Karquekpo, Sinoe County – Wearing a blue and white, sleeveless basketball shirt and short jeans trousers, Blamo Klay, 43, speaks openly about his heroin addiction.
Report by James Harding Giahyue
“I am still behind the man to leave that thing … but the man still continues. I can be crying. I can hold the man’s foot but the man can’t listen to me.” – 40-year-old Bessie Klay, wife of an addict
People still remember how he used to be a family man, catering not only to his nine children but also to extended relatives and friends.
“I was having my shop selling, a friend called me and said ‘My man, come let’s go stroll…’ when we go like that he will prepare some and say ‘taste it,’” explains Klay.
“Sometimes I ran away from him but he encouraged me and encouraged me, and I put my hands inside.”
Like many in Karquekpo, Klay works on an artisanal goldmine and supports his habit with the gold he finds.
But Klay is now losing everything. One of his two wives has already left him and his other wife is threatening to do so. Currently the family survives on handouts from relatives and the little money they receive from renting the three mud houses he built before he started using a low-grade heroine known here as “Italian White”.
“He is smoking drugs, so he does not know what the children are eating or what I am doing,” his current wife, 40-year-old Bessie Klay says.
“The children cannot go to school.”
She says she wants to leave him but finds it difficult. Klay has always been the love of her life and she cannot come to terms with being a single mother of the four children she has with him.
“I am still behind the man to leave that thing … but the man still continues. I can be crying. I can hold the man’s foot but the man can’t listen to me,” she says.
Drug abuse is a major issue in mining communities across Liberia.
The Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy claims Sinoe County has the biggest potential for gold in Liberia.
As new mining sites emerge they are likely to draw in drug traffickers and dealers.
Karquekpo, for instance, has about 200 men, boys—and some rare cases—women doing drugs, according to its mayor, Ernest Flahn.
The situation in Karquekpo might be grave but it is even graver in Government Camp, a community a two-hour drive away, whose population doubles Karquekpo’s 5,000 people.
Many men, including former town chiefs, have abandoned their families and live between the goldfields and drug ghettoes.
Unlike the ghettoes in Monrovia that are found in houses and abandoned buildings, men and women, in remote places like Karquekpo smoke under the canopy of the forest.
Built on a hill, mining started in Government Camp some 60 years before the first shovel was thrown in Karquekpo.
Local legend has it that the town was founded in the 1930s by men from the neighboring Grand Gedeh County, who were in search of gold.
In the 1960s then President William V.S. Tubman established a mining camp there from which the town gets its name. An old mining machine still sits at a hill that bears his name, Tubman Hill.
Government Camp retains that profile till today.
It has 15 Class ‘C’ licenses for small scale or artisanal mining and one Class ‘B’ license for medium scale mining that uses machines, according to the local government-run Jaedae Mining Agency that oversees Government Camp.
On a Saturday morning in July, four men were rounded up by the police and placed in a cell at a local depot. They were caught smoking heroin earlier that morning, according to a local police depot.
“This drug business is not an easy thing here,” explains Commissioner Abraham Dennis of Bokon Township in Statutory District, where Government Camp is located.
“Only few people are lucky or not interested but many of our young men here are in drug business.
“They are digging all around our town.”
“They are digging our graveyard. We have very serious problem with drug business here that government needs to intervene,” adds Commissioner Dennis.
The town literally sits on gold. You can find gold anywhere in the town, even if you dig under your bedroom.
“The zogo boys (drug users) go overnight they scrub all around,” affirms David Sayon, Mining Agent of the Jaedae Mining Agency and Coordinator of Sinoe County.
“Over there was no gutter but it is the zogo boys that are making all those gutters.”
He points to an array of holes nearby allegedly dug by the drug users to find gold to fund their habit.
The four men do not deny they used illicit substances or that they dug within the town to get gold.
“Every weekend I get money, so I can take it once a week,” admits Joseph Geah, a 24-year-old, eighth grade dropout.
“Me, I can take one level every day,” adds another, Mohammed Sale, a Nigerian.
It is not clear why these men and boys take drugs. Like Klay, each man and woman has their own story.
On the route between Karquekpo and Government Camp a group of men mine at an old goldfield.”
