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The Low-Grade Heroin Ravaging Serbia's Roma Underclass

Called "pajdo," the drug is cheap and plentiful, but destroys the bodies of users who are already suffering under the crushing weight of poverty and racism.

Dževrija, a sex worker and pajdo addict who lives in Little Leskovac. She has a tattoo of her ex-boyfriend's name from the period when she was clean. All photos by Aleksandrija Ajdukovic

Tarzan lives in a tin-roofed shack in a ghetto on the hilly outskirts of Serbia's capital, Belgrade. Locals call this place "Little Leskovac," after a notoriously run-down town in southern Serbia. It's one of around 100 informal settlements of Roma people dotted around the city. The settlement is strewn with stinking piles of garbage. Homes sit on either side of dirt tracks. On my June visit I saw a goat taking advantage of the shade provided by washing lines. Empty shacks are littered with syringes—detritus left behind by users of pajdo, the bargain-bucket drug of choice for many addicts in the community.

The local slang for "dope," pajdo is actually heroin, but not as it's commonly known. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) heroin in Serbia is incredibly tainted; in 2011 samples of the drug seized by authority had an average purity between 1 and 8 percent.

Even though pajdo is junk and gives users only a 15-minute high, it is prevalent among Serbia's Roma underclass by default—alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine are, in comparison, expensive luxuries that are hard to come by. And pajdo gives them more bang for their buck.

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"We all love pajdo here, it's easy to get, it's cheap. Even the little kids know about it," says resident Tarzan, pointing to a kid who is no older than six. "They go with their dads to buy."

Tarzan's name is tattooed on his back. He is in recovery after ten years of pajdo addiction.

At 40, Tarzan, a Romani Serb, has managed to survive a decade-long addiction to the drug. When I visited, Tarzan's younger brother had just been rushed to the hospital with an overdose. He survived, but three of Tarzan's brothers haven't been so lucky in their experiences with the drug.

According to Thomas Pietschmann, of the UNODC's research and trend analysis unit, pajdo is "very, very low purity and typical of the heroin in this region." It is a concoction cut to the bone with a mix of cheap agents such as paracetamol, caffeine, pudding dust (the powder containing corn starch used to make blancmange-type puddings), three-in-one coffee powder (sugar, powdered milk, and powdered coffee), and a host of other chemicals including benzamine, used to make herbicides.

In the 1980s, before the Bosnian War, heroin in Serbia was of good quality and generally used by the middle classes. Then, Serbia was a major transit country for heroin coming from Turkey to Europe. But since the 1990s the number of heroin seizures has tumbled as trafficking routes changed. Now Serbia's market gets the crumbs—often via Kosovo's leaky border—of heavily-cut heroin.

One of the only cars in the ghetto

Pajdo's impurity makes it less likely to lead to overdose, but it's a noxious mix that in long-term users can cause liver and kidney damage, stomach bleeding, and strokes. Because of its low quality, this poor man's heroin doesn't kick in when freebased. The only way users can eke out a high is through repeatedly injecting it.

As a result, despite it's low heroin content, pajdo causes severe physical damage. A habit among Roma users is to maintain bellybutton-sized open holes in their groins so they don't have to keep breaking new skin. Multiple injections and sharing needles in unclean slum-like conditions has led to between 60 and 90 percent of Roma drug users in these ghettos being infected with hepatitis C, which can cause fatal liver damage.

In Roma settlements, the notion of a "gateway drug" is nonexistent. "The Roma here don't use cannabis, it's not really around. They go straight to injecting pajdo," says Bojan Arsenijevic of ReGeneration, a Belgrade-based NGO promoting harm reduction in Serbia. "The Roma here are so socially excluded they are not even allowed to sell drugs. Although it's a shitty drug, it solves a problem for them, because they have tough lives. But for the Serbian government and people, it's easy to turn a blind eye."

In July, Veza (which means "link"), the last remaining drug service offering needle exchange and outreach services in Serbia, was shut when international funding dried up. When I spoke to an outreach worker at Veza named Lucky a few weeks before the group closed down, he told me the people using pajdo were more addicted to injecting itself rather than the actual high of the drug.

Veza's demise is being felt already. Drug users now have to rely on a handful of pharmacies willing to sell clean syringes to them, but this has resulted in more needle sharing. Veza was also the only service providing direct help for socially excluded drug users such as those living in Little Leskovic.

Nina, a sex worker, has been using pajdo since she was 13

Nina is one of these people. At 26, she lives in Little Leskovic with her partner and baby boy. She's been injecting pajdo for half her life, and has been a sex worker on the streets of Belgrade since she was 18. She's famous in the area for being part of a teenage girl gang with three of her sisters, who spent their days cleaning windscreens at traffic lights, stealing, getting arrested, and fighting with boys. One of her sisters died of a drug overdose and the rest, like Nina, are sex workers addicted to pajdo.

