June 28, 2001
Protected by their own guards toting AK-47 rifles, dozens of youths on Monday braved conservative Somali society and its clan-based militiamen to do something Somalis have never done before -- raise public awareness about HIV/AIDS. Riding in 10 trucks draped with banners in Somali reading, "Save Your Life By Just Avoiding Adultery" and "AIDS Is Not Shame," the young men used a loudspeaker to broadcast their message, provoking surprise, shock, and anger from residents of the war-ravaged capital Mogadishu. "I first thought they were a religious group, but now I can see they are insane," one woman remarked.
Most Somalis are conservative Muslims who don't accept that the disease, which they link with homosexuality and liberal Western habits, exists in their country. There is little data on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Somalia, mainly because the nation spent the last decade without a government. Following the 1991 overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre, the country descended into a chaos of fiefdoms ruled by faction leaders and their gunmen. Since August, President Abidiqassim Salad Hassan and 245 legislators have sought to govern the country, whose infrastructure remains virtually destroyed.
Dr. Sheikhdon Salad Elmi, director of the city's largest hospital, said 10 cases of HIV had been detected in the city in the past 12 months. The young activists, who call their organization AIDSOM, said they decided to carry out their campaign lest HIV spread before people realize the danger it poses. During their ride, the youths were stopped three times by armed militiamen. Finally, the gunmen cut the loudspeaker's wires beyond repair, and the activists were forced to leave.