War in Yemen: How drugs have become big business
TAIZ, Yemen - Before war came, Khalid Omar was only an occasional user of qat, sitting around with friends and chewing its narcotic leaves.
First he lost his well-paid job with an oil company in Shabwa province. Then, in 2015, he lost his younger brother amid shelling in Taiz city. Finally, he succumbed to qat and lost his dignity.
Now Omar is unemployed, reliant on charitable handouts and barely able to pay for clothes or food for his four children. If he is lucky, he works as a labourer on a construction site for two days each week: his daily wage is YR3,000 ($12), of which a third goes towards paying for qat.
"When I compare today with my life before the war, I want to kill myself," he told Middle East Eye. "Suffering surrounds me from all sides.
"My mother is an old woman who needs money and medicines for diabetes. My children need money and food. And then I have to help my two nephews."
The only escape, as Omar sees it, is to chew qat. "When I chew qat, I forget all of this suffering and my mind begin to think about imaginary things. Qat annihilates all suffering.
"I did not use to be a qat addict, but the current bad situation has forced me into this as I cannot provide my family with all their needs. Qat helps me to live hours of happiness with my friends.
Omar chews qat for eight hours a day or four hours if he happens to be working. When not at work he consumes it at friends' houses.
"I sit with my friends and every day I get to know new friends. Qat helps us to build relationships with others," he said.
"When I buy qat, I don't just buy leaves and shoots but happiness, which is the purpose for everyone in life."
Qat: A social drug
For centuries, qat has been a feature of life in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa as well as related communities around the world. It is legal in Yemen and other countries in the region; it is banned in the UK, US and elsewhere.
It is an evergreen shrub, and chewing its sweet leaves and shoots acts as a relaxant. Long-term users report that they occasionally experience visions.
Qat earns three times the revenue of any other crop in Yemen: it can be harvested as many as four times a year
It is everywhere in Yemen. Qat earns three times the revenue of any other crop and it can be harvested as many as four times a year.
It has become more prevalent during the past half-century, spreading from society's elite to become a focal point of social and business life. Qat is chewed by all ages, and it varies in price and quality (like other drugs, a bad supply can be disturbing for users). Users are mostly men. Bundles of qat are even given to a bride's family during weddings.
Since the civil war began in 2015, many Yemenis has stopped buying luxury items, given that even basic commodities are hard to come by. But qat users have not stopped chewing, and their numbers, according to anecdotal evidence, have increased. There was precious little help for addicts before the war, a situation that has worsened now.
Ahmed Sami, 25, graduated in computer sciences from Taiz University but the war stopped him finding work. When the clashes neared his neighbourhood in Taiz city, Sami returned to his home village 40km away in al-Mawaset district.
The quiet of village life frustrated him, so for the first time he started to chew qat with relatives.
"Around the world, young people have work to do, but the war makes us dependent on other people,” he told MEE, "and this is difficult for us."
After only 15 minutes of chewing qat, users report that the mind starts to wander; they become more talkative, then fall silent.
'If I stopped chewing qat, I would be like a crazy man in the street'
- Ahmed Sami, qat addict
By the next morning, the effect has worn off and addicts are confronted with whatever pain – usually related to the war – made them take qat in the first place. So they try and buy some more as soon as possible.
Long-term effects range from decayed teeth and depression to hallucinations and damage to the heart and kidneys.
"If I stopped chewing qat, I would be like a crazy man in the street," said Sami. "But qat helps me look forward to a good future. Even if it takes me into an imaginary life, it is still enough to make me optimistic."
The environmental cost of qat
Qat is profitable, if not for its users. War has forced the closure of many of Yemen's business and factories: qat is one of the few sources of income.
Qat can earn up to three times the revenue of any other crop.
Qat seller Hilmi al-Yousofi said that he now earns more than his daily income of YR5,000 ($25) before the war.
"Although there are new qat sellers who joined this trade amid the war, I earn more than before the war," he said.
Qat traders pay a tax on their qat to whichever side controls their region, be it the Houthi rebels or pro-government forces.
"I pay YR1000 ($4) every day for the pro-government forces and some other traders pay more and some less," Yousofi said. "It depends on the quantity of qat that we have."
'If people do not chew qat, then they will use forbidden drugs and the consequences will be worse'
- Khalid Abdul Nasser, qat farmer
But the profitability brings with it violence. In Taiz, there have been clashes between rival rebel groups as to who should collect qat taxes. One incident at the al-Quba qat market left two qat users dead and several others injured.
Khalid Abdul Nasser, a farmer in al-Ghail village, 50km from Taiz city, told MEE that during the past two years, he had earned more money than ever – so began to plant more trees.
"We used to have both qat and coffee trees in our farms," he said. “But during the last two years we pulled out coffee trees and planted qat instead as we can earn more than three times the revenue."
That focus on qat comes at an environmental and humanitarian cost. Qat trees consume far more water than fruit trees, but have now replaced them in several parts of Yemen even at a time of food shortages in the country.
In Yemen's northern provinces, farmers are drilling so many unlicensed wells to irrigate the thirsty trees that engineers sometimes have to drill around 1,500 meters before reaching the water. Abdul Nasser has his own well that he uses to irrigate his trees.
But the farmers care neither for the war-time emergency nor the related economic crisis. Instead, they regard qat farming as a legal occupation, keeping users away from drugs which are forbidden in Islam.
"If people do not chew qat, then they will use forbidden drugs and the consequences will be worse," said Nasser.
Governments have tried restrictions before, not least in south Yemen when it united with the north in 1990.
In May 2016, authorities in Aden prohibited the sale of qat, but protests followed and within a few weeks the ban crumbled.
'War is the main reason for all this suffering'
Omar's use of qat has earned him the disapproval of relatives.
One told MEE on condition of anonymity: "All of us chew qat, but we are reasonable and we provide our families with all needs and then buy qat. But he does not provide his family with anything and spends all what he gets to buy qat."
Omar admitted that his wife disapproves of his qat use and that he himself knows that what he is doing is wrong. He has promised his family he will stop when he gets a proper job, but for the time being he sweet leaves are a priority in his life that he cannot live without.
"No one wants to see his family suffering,” Omar said, "but I have nothing at hand to help.
"War is the main reason for all this suffering. I hope it will stop soon, so I can resume my regular life."