Rough cure for a terrible scourge

In rural Thailand, AIDS and addiction are treated with chains, herbs, prayer and talk


Pattani, Thailand -- For many who live in Baltimore, the city seems like ground zero in the global war on drugs, with a multitude of victims and their families paying a bitter price in lost lives and shattered dreams.

But users here are not alone. In Europe, Africa and Asia, millions of addicts and their families face similar struggles with the drug plague, many with far fewer resources than are available here.

Shackled by a chain, 25-year-old Sukri Masae lies on a thin mat in the jungle at the Ponoh School mental asylum and AIDS treatment center here, suspended somewhere between the drugs and violence of his past and an uncertain future.

The center is one many primitive treatment facilities scattered across Thailand. They are a last hope and refuge for thousands of victims.

Masae was brought to the private center a month ago by his parents, whom he beat repeatedly while under the influence of drugs. Most patients are brought by their family and cannot leave until the center determines that they are cured.

In an open-air shed near Masae there are seven more young men, chained side by side - some reading, some sleeping.

Norden Kosenk, 31, plays with a kitten and shares his food, and 20-year-old Arom, wearing a camo T-shirt, sways in a hallucination and pretends to shoot a gun into the air.

Beyond the shed are brick rows of private cells with a few more patients sitting in the doorways.

"Drugs come from everywhere: from Burma, from Laos, from Malaysia," says Nuriyoh Chitae, who runs the center.

With the closeness of these countries - long major global sources of addictive drugs, including heroin, cocaine and an array of other destructive compounds - Thailand faces one of the greatest drug problems in the world.

Wearing a Muslim headscarf and holding her 2-year-old son, youngest of her 10 children, Chitae is calm as she describes the tragedies that surround her. But there are tears in her eyes when she talks about her late husband, Zakariya Chitae, a Muslim religious teacher who started the center 10 years ago.

Determination shows as she explains her work to keep this center open. "I need to save these people. Just as my husband wanted."

The treatment here is simple: chains, herbs, prayers and talk.

"I know the Westerners would bring up human rights issues, which is too bad," Chitae said, "because it works."

Chitae prepares the herbs and food. Her relatives, volunteers and former patients help to feed, talk and pray with the patients. Chitae claims a 60 percent to 80 percent success rate, but the herbal treatments are not government-approved, and Chitae's many pleas for government funding have not been answered.

When patients come, their family leaves them with 1,200 baht (a little more than $30) to pay for the four to six months of treatment Chitae says is typically required to cure them. If patients still don't feel ready after that period, she sometimes uses her own savings to feed and treat them. Patients come not only from neighboring provinces but also Bangkok and even Malaysia.

Pattani, where the center is located, and two neighboring provinces, Narathiwat and Yala, are the three southernmost provinces in Thailand. They have large Muslim populations, and life there has been marked by continuing political and religious violence that has claimed more than 3,000 lives since January 2004. Buddhist monks have been murdered, local teachers shot, soldiers and officers beheaded, and shops and temples firebombed.

Chitae said she has not been affected by the public violence. The violence she and her patients care most about is that caused by drug addiction.

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