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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 November, 2003, 16:24 GMT
DR Congo army turns war on Aids
By Rob Walker
BBC Africa Live!

DR Congo soldiers
Soldiers are now discussing the risk they and their families face from HIV/Aids
The new military in the Democratic Republic of Congo faces a huge battle against Aids.

There is no accurate estimates of the prevalence of HIV/Aids in the eastern South Kivu region - but during almost a decade of conflict, health workers say it has risen sharply.

The armed groups which have ruthlessly battled for control of the region have some of the highest infection rates. "According to statistics, soldiers are the most at risk from HIV/Aids. They are three or four times more likely than civilians the same age to contract the disease," says Tete Kayembe of the local non-governmental organisation, Research Centre for Students of Medicine (Crem).

Losing men

The commander of Bukavu's army camp, Captain Roger Kawili, says he is now losing too many men to Aids.

"Aids is a disease that can kill more than weapons. During the war, soldiers were away from their wives, they found occasional partners and this put them at risk," he says.

DR Congo soldiers
Aids is a disease that can kill more than weapons
Captain Roger Kawili

In South Kivu, as front lines moved back and forth, armed groups contributed to the spread of the disease.

But as well as mobility of armed groups, the brutality with which they have conducted the war has also dramatically increased the prevalence of HIV/Aids.

Rape has been perpetrated on a massive scale against civilians, from young children to old women. Cases of male rape have also been reported.

Tied to trees

Pauline Jabuka runs a support centre for rape victims in Bukavu.

"Up to 15 soldiers often rape one woman, they tie their legs to trees and rape them repeatedly. They don't care of their age," says Pauline.

"We have 67 raped women in our group - aged from 13 upwards. 80% of them have some form of sexually transmitted disease infection - some of them with Aids," she says.

DR Congo soldiers
Now the soldiers must win the war against HIV/AIDS

But in recent weeks, local peace agreements between the main DR Congo armed groups in South Kivu - the former RCD-Goma rebels and the Mai Mai militias - have raised hopes that the war may finally be coming to an end.

The first moves are now underway to integrate these former warring militias into a unified Congolese army.

Captain Kawili says one of the first problems the new army needs to tackle is HIV/Aids.

"We've won the peace, now we must win the war against HIV/Aids," he says.

Raise awareness

Crem believes that efforts to stem the spread of HIV/Aids in the community must start with the army.

Crem is now helping the Congolese army in Bukavu to raise awareness among its soldiers about the risk they and their families face.

Corporal Basima has been trained as a counsellor.

"First I ask the soldiers to be faithful to one woman. If they can't do that I advise them to use a condom," he says.

But for those soldiers and civilians already living with HIV/Aids there is so far little support - health services in South Kivu have been devastated by the war.

Bukavu's pharmaceutical factory will soon start producing antiretroviral drugs - at a cost of around $25 for a month's treatment.

"This offers hope for some, but not for soldiers living with the disease," says Corporal Basima.

"Soldiers in Congo can go for months without being paid. We won't be able to afford these new drugs. Any money the army pay us we spend on food for our families".


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