Professional colleagues in Bangladesh, especially the seniors, used to call me a pioneer in reporting on AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) because many of the breaking news stories in this arena were done by me in the late eighties of the last century. One such report was an interview of a person living with AIDS published along with photographs of the person with me on 19 June 1993 creating an immediate sensation.
AIDS was a dreadful disease then and people had many superstitions, misgivings about prejudices and discrimination against persons living with AIDS. The society had so much of wrong notions about AIDS patients that people in a northeastern district of Bangladesh chased a person to burn him to death as he had reportedly contracted the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. In another case, villagers stopped bathing in a rural pond reportedly used by an HIV positive person.
When Abdus Shahid, Bangladesh’s first reported HIV positive person was deported to Dhaka in 1989 from a ship he was working in, a debate in the Fourth Parliament reflected the inadequacy of knowledge of Members of Parliament on AIDS. Some MPs showed a tendency to blame homosexuality on the people of one district who are known for their neck to go anywhere for work to earn money. Clearly, they believed that homosexuality was the only reason for contracting AIDS. In defence MPs from the said district said people of their area were not the only ones to be blamed for homosexuality.
Against such a backdrop even educated people like a senior assistant editor of a leading English daily newspaper of Bangladesh refused to shake hands with or sit beside an HIV positive person who had come all the way from India in 1993 to increase the feel of a workshop on HIV and AIDS organized for journalists in Dhaka. So the publication of the picture of an HIV positive person sitting beside me gave readers an opportunity to ascertain how an AIDS patient looked like. I interviewed the person, Felix Galle, at the IXth International Conference on AIDS in Berlin Germany. Our photograph was taken with my camera by Nazmul Ashraf then an upcoming reporter at the Daily Star. The report was published with prominence on the first page of now-defunct The Telegraph an influential daily of that time.
A senior sub-editor who dealt with the story was obviously more excited than me about it. And he without consulting me assigned the story such a sensational headline that I failed to share its clipping with Felix who was kind enough to give the interview and allow him to be photographed. I wrote in the interview that HIV positive persons at that time survived ten to fifteen years. Felix had already passed seven years with HIV. The headline given was ‘Felix has only three years to live’ with a subhead ‘Face to face with AIDS patient’. Felix did tell me in the interview, ‘Having AIDS is bad, yes. But living ten to fifteen years with HIV constantly under the danger of becoming ill, with the conscience that one day you will die is as bad as anything.’ Could I send the man the clipping of my story that tells he has only three years to live? Absolutely not despite the fact that he requested a clipping.
I still remember the spirited 30-year old man who tested HIV positive in 1987 said, ‘For three years I did not tell anybody that I was an HIV positive man. I tried to cope with it individually. But at one stage it was not possible to cope with it anymore. I separated myself from my girlfriend and looked for support from people who were other than my former friends.’ Felix was one of about a hundred HIV positive persons, out of 70,000 infected in Germany at that time, who went public. He contracted HIV through homosexual activity. Felix turned into an activist dedicated to the prevention of AIDS and worked with the Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe (German AIDS Help). He played an active role in the NGO Liaison Committee of the IXth International Conference on AIDS held from June 4 to 11.
A student of political science at a German University Felix said his mother, a clothes-store saleswoman, distanced herself from him because of the fear of becoming a social outcast. At the fag end of the conference I needed services of Felix as a volunteer of Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe as I lost my travel documents in a taxi that carried me to the airport for my return flight to Dhaka via London. I forgot to collect my small handbag from the taxi as I disembarked at Tegel airport. I kept my luggage in a lockup at the airport and set off for the AIDS Conference venue, found Felix and told him the story. In no time Felix alerted the police, all the taxi companies operating in Berlin and asked me to wait for an outcome. I went back to the hotel that I checked out from several hours before. Hotel people were reluctant to accept me without my passport. My hosts from the Panos Institute, London came to my rescue and I stayed another night there. I remember Christina who said she was prepared to do flooring at her room to accommodate me if the hotel people refused to give me one. I contacted our Ambassador Mahmood Ali (who later became the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh) in Bonn. He advised me to fly over there to get a fresh passport. Next day I flew to Bonn somehow convincing security people at the airport by showing my press accreditation card. After disembarking at the Bonn Airport I came to know that Berlin Police had sent back my handbag which was to come by the next flight from Berlin. The frantic efforts made my Felix for me became fruitful. Ambassador Mahmood Ali Bhai told me even he could not believe the story. I still feel for Felix. But I did not contact him again out of my fear that he might be upset to know of his story as was published in Dhaka under my byline. Felix was taking anti-viral therapy and various vitamins to keep healthy. Due to such improved treatment HIV positive patients even in Bangladesh have survived more than 25 years. I have prayed for Felix that survives like them.
(The writer is Editor of GreenWatch Dhaka online newspaper)