We Can't Hear Ourselves Screaming

As I entered the small building in Kathmandu, the small girl who was sleeping under a small rag, as small as a handkerchief maybe, woke up and began to cry. One of the women who was hovering around came forward and picked up the tiny, bent, shivering frame. I am prepared but the sight of as child's face scarred by AIDS induced lesions still shock.

"Both mother and father dead from the same. They are from the Nepalgunje side."

"How long has she got ? I ask unnecessarily.

The woman doesn't answer first. Then she looks at me in silence hoping I will read something from her eyes.

Where do these hills that drive people to work across borders to India from Nepal splitting families and ripping apart lives end and AIDS begin?

There is a big hulla-golla meeting in Delhi where all the AIDS biggies have assembled. The national budget has just been announced and the money allocated for AIDS has remained the same as before. It's a meeting my South Asia based British charity has organized and the National AIDS Committee of India (NACO) representative is also there. Newspapers have said that with inflation adjustment the budget spells less money for AIDS that year. I quote and raise the point. The NACO chief brushes me aside. He gives the official spiel about the Indian government's commitment to tackle the issue. Some protest but he drowns their voices.

Later in the day, when I show him the paper, he says that journalists know very little. " We have all the money we can spend. We know that other departments can't spend the money and if we can spend and then ask for more, we will get it."

He pats my shoulder.

All the way from Bangladesh and concerned about Indian HIV + people. How nice.

It doesn't get better for the affected in India.

The regional office of a major UN agency plans to do AIDS advocacy. They gather people including journalists from the region to go pro-AIDS. Everyone promises to do something and returns home and write about AIDS. Some one declares that the head of governments have all said they will do something for AIDS. There is cheering, clapping, big smiles.

People are too happy to mention that while India is already carrying the second largest burden of HIV+ in the world, there is no sense of emergency. Elsewhere in South Asia, the silence of the authorities is louder than the silent and secret death from AIDS.

It's all about advocacy. What else can you do after you have commissioned a major advertising agency to run a campaign on TV about AIDS.

Like a field mouse running through the grass. Nothing moves.

A meeting is on to decide what is to be done about the national AIDS policy in Bangladesh. Is it the 13th or the 14th policy ? People are not sure. There is an expert from the UNAIDS. He is furious at it all. Nobody asks him anything. " In Africa, things are much better? In Africa there are communities. In South Asia there are no communities. How can you tackle AIDS without communities."

He sits down and looks sadly at his own wisdom. Why aren't they designing the world according to his understanding?

The people from major international NGOs, UN agencies and other development organizations are all from one particular country and long time friends.

Is this a community? Or a mafia?

Something is deeply wrong if South Asian society has managed to forget AIDS and all that it implies even before they tried to stem the tide. Poverty screams, poisoned fields and dead harvests scream, the women who can't count screams, the man with a child's body dead from disaster screams, the women with the severed head of her brother screams, the family weeps in desperate sorrow at the feet of a burnt bride, the acid scarred face of a girl screams, the man coughs blood pulled out from TB devastated lungs and screams...

This is a cluster of societies screaming because of pain and at each other drowning each others voices because so many have joined this terrible chorus of despair.

It takes some courage but I hold the girl in my arms as I have held other girls who are about to fade away. I have wrestled for words to describe this particular process -- this dying- without using these words because they mean so little. Fallen, faded, disappeared.. her screams in a stranger's arm fill the air. Suddenly we laugh, the laughter of forgetting, the laughter of the absurd.

One day this scream will maybe awaken the authorities, the experts, the agencies, the NGO into action, usefulness, effectiveness. But even as the lungs are torn apart the screams are without sounds and the silent scream are increasingly like that the silence of the lambs.


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I remember even 2 years ago, the ads in Dhaka would focus on breastfeeding. Only this year, I have finally seen ads focused on condoms. But even then it is in context of marriages. Nothing wrong with that, but leaves out a lot of people.

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