Thursday, May 9, 2002

Doug Saunders

p. A9.

AIDS orphan tells of horror in homeland

Number of parentless families due to disease could populate a country, DOUG SAUNDERS writes

NEW YORK — As the world's governments began a three-day debate yesterday about the fate of children, a young man, Wisdom Murowa, took a seat in the hallway outside the United Nations General Assembly and quietly told his terrible story.

"At first, nobody would tell me why everyone in my family was going away and dying," the clear-eyed young man said. Mr. Murowa is 17, and as a child in Malawi he found himself living the catastrophe that threatens to reverse decades of progress in children's living conditions.

When he was 8, his father died of a mysterious illness. Two years later, his closest sister died, then three years later, his mother. He was left alone with his younger sister, no parents and no source of income and no food in one of the world's poorest countries.

"I asked my cousins and uncles what was happening, and they would not tell me what was killing my family. They were hiding it from me. But I had to know because everyone in my town was dying, all my friends and relatives. I soon knew that it had to be AIDS and that I was another orphan."

Mr. Murowa is one of so many AIDS orphans they could form their own nation, a nation that has appeared almost overnight. Their number has surpassed 10 million and threatens to grow larger than the population of Canada. A decade ago, even the most pessimistic observers did not predict this.

In the 12 years since the UN last assessed the state of the world's children, almost everything has improved: mortality rates, education, sanitation, labour laws, equality of opportunity for boys and girls and less exploitation. One terrible exception remains: the surging population of AIDS orphans.

In 1990, there were just over one million children made orphans by AIDS. statistics released by the UN say the number has jumped to 10.4 million and is expected to double by 2010. This vast nation of children has become the single biggest challenge to the world's resources of aid.

At yesterday's General Assembly meeting, as world leaders boasted of the eradication of polio, the curbing of land mines and reductions in child labour, Malawian Vice-President Justin Malewezi spoke of the disaster.

"The HIV-AIDS pandemic will kill more people in Africa than all the casualties of all the wars of the 20th century combined," he said. "We need resources commensurate with the scale of disaster threatening our future."

Mr. Murowa is one of the lucky ones: He and his sister were taken in by his uncle, a sugar-plantation supervisor, who is rearing 14 orphaned children of relatives on an income of a few hundred dollars a year. Their living is meagre but not as dire as that faced by most African AIDS orphans.

"There are very few children going to school in my town any more," Mr. Murowa said. "We have lost most of our teachers to AIDS, and the students have had to stop attending to care for their families. Many of my old classmates are working as beggars or prostitutes because if your family has died of AIDS, nobody wants to take you in."

Indeed, the crisis of AIDS is not simply medical. The orphans are ostracized in places such as Malawi, where superstition and poor education have led even uninfected relatives of AIDS victims to be shunned and turned into untouchables.

"Things are getting worse," Mr. Murowa said.

"People don't understand about AIDS in my country, and the orphans can't even survive as beggars. It has affected everybody I know."

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Created: May 12, 2002
Last modified: July 9, 2002
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