HIV-Positive Patients Find Solace in Country Picnic

kirirom national forest, Kom­pong Speu province – Men Sothal, 36, packed up her husband and baby Saturday and headed for a picnic in the country, like many other Cambodian women.

Unlike most of them, however, Men Sothal is HIV-positive. So is her husband, 31-year-old Y Kim Hong. They don’t know yet about their seven-month-old baby—they hope to get her tested soon.

Men Sothal looked around the sun-dappled glade here at Ponleu Chivit in the national forest. Bright mats covered the cool forest floor; on them, about 100 people sat talking, eating and laughing together.

They were old and young, in uniform and casual clothes, mostly Khmer with a sprinkling of different races and ethnic groups. All wore loops of glossy scarlet ribbon pinned to their shirts.

“When I get someplace like this, I am happy, because the people support me,’’ Men Sothal said, breaking into a wide smile.

She and her family were am­ong 50 HIV-positive people who, with their friends and families, were treated to the excursion by the AIDS Prevention and Care Project of World Vision, a Christ­ian humanitarian organization with projects in about 100 countries.

Dr Oum Sopheap, who heads the AIDS project, said such outings are about the only treatment Cambodia’s 200,000 AIDS pat­ients can expect.

“There is no medicine for them,’’ he said. “It is a dream for an emerging nation.’’ The cheapest treatment that is available is in Thai­land, and that costs $700 per month, he said, while the average Cam­bodian income is $170 per month. “How can we afford this?”

With medical treatment out of reach, Oum Sopheap said, it is crucial that AIDS patients get counseling to help them cope. Outings like the picnic provide a respite from hopelessness, as well as a chance to talk to others who truly know what they are going through.

Before lunch, some patients stood to tell their stories.

Arun, who was diagnosed six years ago, said the chance to talk to others was so important to her that she left her sickbed to attend.

She said she knows all about the discrimination AIDS patients can face. “My husband ran away from me when I tested positive,’’ she said. “My life is like a lamp without petrol,’’ but she struggles on “because AIDS threatens my Cambodian people.’’

Kim Nan, a government sold­ier, said he tested positive three years ago. “But I still have hope, because [World Vision] still helps me, encourages me to live in society.’’

Speakers included Phoak Sam An, second deputy governor of Kampong Speu province, who said he came to support the patients; and AIDS workers who urged them to stick together and not give up.

AIDS strikes hardest among the poor and uneducated, who learn too late how to avoid it and have no prayer of finding the money for treatment.

Men Sothal’s husband was just 22 years old in 1991 when he arrived in Phnom Penh to work as a mechanic. With friends, he vis­ited brothels. It wasn’t until late 1998, when he felt sick all the time and had weight, that he learned he had AIDS. By then, he had infected his wife.

Today, neither can work and they live on charity. They have given their two eldest children—a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old, neither of whom is infected—to others to raise.

At first, said Men Sothal, “I was very angry at my husband because he brought this HIV home.’’ But over time, as he became sicker and more needy, her anger dissipated.

Now, she says, “I just want to find a job, to earn money to eat and cure my husband so he can work.”

Oum Sopheap said too many people still think AIDS is something that happens to “bad’’ people. It was a hard case to make Saturday, as picnickers looked just like any other families enjoying the park’s cool tranquility.

One group of young girls, in white t-shirts that read Nea Vea Thmey Centre, looked like Girl Scouts from the US. In fact, said project director Chhouk Soph­a­rath, they are victims of sexual exploitation who live in a World Vision group residence.

The two youngest, 11 and 12, were rape victims; others had been sold to brothels by relatives. On average, one in five is HIV-positive, though the rate can reach twice that.

As the day unfolded, the families headed for the park’s beautiful gorge, where cool water slid over smooth rock plates and pooled in crevices.

Some slept in the deep shade. Some played cards. When popular music started playing over the sound system, the Nea Vea Thmey Centre girls drifted to the center of the clearing and soon, amid much giggling, a graceful line dance was underway.

Dancing with them, her face free of care, was Men Sothal.


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