The rubble-strewn grounds where Pietermaritzburg’s infamous Ematsheni Beer Hall once stood have become an open air market for the drug whoonga.Fenced off from the Masukwana taxi rank across Retief Street, the vacant lot has been taken over by addicts seeking refuge, and a fix.Around 15 makeshift tents are pitched along the fence, each with a queue of between 10 and 15 addicts in front of it waiting to buy from a dealer with a handful of whoonga straws.Not a single law enforcement official is in sight.One man, in a desperate attempt to get a straw of whoonga, tries to offer what appears to be sets of stolen earrings. The dealer pushes him away, demanding cash only.The dealers do not appear to be users themselves: dressed in clean clothes and looking fresh-faced, they sit at makeshift tables under the tents, a bag of money on one side and a bag of whoonga, cigarettes and rolling paper on the other.Some users are well into their forties while others look barely over the age of 15.A young boy, who looked around 16 but would not reveal his name or age, said many of the users were looking for a way to put an end to their addiction.“Some of us do want help. What was just an experiment with friends turned into an addiction and without help, it is too painful to give up,” he said.He said the withdrawal symptoms include severe stomach cramps and the feeling that his blood is on fire.Whoonga is a low-grade form of heroin mixed with a variety of other substances, sometimes including rat poison.The drug is highly addictive and while some follow a life of crime just to get their next fix, there are many asking for help in detoxing from “the most difficult drug to detox from”.Gad Avnon of Harmony Retreat rehabilitation centre in Greytown said going “cold turkey is impossible due to the withdrawal symptoms”.“The withdrawals are unbearable and addicts often abscond from treatment because of the pain.“To properly detox a whoonga addict they are put onto drips, tranquillisers and pain medication for between seven and 10 days.”He said any other method would not work.The drug itself is a “downer”, he said, and made the user very sleepy. However, without the drug, users can become violent and aggressive.“They are controlled by their desire for their next fix and will do things they would not usually do, such as steal, rob people and prostitute themselves, for a straw. It is horrific.“The whoonga problem in Pietermaritzburg is big. If you go into town you can see just how bad it is.“People who have been using for a long time do not use for pleasure anymore, they use it to control the pain of withdrawals.”Avnon said it’s very concerning that the drug is so easily available and there are many children who are using or have access to the drug.Pietermaritzburg police spokesperson Sergeant Mthokozisi Ngobese said the police are aware of the whoonga problem and will be talking with various stakeholders on how to tackle the matter. 'Helpless' addicts tell of their painHalf-a-dozen addicts showed The Witness injuries they had suffered, allegedly at the hands of law enforcement officers, taxi drivers or business owners who have tried to chase them away recently.They said two of them were still in hospital after clashes with taxi operators in the past few weeks.“They hit us like we are wild animals ... They use everything from planks, bush knives and even shoot at us because they don’t care whether we live or die,” said one of the teenage boys.Most of the addicts conceded that Msunduzi Municipality had the right to remove them, but said they had nowhere else to go, and returning home is “not an option”.Sithembiso Mbatha said if he were removed he would have to sleep on the streets. He said he could not go home until he was clean. “If I were to go home now I’ll end up stealing from my family to feed my addiction,” he said.He said addicts preferred being in the CBD because they could “hustle” for their next fix by recycling cardboard and metal.“We need to make money every day. This addiction is expensive. Some guys even commit crime to raise money for drugs.”Mbatha and his friends said they spent between R400 and R1 000 daily on drugs, and sometimes sacrificed buying food for whoonga.Another addict, who refused to give his name, said he had a BA degree, adding that some people who lived with them were teachers or government employees “before whoonga ruined their lives”.“Whoonga makes you powerless. All of us here know right from wrong but we are helpless because whatever money we make goes to drugs.”The man said those who wanted to quit were also scared as one of their friends had tried to go “cold turkey” but died from the withdrawal symptoms earlier this year.“I’m one of the people who needs help but I’m slowly losing hope. Politicians come here and promise to take us to a centre that knows how whoonga works but they never follow up,” he said.