Feature story

South Sudan addresses concerns of HIV-affected refugees

11 January 2011

A version of this story first appeared at www.unhcr.org

Mary returns to her village during her visit to the Kajo Keji area in southern Sudan

Mary Kiden wants to return to her home in South Sudan more than two decades after fleeing to north-west Uganda, but she has been worried about receiving the health care she needs to stay alive and to support her family.

Forty-one-year-old Mary is living with HIV and takes antiretroviral medicines. At Oliji in the West Nile region of Uganda, she receives the right help, but the infrastructure in South Sudan is in tatters as the region struggles to emerge from years of war between the Khartoum government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, and five years of fragile peace.

To help her make an informed decision about whether to return to southern Sudan, UNHCR recently invited Mary to join a ‘go-and-see’ visit to Kajo Keji in Central Equatoria state. But on the long drive to her home region, she started finding reasons why she could not return.

She told her fellow refugees that, as the family's only breadwinner, she feared she would not be able to support her mother and children. What worried her most was getting access to antiretrovirals and being stigmatized by people in her village, which did not even have a health clinic when she left all those years ago.

But when Mary finally reached her home region she was pleasantly surprised by what she saw. The town now has a sprawling health centre, complete with new buildings used for HIV testing and counselling, HIV information and drug distribution. The World Health Organization and the Sudanese Ministry of Health have also been supplying antiretroviral drugs for the past year.

Buoyed by her visit to the hospital, Mary next met members of the "Loving Club Association," including a long-lost cousin. This support group, which has received seed funding for livelihood projects from UNHCR, gathers approximately 230 people who are living with HIV. Profits have been used to buy land and provide food for members. According to UNAIDS there were around 260,000 HIV-positive people in Sudan in 2009. 

Mary rounded off her visit by spending some time in her village with her cousin, Elia, and his wife, who is also HIV positive. She was delighted when Elia offered her a plot of fertile land if she and her mother returned.

On the drive back to Uganda, Mary said she felt that her concerns about access to drugs, medical care, support and acceptance had been allayed and that she hoped to return to Kajo Keji with her elderly mother and sons in 2012.  "I am really very happy," she added.