After putting an end to two decades of civil war, Sudan is being forced to confront issues that were sidelined during the protracted conflict. Chief among these is HIV/AIDS. A United Nations report, released last week, says Sudan has the highest rate of HIV infection in North Africa and the Middle East. Sudan now struggles to combat the epidemic. But HIV infection is still associated with a loose lifestyle, making it difficult to address the disease in this conservative, religious nation.
Asha Ibrahim laughs, as she tells of how she treats her former doctor. She walks past his office, looks in and then leaves without saying "hello." Eight years ago, that doctor told her she would be dead soon and that he thought it was for the best. He had just diagnosed Asha with HIV.
Asha's doctor was cruel. That is not uncommon in Sudan. This strict Muslim/Christian society stigmatizes AIDS patients, who find it nearly impossible to maintain normal lives. Asha was infected with HIV during a blood transfusion. However, she says many people assume she did something wicked to contract the disease.
Omar Abdullah believes he will never be allowed to work as a teacher in Sudan again. He was fired after a long absence when he was ill. When he admitted to his employer that he was HIV positive, he was told to leave. After that, he and his wife took a new approach.
"We are living in secrecy with this disease," he said. "We have never told anybody about us. I and my wife only. I'm afraid."
Omar and Asha are both patients at the Association for Care of Sudanese People Living with AIDS. The center opened one month ago and reflects an increased interest in addressing AIDS in Sudan. AIDS patients come to the center to make friends and receive support and information about the disease. The patients all agree that they have faced prejudice in the job market. Some have been abandoned by their families.
As the infection rate rises - particularly among young people - the Sudanese government is taking steps to combat AIDS. Dr. Mohamed Ahmed is general manager of the Sudan National AIDS Program. He says living in a conservative society makes it difficult to address HIV/AIDS.
"You have to be very careful when you speak, because some sentences, some words they think you are encouraging people to practice sex," he said. "If you want to address this you have to speak about sex, about safe sex. Most of the people here think that you are encouraging people, that you are training them how to practice sex. And this is, in Islam, very sensitive."
It is not just the Muslim society which stigmatize the disease. Many Christians disagree with teaching young people to use condoms. They believe it will promote sexual activity.
But Sudan's youth clearly know what sex is. The United Nations Children's Fund says nearly 75 percent of young people in Sudan are sexually active. But less than one in ten know how to use a condom correctly.
Paula Claycombe is an information officer with the United Nations Children's Fund. She says the disease has the potential to devastate Sudan, as HIV spreads quickly among the nation's youth.
"There seems to be acknowledgement that AIDS could undo all of the peace dividends, if it's not addressed now," she said. "Already 60,000 children are orphaned by AIDS in Sudan. Another 300,000 children, under 18, are HIV positive and, if the curve continues to grow, it means we're going to have an entire generation that is HIV positive."
As Sudan seeks to educate an entire population about the dangers of HIV and AIDS, patients at the Association for Care of People Living with AIDS in Sudan say they are making an effort to live their lives as normally as possible.
Sabir Ibrahim has fallen in love with another AIDS patient. He hopes to marry her soon. He is a northern Muslim, She is a Southern Christian. The pairing seems strange. Muslims and Christians warred for 21 years in Sudan. Sabir says his girlfriend understands the difficulty of living with AIDS.
Older patients - many of whom have lost their spouses to AIDS - say they envy the young man's positive attitude. Hundreds of thousands of young people will face the same choices as Sabir, as they confront the deadly disease.