Bliss in the dark
Uros became a regular drug user at the age of 12. He was smoking weed every day, until he started the first grade of high school.
In a small, cozy room four people are laughing and talking about common things.
They seem pretty close to each other, like they have been friends for a long time. It looks like an ordinary atmosphere among friends, a chat over a cup of coffee in an early September afternoon in Belgrade, Serbia's capital.
One of them is a 21-year-old boy, a heroin injecting drug user. The woman sitting beside him is his mother.
The two girls who are spending the afternoon together with them are, as Uros says, his friends, whom he has been lucky to have met.
Uros is a tall, handsome boy with the looks of a basketball player. Though he has been into sports since early childhood, he has never become a sportsman. He has never worked, either.
"I was 15 when the rave parties started, so I begun using speed, ecstasy, cocaine. At the age of 17 I tried heroin and I'd been injecting it for four years."
He became a regular drug user at the age of 12. He was smoking weed every day, until he started the first grade of high school.
"I was 15 when the rave parties started, so I begun using speed, ecstasy, cocaine. At the age of 17 I tried heroin and I'd been injecting it for four years" says Uros.
In his search for money to buy his daily dose, he became a thief at the age of 17. He was stealing money and jewelry, not only from his parents, but from other people too at any place he could break into.
At this time, Uros begun to sell drugs. He was living in a Belgrade suburb surrounded by adolescents who were also intravenous users of heroin.
They met in empty houses or basements. His girlfriend jilted him.
A couple of months later, he decided to begin treatment at a private clinic, but he quit after only four months.
Uros started to inject heroin again when his family moved to the city.
"I felt some kind of a new freedom in the city, so I started using heroin again. I didn't have to show my eyes to anybody. When I was younger, no one could control me, I felt strong. When I was 17 or 18, I didn't think with my own head, but the thinking was shared between six minds – the minds of the team I used to inject drugs with" Uros remembers.
Unlike the adolescent drug users he used to spend time with, Uros was enrolled in a high school, studying computer programming.
Regardless of the problems his family faced, Uros's mother, Aleksandra, insisted on his education.
"We pushed him to go to school, no matter what. We were searching for any possible way that would have helped him finish grade by grade. He was a drug user at that time, he was stealing from us, but we were still paying for his private classes. If we hadn't been so persistent, he would have never graduated from high school", says Aleksandra, Uros's mother.
While Uros was growing up, Aleksandra was concerned about her son's health and she kept telling him about the risks he was exposed to. But, Uros didn't mind.
"I was not quite aware of the risks from diseases like HIV, Hepatitis B and C. I was only interested in heroin and nothing else mattered."
Uros was going through his youth like this, until a year ago, when he met an outreach worker of "Veza", the first non-governmental organization in Serbia to work with injecting drug users.
His arms hurt him because of the almost destroyed veins. He complained to his friend who told him about "Veza" and their program of exchanging clean needles and syringes in exchange for the used ones.
"I was confused. Someone was actually offering for free the things I needed. So I went to them. A medical technician taught me how to tie the binding on my arm. For some time I was going to this drop-in centre just to get needles and syringes. Then I started to learn new things about health and social risks connected to drug use", Uros remembers.
Now he feels sorry to have missed the opportunity to become a user of the "Veza" services when he was an adolescent.
"If I had only known about the Veza's program earlier! I would have known more about the risks I was exposed to and I would have probably earlier stopped living the terrible life I had been living for years."
Recognized by the authorities, health institutions and other NGOs as the pioneer in this field, "Veza" has been implementing the Harm Reduction Programme since 2005.
Harm Reduction represents a set of strategies aimed at limiting health-related and social risks connected to drug use. Based on a global approach that includes prevention, health care and restored dialogue with the most vulnerable and marginalized population, this program does not repress drug users but rather turns them into prevention partners.
Since 2010, understanding that more has to be offered for adolescent drug users, a special program, designed for adolescents and youth of 15-21 years of age has started.
Supported by the Serbian Ministry of Health and UNICEF in Serbia, "Veza" and its outreach workers are providing health and prevention services in the drop-in centre.
It has a mobile unit for intravenous drug users, as well as information, education and communication programmes for the target group.
"The aim of this 'Veza' programme is prevention of spreading the blood-transmitted virus infections among adolescents that are intravenous drug users. If someone decides to go on the treatment in the meanwhile, we support him/her to find appropriate organizations and institutions."
"We don't judge their lives. We never tell any one of them 'You should get a treatment'. More important for them is to become aware of the risks" says Jovana Arsenijevic, an outreach worker in the NGO "Veza".
Jovana and her colleagues in the drop-in centre meet a number of adolescent drug users, coming from different social backgrounds.
There are around 50 children aged 15-21 who regularly visit the Centre. Each of them has an opportunity to take a shower or wash his/her clothes in the drop-in centre.
They are also engaged in various activities such as focus groups on topics related to drug use and disease prevention.
According to the latest findings of the "Veza" research, the knowledge of young drug users about health risks has been increased by 30 per cent.
"They are almost completely unaware about the risks of blood transmitted diseases when they first visit our drop-in centre. Roma are especially ignorant of the risks. So, we first teach them how to wash their hands or dishware" Ms. Arsenijevic explains.
They also help them to overcome problems with authorities, relations with parents, etc. and discuss with them education and employment opportunities, and establish linkages with various institutions.
"Veza" outreach workers have become Uros's true friends. They usually meet at cafés, where they spend pleasant time together, or go to the cinema.
"I remember better things, like going to the cinema with my friends from 'Veza', and learning about HIV/Hepatitis prevention than about the Needles Exchange Program" says Uros.
A month ago he decided to quit injecting heroin. The latest HIV/Hepatitis B and C tests show that he is clean.
He says he hopes to stay away from the people he used to inject drugs with. He is not certain, though, for how long this will last.
What he knows is that he would like to study psychology at the Belgrade University, to find a girlfriend, get employed.