The men have many questions that need to be answered. “There aren’t enough condoms and even if we are positive where do we get treatment? Where does AIDS come from? Is it from God?”
“If you are positive be strong and come out,” Kuwjok urges. “This is a problem for our children. If we die, no one will care for our children and we will have fought the first war for nothing.”
After four decades of armed conflict Sudan’s military are in the midst of another war - this time against HIV and AIDS.
There are an estimated quarter of a million people living with HIV in Sudan, and according to the UNAIDS 2008 report, in 2007 alone 25,000 people died of AIDS.
Lieutenant Colonel John Woja is head of the SPLA HIV secretariat at the barracks for the army of South Sudan. He is appointed by the Chief of General Staff to move the military’s AIDS strategy forward.
“The military is the highest risk group in Sudan. There’s been no activity on HIV and AIDS because people have been fighting on the frontline…Where the military are there is always HIV and AIDS.”
Sudan is the largest country in Africa and there are many challenges to providing adequate HIV services, not least the distance people need to travel to access treatment. War has ravaged the country and the health services struggle to provide even the most basic healthcare.
“I’m worried about how we get to areas where there are troops everywhere like Barghazal... How do we get services there?” says Woja.
Having the military play a proactive role in HIV prevention, treatment and care is essential in helping to break down the social stigma associated with HIV. This stigma is one of the major reasons that people don’t come forward to be tested.
The military HIV programme is comprehensive in its approach. It includes behaviour change, prevention, institutional capacity building, care and support, treatment, monitoring and evaluation as well as voluntary counselling and testing (VCT). The army also has two clinics in Juba.
“We follow up with people after they test positive. For two days they come together and receive antiretroviral treatment and counselling. We give them information on how to live positively,” he explains.
For those with advanced HIV symptoms they’re referred to other hospitals in the area.
Put to proper use
Last year 1.3 million condoms were distributed and the demand is high.
“We go to the barracks, we meet the commander, give HIV awareness and education. We show the men how to use condoms correctly and consistently.”
John Majok is 24, a military prisoner originally from Rumbek who became a soldier when he was 14 after his father and sisters were killed. “I’ve been here for two years. I think it’s good we’re getting information on HIV. We need to protect ourselves from … this HIV.”
Lieutenant Colonel Woja believes that the way to make a difference in the epidemic is by working together – government, military, civil society, international organisations.
“Military command took HIV as a priority…. We haven’t broken the back of this enemy – there’s much to be done….We need to work together with partners, like the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.”
The Alliance supports 25 organisations in South Sudan in their fight against HIV and AIDS providing grants for prevention, care and support, giving technical training and helping organisations to be more effective.
“In battle it’s important not to fight it alone. We have to find friends. I think perhaps this is the only way we can win the war,” the Lieutenant Colonel reflects.
If we die, no one will care for our children