Back from Afghanistan quest, Spellman describes 'growing field' of heroin, terrorism

Retired educator and coach James M. "Jim" Spellman Jr. is "reporting out" what he learned about the heroin trade in Afghanistan, having traveled, at great risk, to the nation that produces an estimated 90 percent of the world's supply of the drug.

During an interview with The Day and in a series of Facebook posts, the 68-year-old Groton resident, who co-founded Shine a Light on Heroin, described nine terrifying days he spent in January in a land he said serves as "a growing field for a consortium of jihadists who use the drug as a tool of terrorism and subjugation."

"No one who makes a living in Afghanistan is not involved in some way, shape or form in the heroin trade," he said, from the farmers who grow the poppies to the peasants who cut the "gum" from the buds, to those who traffic the drug around the world and hide the spoils in Swiss bank accounts.

In the United States, which has deployed military troops to Afghanistan since 2002, and where addiction has plagued every segment of society, "We live lesser lives as individuals solely because of what heroin has done to us," Spellman said.

His fight against the heroin crisis is motivated by the overdose deaths of 20 of his former students or athletes and three of their children. He announced his "quest" to travel to Afghanistan last summer and raised money for the trip, which he said cost just over $9,000. He left quietly, having shared his itinerary with just a few trusted people.

The American Embassy does not endorse travel to Afghanistan, and Spellman knew before leaving that he would be on his own.

Spellman traveled to Kabul, where he stayed in a highly fortified compound reminiscent, he said, of a 1950s Holiday Inn. The guards carried modern-day Swedish AK-47 rifles, he said, with Uzi submachine guns slung over their shoulders.

Fearful of food- and water-borne illnesses, Spellman said he subsisted on the 100 protein bars he had packed in his suitcase and a case of Perrier he arranged to have delivered to his room. He grew his hair out for the first time in years and wore a cap, knit scarf and sunglasses in hopes of passing himself off as European. He said he immediately was identified as an American; he said he thinks something about Americans' bearing makes them easily recognizable.

He constantly was terrified and said he didn't use his cellphone for fear of being detected and persecuted. He couldn't take pictures, he said, because he would have had to pay the subjects a bribe, known as "baksheesh."

Spellman was disappointed that he never made it to the poppy fields in the country's southern provinces. He said friendly Afghans told him he would have had to bribe a helicopter pilot with at least $25,000 to take him, and that the Taliban or Islamic State likely would place a high bounty on his head if he attempted such a trip.

"I didn't want to become a martyr to the cause," he said. "I wanted to come back and report on the cause. It's very easy for someone to go online and become an expert. Now I have street cred(ibility)."

He had arranged before leaving to meet with six Afghan citizens, Spellman said. They told him the democracy that Americans envision for the country cannot be achieved due to a high illiteracy rate, a corrupt government, warring tribal factions and the heroin trade.

"One individual told me wherever heroin is, it inevitably poisons whatever it comes in contact with," Spellman said.

In the outskirts of Kabul, he said he saw hundreds of addicts lined up to purchase the drug or already in a stupor. He said he saw a man "pummeling" a woman while others just walked by, and a circle of people surrounding a skirmish in which one man shot another.

He went to the Russian Embassy, where he said he was greeted warmly and told the United States had not responded to requests to destroy the poppy fields. He said he left with the Russians a poster he had packed with the intention of delivering it to the Presidential Palace. The Russians said they would co-sign the poster and give it to their ambassador, who would give it to the next American ambassador for delivery to the Afghan ambassador.

"Government of Afghanistan, please shut down the poppy fields," it said. "The heroin is addicting and killing our children."

While in the country, he placed 23 small white crosses in the soil outside the Grand Mosque in Kabul to "symbolically inter" the former students and their children who died from overdoses.

Two days before he was scheduled to leave, one of his Afghan friends advised him not to leave his room, saying he was in grave danger. He took the advice.

 Spellman said he limited himself to sending one email a day to his brother, Michael Spellman, that said, "I'm OK. Tell Judith (James Spellman's wife)." The emails didn't go through until he landed back in Boston, he said.

"When I got home, my wife was very happy to see me," he said.

Spellman said he is willing to speak to any group that will invite him and already has scheduled a speaking engagement with union machinists from Davis Standard.

"We need international allies of courage to shut down the poppy fields and monitor to prevent their reopening," he concluded on his Facebook page.

Physician Frank Maletz helped raise funds for Spellman's trip, which he considers a "big and bold" step toward addressing the heroin epidemic. He is leading a local effort to correct the prescription opioid connection to heroin addiction. His own interest is the science of addiction, not interdiction of heroin, but "it's not a poppy field or a brain issue. It's everything."

He was fascinated to hear the details of Spellman's "quest."

"What I was particularly taken with was the escalating danger the longer he's in country," Maletz said. "Folks were taking him aside, telling him he should lay low. He wanted to get home and tell the story."

k.florin@theday.com

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