INSIDE A DIMLY LIT ROOM at the police-run de-addiction centre in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, four boys were huddled together on a steel bed close to an electric heater. A tall burly man stood guard at the door. Outside, the weather was frigid, as one would expect on a December afternoon in the Kashmir Valley. Omar, the youngest among the group, had been admitted to the centre, two days earlier, by his concerned mother and uncle, who hoped that the centre might help him overcome his heroin dependency.

Omar hails from the frontier district of Kupwara, some fifty kilometres from Baramulla. He shoulders the responsibility of being the sole earner in his family of five. He told me that he works as a machine operator at his uncle’s bandsaw factory, scraping by on Rs 13,000 a month. His father has been confined to bed for many years, incapacitated by an accident long before Omar was born. His mother, hailing from West Bengal, devotes herself to caring for his father and his younger siblings. When asked about the perilous nature of his job, Omar proudly said that he had worked for many years without incident.

Omar told me that his descent into heroin addiction began nearly a year ago when he saw a younger cousin injecting something into his arm in an alley behind his house. “When I asked him what it was, he told me it’s a medicine to cure all the tension.” Naïve and inquisitive, he agreed to try the miracle cure. The two cousins began meeting in the alley every evening. “It gave me a really good feeling that is difficult to explain,” Omar said. “If you are on heroin, whatever is happening around won’t affect you. You feel strong. Then I started doing it during the day at lunchtime.” His arms were covered with deep blue scars—souvenirs of the countless injections he had administered.

Omar was not alone in his malady. Kashmir’s decades of conflict have etched a deep scar in its people’s mental health, a strain that often goes unacknowledged. One of its clearest symptoms has been an epidemic of drug use as a mode of escape, with cannabis in the past and heroin today. The heroin epidemic carries within it a second epidemic: of hepatitis C and other bloodborne viruses. The social stigma around drug use leads to it being underreported, and even those cases that reach a doctor find a health system that is severely underequipped and understaffed. With counselling being short and inaccessible, and some other regimens being ineffective, the doctors of Kashmir face an uphill battle. And the many I spoke to feared the fate of an entire generation rested in the balance.

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