Khalida's father says she's 9--or maybe 10. As much as Sayed Shah loves his 10 children, the functionally illiterate Afghan farmer can't keep track of all their birth dates. Khalida huddles at his side, trying to hide beneath her chador and headscarf. They both know the family can't keep her much longer. Khalida's father has spent much of his life raising opium, as men like him have been doing for decades in the stony hillsides of eastern Afghanistan and on the dusty southern plains. It's the only reliable cash crop most of those farmers ever had. Even so, Shah and his family barely got by: traffickers may prosper, but poor farmers like him only subsist. Now he's losing far more than money. "I never imagined I'd have to pay for growing opium by giving up my daughter," says Shah.
The family's heartbreak began when Shah borrowed $2,000 from a local trafficker, promising to repay the loan with 24 kilos of opium at harvest time. Late last spring, just before harvest, a government crop-eradication team appeared at the family's little plot of land in Laghman province and destroyed Shah's entire two and a half acres of poppies. Unable to meet his debt, Shah fled with his family to Jalalabad, the capital of neighboring Nangarhar province. The trafficker found them anyway and demanded his opium. So Shah took his case before a tribal council in Laghman and begged for leniency. Instead, the elders unanimously ruled that Shah would have to reimburse the trafficker by giving Khalida to him in marriage. Now the family can only wait for the 45-year-old drugrunner to come back for his prize. Khalida wanted to be a teacher someday, but that has become impossible. "It's my fate," the child says.