Nina says her baby is the best thing in her life, but pajdo makes her happy. Her sex work allows her to buy drugs and make sure her baby has a good life. "In the morning I wake up with withdrawal symptoms, try to get pajdo, get high, and play with my baby. Then I work from 8 PM to 11:30 PM," she told me. Nina buys two grams of pajdo a day and shares it with her boyfriend who she occasionally refers to as her pimp. "My work makes me feel sick. Emotionally I'm still not used to it after seven years. Sex work is business. I don't like my job, but nobody's forcing me."

Dr. Mira Kovacevic, director at Belgrade's Special Hospital for Addictive Disorders, sees many young Roma women with drug problems like Nina. "Most of the girls who come here are aged 14 to 17. They start injecting early," says Kovacevic. "Many are married at 12, have little education, and are the victims of domestic violence. Most of the Roma girls we see are sex workers."

I asked her why are so many young Roma women use heroin. "Young Roma girls are easily manipulated by older family members or partners," she replied. "Often we hear they started using heroin after being initiated by family members. It's mind control. When we ask them what drugs they are taking, we know it's heroin, but they don't really know. They call it 'this brown stuff,' 'some yellow stuff,' or just 'pajdo.'"

According to Marijana Luković, status and socioeconomic rights program coordinator at Praxis, a human rights NGO, most Roma living in Belgrade's informal settlements are not registered citizens and cannot receive non-emergency medical help, such as drug treatment. They are locked out of the system.

The Roma here are seen as guilty for doing dirty jobs, being sick, addicted, poor, and uneducated. — Viktorija Cucić

To get social welfare, healthcare, jobs and adult education you need to have ID, which many Roma do not have this because their parents do not have it and they have no birth certificate. For example, earlier this year, a two-year-old Roma boy who had suffered severe burns on his arm was refused follow-up surgery because his mother did not have health insurance. Roma women have also been asked to pay to give birth in hospitals.

Belgrade, still in recovery from a decade of war in the 1990s, is littered with small abandoned buildings. But they are not unused. Most are refuges for pajdo addicts, places to go to hide and get high. The floor of one of these venues, a bomb-damaged brick building in the middle of town with "ALCATRAZ" written in graffiti on the outside wall, is littered with needles, blood spattered mattresses, piles of garbage, and human shit. Flies buzz everywhere and the smell is toxic.

The streets of Little Leskovac are bordered by huge piles of rubbish. Garbage trucks and other civic services do not come here.

Serbia does not have a great track record on treating its drug addicts, especially when the Orthodox Church is involved. In 2009 a video emerged of a drug user being hit with a shovel and punched in the face by way of 'treatment' at the Crna Reka rehab center connected to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Three years later priest Branislav Peranovic, who ran Crna Reka, beat a drug addict to death with a huge stick. He was later sentenced to 20 years for murder.

As with the widespread neglect of drug users in other parts of the Balkans, such as the Roma in Romania, this health emergency is largely left ignored by the Serbian authorities. The country plans to join the European Union in 2020, and the state of its Roma underclass has been a major point in talks with EU officials in Brussels; the EU has been providing funds to raise the living conditions of the Roma. But critics say that prejudice against the Roma runs deep.

"We are here to provide a nice smiling Serbia, the government is not interested in those who destroy this image," says Viktorija Cucić, a former professor of public health at Belgrade University. "It's not a problem about funding, it's a value problem. The Roma here are seen as guilty for doing dirty jobs, being sick, addicted, poor, and uneducated. The message is, 'Be happy you are still alive and sit in the corner and be quiet.'"

Cucic said that with the umbilical chord of international funding for drug users now cut, and a complete lack of interest on the part of the Serbian government to finance drug services, addiction and disease will only escalate.

Sofija's baby was born two months ago, but she was told he cannot be registered because she has no ID.

As I was leaving Little Leskovac, Tarzan took me to one of the shacks to see a two-month-old baby boy, Salmedi, being cradled by his mother, Sofija. Earlier that day Sofija had tried to get him a birth certificate but had been refused by the authorities. But he looked healthy. Roma babies are breastfed until they are four as it's the cheapest way of feeding.

On the table beside them was a meal of bread and water for the rest of the family—they can't afford anything better. Unless those in charge of such monumental inequality start to push for for change, that's the diet Salmedi will have to get used to once he's taken off his mother's milk.

The author would like to thank Jovana Arsenijevicand the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union for their assistance in writing this article. The HCLU has a new campaign to raise awareness of drug abuse in the Balkans; to learn more, go to their website, Room for Change.