“They split into two groups—one digging and the other cooking.”
“They take up time to smoke heroin or as they prefer to call it, “Italian white.”
“They light the matches and place it under a little sheet of aluminium foil.”
“The heat melts the substance and they smoke it. Smiles spread across their faces.
“It can make me feel strong to do my work,” one of them says. “
“He reveals he take in two or three loads of Italian white before work sold at L$300 per load (for a pinch of the substance wrapped in paper).
“If I don’t take it, I can’t work,” he says. “It can make me do the gold work perfect, 24-hours, day and night, no resting.”
Commissioner Dennis blames the Liberian Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for the situation with drugs in Government Camp.
“People are disappointed,” Commissioner Dennis says.
“The Drug Enforcement Agency will come here and arrest people but after one or two days you will find the same old people they say they arrested,” he explains.
Two alleged drug users are handcuffed at a police depot in Government Camp in Sinoe County
On the contrary, the DEA says it deserves some kudos amidst huge legal limitations and border challenges.
“It is the same situation everybody is complaining about in our country, but I can tell you that the reason we see drugs entering into the leeward parts of our country is because we have porous borders,” says Chief of Operations Johntor Robertson Wolo, Jr., a senior level official at the DEA in Monrovia. “We don’t have officers posted at those borders this is the why criminal gangs or criminal organizations use the porous borders to bring drugs into our country.
“We continue to arrest drug suspects. We continue to take them to court.”
Wolo says communities were yet to understand how the court system works and what the Drug Law of Liberia says.
“The DEA arrests drug criminals and processes them to court. Under the Drug Law, that individual is entitled to a bond,” he explains.
“That is the constitutional right of that individual. We cannot disrespect the court.”
“We are advocating for stronger drug law [that will not grant suspects bail] that’s one of the methods we can combat drugs. That has been our [advocacy.”
But Commissioner Dennis says the DEA is not doing enough and anger is brewing in the community. He says the community nearly reached a decision to mob suspected drug users recently.
One thing everyone agrees on is that Nigerians are the key traffickers of drugs in the country. Just recently, four Nigerians were imprisoned at the 13th Judicial Circuit Court in Margibi County.
Wolo says many of the drug traffickers nabbed so far by the DEA are Nigerians.
Of 89 suspects arrested in 2016 by the DEA for trafficking and drug use, 15 were Nigerians.
“The Nigerian people are so many,” reveals Sale, who is also a Nigerian.
“Majority of them are businesspeople. They are the ones who can bring in the Italian white.”
The US DEA had expressed concern as far back as 2010 that drug smugglers from South America, thwarted in efforts to send drugs to Europe through traditional routes, were increasingly using West Africa as a new trafficking route.
It is not clear yet where the Nigerian sellers are sourcing these drugs.
Liberia’s drug problem can be traced back to its civil war (1989-2003) that left about 100,000 ex-combatants, many who faced problems with drug abuse, according to the United Nations Office of Drug Crimes (UNODC).
It says continued abuse of illicit drugs such as marijuana and heroin is undermining growth and development in Liberia, majority of whose population are young people.
The DEA confiscated more than US$1.6 million worth of drugs, just over US$200,000 more than the agency’s budget for fiscal year 2017-2018.
The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare has no rehabilitation home for drug addicts.
“We work with the Liberian government but we have not come up with a rehabilitation program or a rehabilitation center,” says UNODC-Liberia National Project Officer William Thompson.
He says UNODC is working through partners that carry out rehabilitation for small number of addicts.
“We are counting on government to provide the facilities. If government can provide the facilities, we will do our best to provide the necessary mechanism to help,” Thompson adds.
Back in Karquekpo, Klay is desperate for help.
“In the night I can cry to leave it but it is hard to leave,” Klay laments.
“The time you take it when the hour reaches, you’re sick. You can feel sick. Someday I can ban myself from going to the scene but when the sickness gets in my body—whether that’s 12 [pm]—I must wake up to get on the scene.”
“If they take them [the dealers] from here without curing me, I will go to the area where they are.”
This story was produced by James Harding Giahyue and was written as part of a media skills development program run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and New Narratives and funded by German Development Cooperation. The funder had no say in the story’s content