Subject: Age: AIDS spectre looms over Dili

The Age Saturday 1 December 2001

AIDS spectre looms over Dili


Just a block away from the imposing United Nations building that dominates the Dili waterfront, two East Timorese girls are soliciting outside Tom's Place, a recently opened Australian bar. Some off-duty UN policemen stroll by, stop to consider the offer, then walk on.

Officially, East Timor's UN administration does not admit that a local sex industry is flourishing to serve its personnel. When a row erupted with the Northern Territory Government in June over accusations that UN staff visiting Darwin were responsible for a sharp upturn in AIDS, the world body went into denial mode. The resulting compromise was a coy exhibition at the UN building in Darwin where personnel confirm their flights, suggesting it is desirable to use condoms when on holidays.

First warning that an AIDS time bomb might be ticking in Dili came when United States doctor Dan Murphy asserted that 12 UN peacekeepers had been diagnosed seropositive.

Soon afterwards Jan Savage, head of the NT Health Services' AIDS clinic, warned that there was a spiralling rate of infection linked to visitors from East Timor. In absolute numbers the NT has very few cases - there were two cases in 1999. By mid-2001 there were 10 new cases, including a woman infected by a UN soldier.

Dr Savage compared the situation to Cambodia, where there was not one reported case of AIDS when UN forces arrived in 1991. It has since surpassed Thailand as Asia's AIDS capital. Her concern, she said, was that if the statistics had risen so sharply in Darwin, East Timor could well face a major epidemic.

No figures are publicly available in Dili, but one informed source said a test sample of 500 locals had suggested East Timor was a zone of "high AIDS prevalence". But, the source warned, the testing was not reliable.

"It could have false positives, so we cannot use it".

Maureen Magee is an Australian social worker who works with Dr Murphy, tracing partners of patients with venereal infections. Her work has revealed an impoverished Timorese mother who has sex each weekend with three African policemen for $4 a time, and a group of women who are paid by a household of Pakistani policemen to have regular sex with them. These are tales from the suburbs, leaving aside the brothels hidden around Dili.

Ms Magee's greatest frustration is that there is neither testing, counselling nor treatment for potential HIV-AIDS sufferers. "If we see someone who looks like they've got AIDS and we can't test them, then we can't counsel them either," she said, "because it would be unethical."

At a sanctuary for Dili street kids, a working bee is under way, making red ribbons for World AIDS Day. Justino Santos, 20 and "Epi" Maria Pinto, 19, are two youngsters whose image could not be more distant from that which the phrase "AIDS activist" evokes in our society.

They have never met a person with AIDS, let alone a person dying of the disease. They are fresh-faced youngsters from a church group, yet are more worldly than they appear. They spend their evenings rounding up street kids in a bus to get them away from the dangers of the night. In describing their talks with the Catholic church, Epi declares solemnly: "Only the condom question is unresolved" (the church still opposes condom use).

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