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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya Addressing AIDS as New Reality

GROZNY -- In Chechnya, a society built on traditional values that has been fighting a separatist war for a decade, even talking about AIDS has been taboo.

But faced with a growing HIV/AIDS problem, the leadership of the southern republic is being forced to confront the problem.

At a public ceremony Wednesday, senior Chechen officials inaugurated an AIDS center in Grozny.

"Of course, the mentality of the Chechen people does not allow us to speak about problems such as AIDS and drug addiction because Chechens never faced such problems," said Kheda Aidamarova, chief doctor of the clinic. "The traditions of the Chechens did not allow people to lead a dissipated lifestyle. But today, as a result of the war, there is chaos in society which has led to problems like AIDS and drugs and people exhibiting low moral standards."

The Caucasus nation is based on close-knit clan ties, Muslim faith and rigid norms of morality combined with a centuries-old tradition of blood feud.

Official data show Chechnya has 719 people infected with HIV, but the actual number may be much higher. The number of HIV-infected Russians exceeds 400,000, although specialists estimate the actual figure may be as high as 1.3 million.

"We must ... not turn away from people who have problems like AIDS," Aidamarova said. "Our aim is that people should not keep their problems to themselves but that they should feel support."

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was the first to break the taboo and discuss the AIDS issue openly. Street billboards for the AIDS center advertise a healthy lifestyle and urge people to help those infected with HIV.

Not everyone is eager to have an HIV test, however, and only a few of the infected dare to confess to their relatives and loved ones they are ill because the stigma on their clan could stick forever.

"None of my relatives know I am infected," said a Grozny resident who requested anonymity.

"And why should they? All the same, I am incurable and I must not spoil their life with my problems. Let them believe I am ill with some other disease."