Samir Ben Fatoum was 15 years old when he started using drugs. Studying in France, he was living a dream held by many Tunisians. But soon, he said, things fell apart.
“The neighbourhood where I lived in France was full of drug dealers and users. I was living in my aunt’s house, I was young with no parental supervision and I was curious to try it,” he told Al Jazeera. He spent 20 years as an addict, first to heroin and then to a subtler and more readily available drug.
Back in his native Tunisia in 2000, Ben Fatoum started using Subutex, an opiate-replacement drug that is marketed as a substitute for methadone to help heroin users get clean. Subutex, the brand name of buprenorphine, was first seen in France in 1996. Cheaper than heroin and harder to detect in drug tests and physical searches, it had previously swept through parts of southern Asia and Eastern Europe.
While Subutex has been around for years in Tunisia, treatment workers say its use has increased since the 2011 revolution forced out autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. An uptick in cross-border smuggling with neighbouring Algeria and Libya, combined with a depressed economy, are driving the addiction. Now, thousands are left further impoverished, ostracised from their families and dying from syringe-spread disease.
There are 12,000 Subutex users in Tunisia, according to a 2012 survey.
“Addiction rates have increased since the revolution,” Dr Adel Ben Mahmoud, from the Ministry of Health, said. “There is a war between the Ministry of Interior and smugglers.” The government is planning to launch new efforts to fight addiction, Ben Mahmoud said, including the establishment of a national drug authority, a collaboration between the ministries of health, interior and justice and with help from NGOs.
Drug use remains heavily stigmatised in Tunisia, and Douiri said Subutex users fear isolation from their families. In a failing economy, with an unemployment rate at over 15 percent, users do whatever they can to support the habit. “I spent all my money on drugs and some family money too,” Ben Fatoum, the former addict, said.
There are many consequences of change and turmoil. Pray for those who feel life is hopeless and are turning to drugs. Pray for the Church to see how it can reach out to those who feel such desperate hopelessness. Pray for Christian satellite television to address issues that bring an encounter with Jesus in the midst of turmoil.