First-ever AIDS awareness campaign

A group of campaigners against HIV/AIDS in Somalia, called AIDSOM, last week held the country's first ever public awareness demonstration in the coastal town of Marka, south of Mogadishu.

Riding in trucks draped with banners carrying Somali slogans such as “AIDS is real, don't ignore it”, and "get a blood test before marriage, the group of young men drove through the streets spreading their message over loudspeakers, one of the campaigners told IRIN.

"We did not experience any harassment and were mostly welcomed by the local population", said AIDSOM head Abdullahi Jama Hassan. However, he acknowledged that in some places the campaigners were forced to leave the area.

"It is going to be very difficult to convince Somalis, but we are going to try," he said.

Abdullahi explained that there was very little awareness of HIV/AIDS in Marka, as elsewhere in Somalia. "Our biggest problem, since we started this last year, has been ignorance, mixed with denial of the disease", he said. "People, even educated ones are likely to say - This disease can not happen here."

There is very little information available on HIV/AIDS in Somalia, as the war-ravaged country was left without an effective administration or health service after the collapse of the central government in 1991.

Abdullahi told IRIN Marka seems to be more open than most places in Somalia. During the group's three-day campaign, civil society groups, religious leaders, women's groups and youth groups were encouraged to become involved.

"In some areas it would be next to impossible to bring together these groups to discuss openly AIDS," he pointed out.

AIDSOM was first started in Mogadishu in June last year by a group of "like-minded" young people, whose lives were touched by AIDS, he said.

"In my case I lost two very close relatives to HIV/AIDS, that is why I am involved," he said. "I know it is real and it kills."

Abdullahi added that AIDSOM organisers would continue with their campaign throughout the country before the disease spreads, because, he said, people did not understand the dangers.

He said AIDSOM had not received any assistance from aid agencies working in the country. "We would like to appeal to the UN agencies and other agencies to help with the awareness campaign," he said.