'Moving to a village should be a great exit strategy for a heroin user - but it was a big mistake'

Michael Bird, Andrei Cotrut

“I tried to escape from heroin in the city to my grandparents in the countryside - but there was the source of the drug. That’s where I think I contracted HIV,” says ex-user Anton from Kyiv, Ukraine


“I studied in a good school. I am from an upper middle income family. In 1996 I enrolled in international economics in one of the best universities in Ukraine - Taras Shevchenko in Kiev.”

34-year old Anton talks in the office of his work, at NGO Alliance Ukraine, where he deals with national programs to prevent the spread of HIV.

Tall, charming and open, he appears as any other charity bureaucrat, with a steady commitment to human rights.

But from 16 years of age, his youth was blighted by addiction and, later, by the discovery of an incurable virus.

“I did drugs for fun. I was a DJ in clubs, playing a mix of progressive house, NRG and progressive trance. The club industry was ripe in Kiev in the mid-1990s. It was a good job for any student. After the night ended, I would go to the manager and get cash. This income was enough to provide me with drugs - amphetamines and ecstasy mostly. A lot of dealers were in the clubs.

“Following the weekend, I could not fall asleep. So I started taking heroin. Not for fun, but to go to sleep. First I snorted and then injected between the muscles. Soon I realized I liked it. My body needed it and after half a year of using, I started injecting in the veins.

“I would buy heroin from Nigerian students in the University. They brought in large quantities. On the campus, I just walked over to a connecting building to buy the stuff from the African guy. I didn’t need to go on the street.

“I tried detoxing. I tried rehab. But it did not work for me. I became a street drug user. I would leave my parents house and could spend three months living in squats.”

Home-grown heroin: a new addiction

“I made one last effort to quit. I left to a village 60 km from my home in Kiev. To my grandparents. I thought there would be no heroin there. No friends of mine would encourage me to use it. This is a good exit strategy, I thought. But it was a big mistake.

“Here I met my other friends with whom I used to play football with as children. They made their own opioids - shirka extracted from poppy heads.

"They break the heads, clean the seeds away, cut it into strips, dry the skin, grind and powder it into a dust, and mix this with baking soda, acetone and vinegar. In one and half hours, you have a brown liquid - a village heroin - you can inject.

“In the counytrside the poppies grew in the gardens. Sometimes we bought them, other times at night we went into fields and picked as many as we wanted. I ran from heroin in the city to the village, where there was the source. So began my new period of drug usage with another product.

“I developed abcesses. Problems with my health. Heroin does not waste the veins as quickly as shirka.

“In villages there is no access to clean syringes. There was one pharmacy ten km from place where I was staying. So it was normal practice to use and re-use syringes.

"One of the places where I could have contracted HIV may have been the village.”

Condoms: lunchbox for drugs

“In Kyiv, I bought shirka already pre-loaded in syringes or in big quantities from dealers. I was injecting up to five times per day.

“One good way of transporting the drug is inside condoms. A dealer can pour the liquid in through a funnel and then knot it up. You can hide a condom. If the police try to frisk your body, they won’t find it. Then a user can pierce the condom directly with a needle. Today, shirka is still sold in condoms.

“I tried to get office jobs, but the first need of a drug addict is the next dose - not business or work. I knew a dealer. I could get a lower price if I took more quantities.”

“Yes, I had relationships with some girls. But that was not my first need. It was an opportunity to get benefits, not because of feelings for girls.

“I stole money - from supermarkets, on public transport and in universities. I would walk into the college halls with my girlfriend. She would make conversation with someone or distract them. Such as near a public telephone. The person would leave their bag near the window, I would be sitting on the window ledge, holding up a newspaper, move it slowly to the side, covering a bag. My girlfriend would talk to the person and I would take the wallet from the bag.”

Reaction to HIV: excuse to binge

“In 2003, I found out I was HIV positive. My first reaction was just OK, I will live how many years before I die? My life now had a deadline - in three, four, five years. I decided to have enough fun as possible before I died. So I continued my drug using even more. It gave me a comfortable excuse. It was a silly reaction. But many users have it. They take a lot for three or four years, until they go.

"But in 2004, I found information about opioid substitution programs - a drug to replace shirka.

“I had no money. I did not have a job. I did not have a good relationship with my parents. It was my last chance and this chance was successful.”

For ten years Anton has been taking buprenorphine tablets to replace shirka.

“In detox, I met a girl who was a drug user. I did not think it could be a serious relationship, but we met up every weekend. I invited her to live in my house and we started substitution therapy together - later we married.”

Marriage, pills, therapy and a senior office job has helped him stay clean for a decade.

Dressed in an ironed shirt and jersey, with a perfect haircut, he has become the white-collar mid-level professional expected of his background.

The only trace of his past on Anton are his contorted fingers, bent inward to the palm.

He says this resulted from injecting his veins in the top of his arm, near the armpit.

He mimics moving his fingers across a keyboard in the air.

“But I can just about type,” he says.

Read our other stories on drug addiction and HIV in eastern Europe

Romania: 'HIV changed my life - but in a better way'

Moldova: 'My wife and I both found out we were HIV positive - that shows it must be love'

Text by Michael Bird, illustration by Andrei Cotrut