The Alliance’s film ‘Somebody’s Mother, Somebody’s Brother’ is about the importance of harm reduction services in the everyday life of people who use drugs. It is about achievements and challenges, fears and aspirations of people around us.
The film made me reflect about the apparent and hidden realities of drug use in Ukraine. When watching the film I realised that I already met Alyona.
On the screen
I met Alyona (the heroine of the film) and Natasha (name changed) earlier this year when visiting ‘Vertical’, a community centre in Kiev for people who use drugs, together with Lord Fowler. It struck me how different the two women were.
Alyona sat in on the discussion about the lives of people who use drugs from the very beginning. Stiff and tense, she was listening much more than talking and seemed to be more interested in our questions than people’s answers. She did not say much, but her eyes and body language told a lot. Her life was difficult. But she managed to remain strong. She was elegant and had a nice haircut. Despite all the difficulties, she was projecting the persistence to continue living with the dignity. At that point I did not know that she was somebody’s mother and had the story to share.
Behind the screen
Natasha entered the discussion like a storm. She was dropping by ‘Vertical’ with her boyfriend to get clean needles, condoms and decided to stay with us. Her gestures were wide and generous. Her voice was loud. She was in her early 20s, but looked very mature. She told us that her parents were well off and were buying her food and clothes. They never gave her money because they knew she would buy drugs. So she often had to steal. When answering whether she has ever experienced discrimination she shared that her dad had difficulties finding the job as the security guard because she was in the registry of people who use drugs. We kept listening and Natasha went on:
“I have been using heavy drugs since I was 12. I grew up with them. I have been using all sorts of drugs – homemade opiates, stimulants and amphetamines. My personality was developed with drugs. Since very young age, I have been communicating only with people who use drugs. And I do not know how to live without them. I remember myself ‘being a child’ and then me ‘being with drugs’.
It is really good that there are free centres now, like this one. I could come here get free clean needles, participate in detox programmes. This provides us with the opportunity to try to quit drugs.
I participated in three rehabilitation programmes since I was 15. Unfortunately nothing helped me. I do not know how to live without drugs.
I am very grateful that here I could try to start the substitution therapy. It is a programme which helps [me] to get the dose and then one could go to study, work. I am a young person and I can still get my education and have a career. I really hope that this programme will help me. Even though at the beginning it will be as if I am still on drugs, I will have more free time. I will not need to steal all the time to get the money for drugs. I will have the time to study and work. And then I hope with time I will be able to live without drugs.”
This summer we were trying to find Natasha to invite her to share her story through the film, however she disappeared and we were not able to find her… I hope she will come back to ‘Vertical’ soon.
I returned to Ukraine this summer to visit my family. I could not help encountering the signs of how spread the problem of the drug use is.
I visited my friends who grew up and live in Vasylkiv city. Vasylkiv is known for the high rates of drug trade and drug addiction. I asked my friends few questions and I amazed by what they told. Their school garden was one of the main sites for the injection of drugs in the city. A lot of people they knew had developed a drug addiction. They told the anecdotal story about an older lady who was always drying the pillows outside her house. They explained that she was drying marijuana inside the pillows. They could describe in detail the patterns of drug trade in their city. They knew who was selling, what type of drugs and to whom. They knew the police was persecuting people who use drugs and once a bribe was paid they would let them go. My friends knew a lot about drugs because for many years drug use has been a part of the everyday life of people around them.
When travelling around Kiev and the villages in Kiev region I noticed several times men and women with swollen hands from the opiates or heroin addiction. Almost every day I was seeing unconscious men on the sides of the roads and parks. Some of them have been drunk, but some (most likely) were under the effects of drugs.
Majority of drug use realities in Ukraine are not captured in movies, reports and stories and remain untold because of how common they are. The only way to address the drug problems in Ukraine is for the police to stop criminalising people who use drugs and for the government to get serious and start funding harm reduction programmes.