UN personnel run for peace and to raise awareness on World AIDS Day in South Sudan
It’s early morning and the fiery tentacles of the rising sun are already reaching out to touch those gathering at the starting line of the mini-marathon event being held at the United Nations base in Juba.
The event has been organized to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS as part of an international campaign on World AIDS Day. Many of those stretching their legs and preparing to take part are military personnel from a multitude of countries serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. But there are plenty of civilians too, working for humanitarian agencies supporting the people of the conflict-affected country.
“I’m 60 this year. I still want to believe that I am young so for that reason I wanted to race to see if I can finish with the young guys of this camp,” says Onder Ozkalipci, a forensic doctor working for the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. “The second reason is that it is very important to raise awareness about the AIDS problem.”
Moses Etabo is a dedicated runner who trains every day at 5.30am. He hits the front of the pack immediately, making his way out of the UN compound, into the city streets and is first to cross the finish line with an encouraging message for others.
“I can tell them to train hard, no matter how you feel, even if you don’t become number one or you don’t achieve what you wanted,” he says, not even out of breath after his sprint. “Keep training hard so the next time you will succeed.”
The first of the women to cross the finish-line is Tuya Yumjid from the Mongolian peacekeeping contingent. She was always confident that she would have no trouble finishing given she recently completed a 25-kilometre hike carrying a 10-kilogram backpack around the UN compound as part of an event organised by her Danish military colleagues.
“I am very happy to take part on behalf of my whole battalion,” she says. “I’ve taken part in three runs now. The first two, I came in second place. Today, I am first, so I am very happy, particularly to raise awareness on this important occasion of World AIDS Day.”
Behind Tuya and Moses, hundreds of runners continue to battle the sweltering heat as well as commuter traffic in the capital Juba. Vans pass them carefully, with passengers waving out the window, encouraging them along. Spirits are high as the runners wave back, united in the fight against HIV/AIDS, supporting those living with the disease, and remembering those who have died.
As Delphine Vakunta crosses the finish-line, she has a strong message for all those living and working in South Sudan. “Get tested,” she urges. “Aids is a very, very important epidemic that is killing a lot of people. It’s a silent killer. Get tested every year. It’s important to know your status. If you have a partner, let your partner know your status. It’s your health, it’s your life, so it’s important.”
Know your Status is the theme of the day. More than 77 million people around the world are infected with HIV and 35 million have died from AIDS-related illnesses.
“Ending AIDS by 2013 is not a dream. It is a reality,” says UNMISS HIV/AIDS Policy Adviser, Dr Michael Munywoki. “We can do it if we can run together and say no to AIDS. Say no to HIV new infections.”
Taking selfies and wrapping themselves in their country flags, the runners celebrate their own success and the efforts of their friends and colleagues, adding their voices to the chorus around the world, raising awareness and ending the stigma on World AIDS Day.