By Waheed Khan
KARACHI, Jan 8 (Reuters) - It's a chilly night in a run-down part of the Pakistani city of Karachi and several boys squat in a dirty alley, getting high on glue.
Breathing in fumes from glue-soaked rags and glue-filled plastic bags is a daily ritual for these boys who live rough on the streets of Pakistan's biggest city.
"The fumes burn the eyes and leave the body dry. It kills your appetite. But after being kicked and treated like a dog it gives you peace," said one of the boys, Mohammad Naeem.
Cheap at 50 rupees (85 cents) a tin and easier to get than illegal drugs, "Samad Bond" glue -- the sniffers' favourite brand -- is flooding the streets of Karachi.
The Pakistan Medical Association says substance abuse among street children has reached alarming levels.
"If more is not done soon, Pakistan is heading for a street children hooked on glue crisis on the scale of other countries like Morocco and Brazil," said Qaiser Sajjad, the association's general-secretary.
There are about 14,000 street children in Karachi and most are sniffing glue, said Aksa Zainab, a social worker who helps street kids at a drop-in centre operated by the Azad Foundation in cooperation with UNICEF.
"According to our research, 90 percent of these children are involved in glue sniffing or in some other solvent abuse," Zainab added.
The problem is getting worse as more and more poor parents with large families are unable to make ends meet and their children end up in the streets of Pakistani cities and towns.
Severe urban poverty, a rising cost of living and few job opportunities for the poor are causing the growing street children problem in Karachi, explained economist Asad Saeed.
"There is also no law on the compulsory education of children. It's a free-for-all society," Saeed said.
LIVING ON THE STREETS
Akram, one of the boys sniffing glue in the alley, explains how he ended up homeless.
The 15-year-old, dressed in a ragged blue shirt and dirty jeans, said he ran away from his stepfather who beat him with iron rods and scorched him with cigarettes.
The boys make money cleaning cars and scavenging for scraps in rubbish.
"I wash cars, collect paper and metal from garbage dumps. I even beg for alms but I'm committing no crime," said Mohammad Khalil, one of few who prefers to sleep on the streets with his friends because of family fights at home.
Abdul Karim, a scruffy-haired boy with bucked teeth, is among a small group of street children who have kicked the glue habit.
Small and cocky, Karim attended a detoxification and rehabilitation programme at the Azad Foundation drop-in centre, which is housed in five small rooms in a narrow lane of a downtown residential area.
Karim is a regular visitor to the centre where children get clean clothes, food, medical aid, counselling and even schooling.
"I used to sniff glue until three months back. I used to feel dizzy and sleep all day. Now I feel better and am also trying to stop smoking cigarettes," said Karim.
One room at the centre has a television set, a major attraction for the kids, another has games and a third has been turned into a classroom with colourful charts and a chalk board.
"The numbers are increasing as they tell their friends of what benefits they get here," said social worker Zainab.
From Reuters' AlertNet website