By Samuel Burke, CNN
The mother of a little Afghan girl cannot even turn to face her daughter. She looks down in shame as she explains why she must hand the girl over to drug lords.
The father of the girl has done what many Afghan farmers must do to finance their opium farms: borrow money from drug traffickers. But the Afghan government and international forces’ attempt to halt the opium trade has quashed the father’s poppy business, and with it, his ability to pay back the lenders.
The drug lords have taken him hostage to extract a payment.
“I have to give my daughter to release my husband,” the mother explains with the girl at her side. She looks no older than six.
Ninety percent of the world's opium – the raw source of heroin – comes from Afghanistan. Growing poppy there has been a lucrative industry.
The Afghan government has been cracking down and destroying illegal crops, leaving many farmers in the same horrifying situation as the family forced to use their own daughter as collateral for the loan.
“They’re way more dangerous and powerful than the Taliban,” one father of two kidnapped children says about the drug lords. He looks at a text messaged picture of his daughter being held in captivity as the captors demand $20,000 from the man over the telephone.
These tragic stories are documented in PBS’ award-winning Frontline film, "Opium Brides,” which was made by investigative Afghan reporter Najibullah Quraishi and producer Jamie Doran.
Quraishi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that when the families give up their children, they are often taken to other countries, like Pakistan or Iran, where they are used for transporting drugs or put into sex slavery.
The film traces another story of an ill-fated Afghan farmer. “It just seemed too awful to be true,” producer Jamie Doran told Amanpour about that man’s plight. “[He] couldn't pay the traffickers back and refused to give his daughter away. And we actually have the entire film of him being beheaded with a penknife. That's what they do if you refuse to hand over your daughters.”
The reporter behind the film says the government is aware that it is destroying families’ lives along with their crops, but policymakers have yet to come up with a solution to safeguard the farmers’ families while trying to end the opium trade.
One little girl who was lucky enough to escape her captors recounts just how horrible the conditions were. “They wouldn't allow me to change my clothes. They wouldn't give me soap to wash them. My clothes became worn out on my body. They did every possible cruelty to me. I really fear that those smugglers will take me again.”
Even if the girls do escape, they often have nowhere to go while they search for their families. The filmmakers did find one halfway house, but it was only enough for about 30 girls.
The filmmakers believe there are many hundreds, if not thousands of girls on the run from the traffickers.
“The role of NATO and the United Nations is fascinating in this situation,” Doran said. “The U.N. and NATO ISAF will tell you it's not their responsibility nor do they advocate the destruction – the eradication of the poppy. But they supply the protection for the police to actually do it. So they're saying on one hand, 'we have nothing to do with this.' But the Afghan police couldn't do without NATO support.”
But Doran points out that the root of the problem is the opium drug users. “I don't know if there's a solution because the world demands poppy cultivation for its heroin addiction. So you know, maybe the blame shouldn't just be put onto the Afghan government. Maybe we should be looking inside ourselves a little more,” Qaurishi said.
The looming fear is that this horrendous situation could worsen when international troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
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CNN’s Claire Calzonetti produced this piece for television.