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Saturday, 2 December, 2000, 00:19 GMT
Eritrea wakes up to Aids
Eritrean refugees leaving Sudanq
Refugees are thought especially at risk
By Alex Last in Asmara

On a small hill swept by the hot, dusty wind in western Eritrea, several thousand women, children and the elderly gathered for a pop concert and a play.

The special event took place at a camp for 35,000 people displaced by the war with Ethiopia.


My wife [and children] complained of feeling ill... It's clear now they died of Aids

Feshaye Tseggai, HIV positive
For the inhabitants it was a rare break from the boredom of life in the camp, and a chance to see Eritrean pop stars like Helen Meles and Zamach.

The entertainment though was organised for a more serious reason.

It was an HIV/Aids awareness event targeting the displaced. They are considered amongst the most vulnerable to infection by the disease.

"They are out of their normal social environment, they are gathered together from different areas, and there is virtually nothing for them to do," explained project director Kidane Girmay.

Apart from distributing condoms to encourage safe sex, the organisers set up big screens in several camps to keep the people occupied at night.

Awareness

In between the entertainment, talks would be given warning of the risks posed by Aids, and demonstrating a condom's use.

Eritrean soldier
The activities of many soldiers make them a high risk group
Then for the first time in front of cameras, an Eritrean who is HIV positive gave a talk.

Feshaye Tseggai said that he had never used a condom and urged people not to make the same mistake.

Mr Feshaye, who was employed by the event organisers after being diagnosed in October, said later that he had felt driven to speak by the desire to stop others becoming as sick as he is.

He explained that his wife and two children had already died of Aids.

"My wife complained of feeling ill, and described the same symptoms I feel now. At the time we were saying malaria not Aids. It is clear now that they died of Aids."

Taboo

There is still a stigma attached to HIV in Eritrea - not many people come forward.


At the moment the army is together, but then it will be spread to every corner of the country, history has shown us this

Aids campaigner Kidane Girmay
It does appear, however, that many of those infected have been looked after within the family.

But the real extent of the problem in Eritrea is still unknown.

Figures from the Health Ministry's national Aids control programme, included in a UN report, estimate that there are 70,000 HIV positive people in Eritrea, about 2% of the population.

However, this same estimate was suggested two years ago when the ministry said the number of cases was doubling at least every 18 months.

Whatever the figure is, the problem is serious, especially in a population of only several million.

Soldiers pose danger

The war has also created another danger - that posed by the mass mobilisation of Eritrean men and women aged 18-40.

"These people are the future of the country, but armies have their own behaviour," said Mr Kidane.

"When the army comes home, and everyone goes to his village, to his town, his wife and family, that worries me too much. At the moment the army is together, but then it will be spread to every corner of the country, history has shown us this."

The Ministry of Defence has taken the issue seriously by promoting awareness in the army and distributing condoms.

The arrival of some several thousand international peacekeepers is also worrying many Eritreans, some of whom are asking that all troops be tested before being sent.

Their fears were heightened by reports from Cambodia that peacekeepers there had helped spread HIV.

Swift action needed

UN policy on Aids stipulates no compulsory tests for its employees, but most armies do carry out their own testing.

That not withstanding, there is the risk that peacekeepers could help spread HIV already existing in Eritrea.

In night clubs peacekeepers are seen with prostitutes, and with Eritrea's economic problems casual prostitution may get worse.

Everyone agrees that at the moment the situation in Eritrea is containable - if action is taken fast.

There is the need not only to educate the people, but also the more difficult task of changing people's behaviour.

With such a small population Eritrea cannot afford complacency.

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See also:

01 Dec 00 | World
Events mark Aids 'catastrophe'
28 Nov 00 | Africa
Africa's Aids burden
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