Fatima’s marriage started to fall apart in its early days.
Her husband began selling her jewelry, claiming that he was raising funds to set up a small shop. It soon transpired that he needed the money to buy a drug called Tramadol.
“I didn’t know at first that my husband was a Tramadol addict,” said Fatima (not her real name). “But then I couldn’t find the only gold ring that I owned. I knew then that he was desperate for money.”
According to Fatima, her husband would become aggressive if he did not have his daily fix of Tramadol. On one occasion, he started to beat his wife and children, ordering them to go out and find some money for him.
“He was like a monster,” Fatima said. The incident occurred three years ago; her husband has not called to see his children since then.
There are two versions of Tramadol in Gaza.
One is prescribed legally as a painkiller by the health services. The other, more potent form, is traded on the black market.
Colloquially known as the red poison – because of the color of Tramadol pills – the drug is very much associated with the siege that Israel imposed on Gaza a decade ago and that remains in place to this day.
In December 2008, it was reported that up to 30 percent of Gaza’s males between the ages of 14 and 30 were using Tramadol regularly.
Later that month, Israel began a major three-week offensive against Gaza. An increase in drug-taking was noted by a United Nations survey undertaken in Gaza following Operation Cast Lead, as that offensive is known.
Pills for breakfast
Taking Tramadol was seen as a way to relieve stress by some people. Many of its users soon became hooked.
One student recalled how she was given Tramadol by a friend, whose brother was the most active drug dealer in their area.
The student took her first pill with breakfast before her first lecture at university.
“I kept doing this every day for a month,” she said. After a while, she had run out of money to feed her habit, so she sold a gold chain that her father had given her when she passed her secondary school exams.
The woman, aged 22, recently stopped attending classes. Her family had found out about her addiction.
“Fewer women are addicted to Tramadol than men,” said Muhammad Abu al-Sabih, a therapist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. “But addiction among women is increasing in a way that is quite worrying.”
His colleague Khalid Dahlan said: “I treat one female addict for every three male addicts. That is a high proportion.”
Most of the women treated for Tramadol addiction are in their early 20s, Dahlan added.
Tramadol addiction is a problem found among both the poor and the better-off.
A doctor in southern Gaza halted paying his son an allowance after learning that he was a Tramadol addict.
The son then began stealing items from their house before breaking into the home next door and attacking a woman who lived there. The woman died as a result.
“He did a lot of bad things,” the man’s brother said. “And he ended up killing an innocent woman.”
“Easy to kill”
Hassan al-Sweerky, a spokesperson for the anti-narcotics division in the Gaza police, alleged that Tramadol is being smuggled into Gaza by locals working in cooperation with Israeli criminals.
Although Gaza is sealed off from the outside world, police have identified a number of what they call “yellow areas” through which contraband is entering the strip. The “yellow areas” include a few locations along Gaza’s boundary with Israel.
According to al-Sweerky, the smugglers receive drugs from Israeli dealers at certain spots in the boundary which are under full Israeli control. “This means that Palestinian security forces cannot go there,” he said.
While many smugglers have been arrested, the police spokesperson said, others evade surveillance by constantly changing the SIM cards in their mobile phones.
One smuggler admitted that the Tramadol trade is “very profitable.”
“We are always trying to change and develop our methods of bringing drugs in – so that we are one step ahead of the police,” the smuggler added. “But it’s also very dangerous. We live in fear. There is a lot of greed in our business and we are always fighting with each other. It is very easy to kill in this job.”
On occasion, caches of illegal drugs have been found by the authorities. Around 400,000 Tramadol tablets were destroyed in Gaza during the last three months of last year, according to the local police.
Yet the flow of drugs has continued. Police say that the amount of illegal drugs which they seized in Gaza so far this year is higher than the quantity seized during all of last year.
Tramadol has also been brought into Gaza via Egypt. In recent years, Egypt destroyed many tunnels that Palestinians had dug in order to access the Sinai region of the country. The tunnels were used to bring goods into Gaza that Israel prevented from being imported above ground.
The systematic destruction of tunnels has not had a discernible effect on the availability of Tramadol. Police believe that it is still coming into Gaza via those tunnels that remain in use.
In an attempt to help Tramadol addicts kick their habits, the local ministry for health has set up a rehabilitation center in central Gaza. The center is called Amal, the Arabic word for hope.
“With the number of addicts increasing in recent years, it was vital for an official body to take care of them and treat them in a specialized center,” said Abdallah al-Jamal, a psychologist at Amal.
The center runs rehabilitation programs that last from 15 to 90 days. There is much emphasis on sport and on healthy diets. Addicts are encouraged to give up drugs altogether but, in certain cases, are allowed to take legal painkillers as a substitute for black market Tramadol.
The police work closely with the center.
“Many addicts have asked for help with treatment,” said Hassan al-Sweerky, the police spokesperson.
“Some of them didn’t want their families to find out about their addictions. So we started to deal with these people as medical patients. They are treated for free and without having any criminal charges brought against them.”
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a freelance journalist and writer from Gaza.