Laila Haidari, a roundly built Afghan woman in her thirties, puts on her ballerina shoes and heads under the notorious Pul-e Sukhta Bridge, moving among the oppressive smell, discarded syringes and passed out bodies. Opium-addled men, many her seniors, call her tenderly «mother». In turn, she refers to them as «my boys», urging them to come to her makeshift rehabilitation centre, dubbed «Mother Camp».
Laila at the Bridge is an observational documentary that patiently follows the Afghan woman as she almost single-handedly tries to help the addicts at free shelters that she runs without government support or foreign aid.
Saving the addicts seems like a Sisyphean task in the face of relapses, financial hurdles and opposition from the government. For a time Haidari finances her shelters through her own restaurant, staffed with recovering addicts, but that soon becomes a futile project as a spate of attacks drives customers away. «War, war, everything from war», says Haidari empathetically as addict Ikhtiar Gul, a former bodyguard of Afghan President Najibullah Ahmadzai, now a disfigured man battered by war and life, shares his story, refusing to trim his beard as he does not want a scar from a bullet to show.
Gul is one of thousands who turned to drugs after suffering an insurgent attack at a market or on duty. The 2001 US-led invasion in the country did not help curb opium production and trafficking. In fact, the figures have soared since the onset of operations carried out by Washington and its allies. The film notes that Afghanistan now produces 90 per cent of the global opium supply, which has fuelled a steep drop in domestic prices and resulted in the highest rate of addiction in the world.
The documentary doesn’t go on to explain how Western intervention pushed Afghanistan to the brink of being a narco-state. The film does, however, bring to the fore the sheer hypocrisy of the Afghan government’s counter-narcotics efforts. «Unfortunately in Afghanistan everything is symbolic. Everything is a show», says Haidari during a live 1TV Kabul debate on the «biggest challenge» of Afghanistan – the cultivation, smuggling and trafficking of narcotics. The contrivance is palpable as a delegation from the Ministry of Counter Narcotics unabashedly calls for the standardisation of the camp during a visit to Haidari’s shelter. It is a call to which Haidari doesn’t hesitate to respond, «Don’t give me that policy-schmolicy…You said my camp isn’t up to standard? The hell with your standards! Is under the bridge ‘standard’?…You’d just say, ‘Standardise your camp.’ With what money?»
«Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the global opium supply, fuelling a drop in domestic prices, resulting in the highest rate of addiction in the world.»
The Ministry of Counter Narcotics may not know what «standard» is but it never fails to put on a show, boasting the effectiveness of its work. The camera is ever present as authorities set alight seized narcotics in the «serious and strong fight against the drug mafia». Yet when asked who that mafia is and why after years of fighting Afghanistan is still the world’s biggest producer of opium, Counter Narcotics Deputy Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Azhar appears to find no better answer than calling the mafia «not a group of ordinary people».
No miracle factory
The longing for a semblance of a life pierces through the film. However, life for thousands of Afghans, for whom drug addiction is no stranger, is marked by a different kind of celebration. A group of recovering addicts gather around two birthday cakes graced with number candles 8 and 2 to celebrate the birthday of Marzia, daughter of Haidari’s brother, who turns eight and her father Hakim who turns two – two years of being clean. Laila at the Bridge chronicles the tenacious struggle of Afghans, who, notwithstanding the interminable war and looming death, are able to bounce back and maybe even share laughter or a dance.
However, despite years of fighting and billions of dollars spent, Afghanistan could not be further from combatting its drug problem. The sight of addicts jostling over food under the bridge or an addicted mother feeding her cranky baby with an opium mixture, which she is seen taking from a UNICEF bag, is a slap in the face. And it leaves you with little hope.
As the documentary draws to a close, the camera floats over the bed of the dried-up Kabul River, and we see Haidari descending again into the dark recesses of the bridge in her unwavering call to save «the boys». The film ends exactly where it starts – at the bridge. «A person must cross the bridge themselves», says Haidari, noting that «even if they relapse a thousand times more, if they want to get clean again» she will be there for them. But the question remains: Will the international community be there for them?