Russian Federation: the show goes on -- earthquake and all
More than 3,500 kilometres from Moscow and bordering Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, Gorny Altai Republic sustained a great deal of damage from the quake which measured a whopping 8.5 on the Richter scale. Moving out of their shattered homes, people found temporary refuge in barns and cowsheds. A series of strong aftershocks added to the sense of fear and desperation.
Against this backdrop, was it really possible for the UNICEF-funded campaign to go ahead? The remarkable young volunteers of the NGO Orion, a UNICEF partner, were in no doubt: the campaign would proceed.
The population of Gorny Altai Republic is around 203,000. Although HIV infection rates in this region are nowhere near as high as those for the Russian Federation as a whole (1), HIV has, nevertheless, made inroads. Spreading awareness of the virus among rural youth is important precisely to prevent an epidemic from taking off. That was why UNICEF, Orion, and a large network of young volunteers organized by both partners chose to go ahead, despite the added challenges brought about by nature’s unpredictability. Orion’s motto is ‘for sustainable development,’ and sustainable certainly applied to its commitment on HIV prevention.
In late September teams of young volunteers fanned out across the Republic to towns and far-flung rural communities. Young people distributed leaflets and posters about HIV/AIDS prevention, provided by UNICEF, and inspired others to become activists and volunteers in the campaign. They carried on despite aftershocks and damage to buildings and roads. As autumn gave way to winter they battled against heavy snowfalls, while spring brought torrential rain. But still the volunteers kept going. By the end of the campaign in summer 2004 these enthusiastic young people had reached 70 per cent of Gorny Altai’s population with their chief slogan, ‘We are healthy, that’s great!’
A rare gift
“I’m pretty informed about HIV/AIDS myself now,” Timur says. “I read a lot and follow the issue. With my knowledge I think I can convince my peers to choose a healthy life style and help to secure the healthy development and future of my generation.” Such was his contribution to the campaign that he was chosen as one of 120 young people from 20 regions of the Russian Federation to take part in a UNICEF-supported summer school in July 2004. UNICEF provided US$17,000 in funding for the summer school, which was run by its NGO partner, The Siberian Initiative.
Timur brings a very rare gift to the fight against HIV/AIDS. He is a ‘throat singer’, one of not many people in the world who can produce this intensely deep and very special sound. He also plays the traditional Altai musical instrument, the topshoor, and performs old and modern ballads. It was on Timur’s suggestion that the campaign events he was involved in became concerts with a lecture and an audience quiz. The concerts were held first, and, when everyone’s attention had been well and truly captured, prevention information on HIV/AIDS was dispensed.
“Just imagine,” says Timur, “a small remote village where there is no running water, no shops and the roads are so bad that it is sometimes impossible to bring in bread. The local community club is the place where the entire village gets together when people from outside manage to visit. When we arrived in these villages it was such great entertainment for everybody! Everyone rushed to see our performance. It was quite a difficult task for us as we target children and young people from 12 to 20 years and not old ladies. We were embarrassed to talk about condom use to an older audience – but we did anyway!”
UNICEF and its partners launched the HIV/AIDS information campaign in Gorny Altai as a test case, to see if it would be a viable way of reaching youth with vital information. They now have the answer. This initiative is to serve as a model for other rural areas in the Russian Federation.
Timur managed to fit in campaigning alongside school. After classes ended in the afternoon, he rehearsed his singing and met with his peers who were also involved in the HIV/AIDS information initiative. While the villages he went to were not far away, it still took time to travel because of treacherous mountain roads. “Sometimes, after three hours on the road, I was very tired when it came to singing and talking to people,” he admits. But he was thrilled by the whole experience and doesn’t intend to stop his campaigning activities now.
“I will be happy to continue working to promote healthy lifestyles, I really like it,” says Timur. “Our campaign really matches the reality of life. We have to take care of our health and development, and it’s especially good when we can pass on the message with such fun!”
1) In Gorny Altai there are an estimated 20 cases of HIV per 100,000 people, compared with about 180 cases per 100,000 people in the Russian Federation as a whole, as of the end of 2003 and according to the latest official data.