drug addicts in withdrawal.

Qais Khazal, a neuropsychiatrist, confirms that tranquillisers have become very common among university students, most of whom take Baltan before an exam thinking it will help with concentration. Alia Zuhair, a student in Damascus, reports that she started with half a pill a day, but after six months she takes three pills every six hours. 'I also took other narcotics,' she adds, 'such as Cemo green cough syrup and Proxamol painkillers'. Bashar Hekmat, owner of a grocery shop in the capital, goes so far as to offer three times the price of pills if a pharmacist refuses to sell them without a prescription. Alternatively, he turns to the black market where traffickers are increasing in number.