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AP all-formats team gets rare, exclusive access to Taliban crackdown on drug users

Drug users detained during a Taliban raid walk in line on their way to the detoxification ward of the Avicenna Medical Hospital for Drug Treatment in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. Now the uncontested rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban have set their sights on stamping out the scourge of narcotics addiction, even if by force. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

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From a fetid bridge underpass frequented by addicts, to a police station, to a grim drug detoxification ward, this all-formats package driven by powerful visuals takes a stunning look at Afghanistan’s drug underworld and the severe treatment of heavy drug users by the Taliban. The work also bears witness to AP’s robust reporting from Afghanistan, which has continued unabated since the Taliban takeover.

Dusseldorf, Germany-based video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, Barcelona, Spain, photographer Felipe Dana and Baghdad correspondent Samya Kullab, all currently on assignment in Kabul, gained rare access to this especially bleak segment of Afghan life, where hundreds of homeless men addicted to heroin and methamphetamines are rounded up, beaten and forcibly taken to treatment centers.

The story presented significant challenges. Over the course of several weeks the journalists surveyed locations where addicts gather,building a relationship with them so that they would agree to be photographed and interviewed on camera.

Documenting the Taliban crackdown was also the product of patient negotiations with the new regime; Taliban officials rarely give foreign journalists access to their operations. In the end,luck played a part: After several refusals,Chernov and Dana happened to be present when the Taliban anti-drug unit turned up to haul drug users away. One man lay dead among the drug users, reportedly beaten during a Taliban raid.

The team also had remarkable access to report and record inside a forbidding drug treatment ward where they observed near-skeletal patients,interviewed doctors and witnessed the emotional reunion of a wailing mother and with her 21 year-old son who had been missing for 12 days.

Dana and Chernov delivered riveting images,gritty and painfully intimate, representing AP’s photo and video journalism at its best.

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Drug users detained during a Taliban raid wait to be shaved after arriving at Avicenna Medical Hospital for Drug Treatment in Kabul, Oct. 1, 2021. SOme 700 patients float around the hospital’s halls like ghosts. Some say they aren’t being fed enough; doctors said hunger is part of the withdrawal process. – AP Photo / Felipe Dana

Kullab’s text is no less compelling, adding layers and detail to the package,including context around the Taliban’s own role in the drug trade and their motivations going forward. “This is just the beginning,later we will go after the farmers,and we will punish them according to (Islamic) Sharia law,” a lead patrol officer told AP.

The trio’s exceptional work is all the more notable coming out of Kabul,where journalism is difficult and often dangerous. AP’s bureau remains in transition: Several staffers had to be evacuated and our relationship with the country’s new rulers,who have a history of violent intolerance toward the press,remains uncertain.

For a rare exclusive that sets a high standard for coverage while shedding light on a harsh reality in Afghanistan,the team of Chernov, Dana and Kullab is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

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