When she returned to South Sudan after years as a refugee in neighbouring Uganda, Evelyn Letio was confronted by devastation wrought by two decades of war.
‘There were so many years of war. Everything was destroyed. Almost everyone had nothing,’ recalls Evelyn.
Living as a refugee
Like 500,000 others, Evelyn Letio left Sudan during the country’s civil war between the north and south. Most people took only the possessions they could carry. Many fled to Uganda where there were few good jobs available. As a result they lived in grinding poverty.
Hidden impacts of war
The war’s impact on Sudanese refugees was much greater than the obvious physical devastation. Some sought to ease conditions for themselves and their families through relationships with men and women able to support them.
With their financial stability depending on these relationships, those who did test positive for HIV were often unwilling to reveal their status.
Evelyn says: ‘Those countries where we were in exile had very high prevalence rates of HIV and poverty.
‘When you are in exile, you are idle. There is a lot of poverty so the boys tend to go and look for women who have money to help them without knowing if that person is safe or not.’
People living as refugees also had little support if they did test positive.
Evelyn was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1989 after her husband died. She says: ‘While in exile we saw many of the Sudanese dying with the same or a similar disease to the one that my husband was dying from.
‘There was a lot stigma, discrimination, denial, then accusations and fighting among family members.’
A secure future
Twenty years later, these attitudes persist within Sudan and newly-separated South Sudan. Evelyn believes they must change if the countries' peace process is to deliver a dignified and secure future for all following the separation, and is working with the Southern Sudan Network of People Living with AIDS.
Evelyn says: ‘The most important thing the group does is the constant awareness messages for the community. If they are given the true picture of how HIV is transmitted, then slowly stigma and discrimination will reduce.’