For years, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese who fled fighting in Darfur have received shelter in refugee camps in neighboring Chad. But having survived the violence, they now face a new threat in the deadly AIDS virus. Most had never heard of HIV or AIDS before they sought refuge in eastern Chad. But they are learning quickly, and trying to tell others in their community. Phuong Tran visited a camp 60 kilometers from the Sudanese border, and has this report for VOA.
At Camp Gaga, where some 15,000 Sudanese have sought refuge, Abdallah Abab talks to a group about HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
Abab holds up a plastic penis and puts a condom over it. He explains how the condom helps prevent the spread of the virus during sex.
Abab is one of a team of educators trained by the United Nations Children's Fund to reach out to other refugees.
In a tent next door, a group of women are also talking about the deadly virus. Safia Souleymane, 22, has been trained to go out and teach other women, most of whom are in polygamous marriages, how to protect themselves.
Souleymane says she knows HIV is a serious disease and says this is why she volunteered to be an educator. She talks with women about condoms and staying faithful, and tells them to go to the hospital for free condoms.
Nanylta Madingue is UNICEF's HIV and AIDS program officer for eastern Chad. She monitors the discussions in both tents to make sure everyone understands.
Madingue says the women and men are taught separately to make sure they feel comfortable talking openly about a sensitive topic most only heard of after they crossed over into Chad.
The United Nations conducted a study about AIDS in Chad's refugee camps shortly after the Sudanese first sought safety there from Darfur's ethnic violence in June 2004.
The study indicated how little the mostly illiterate refugee community knew about a disease that now surrounds it.
Madingue says some Sudanese refugees continue cultural practices in Chad that increase the risk of infection. Among the practices are the ritual cutting of young girls' sex organs, tattooing and polygamy.
She adds that the refugees' new environment, in eastern Chad presents other risks.
"Before, these refugees lived in their own villages and had little contact with people outside their communities," said Madingue. "But now, they are in close contact with surrounding communities where there are cases of HIV. There is a much higher risk of infection."
Madingue says the refugees in the camps are vulnerable to infections from outsiders because of inter-ethnic violence and looting, which often leads to rape. But she says the medical community still does not know how serious the problem is.
"We need voluntary testing centers in the communities where refugees live alongside Chadians to know how many are infected," she added. "But to do that, we need money. We have suspected cases and some confirmed ones, but we fear the risk is extremely high. We want to act quickly."
In the nearby community of Goz Beida, home to more than 25,000 Sudanese refugees, doctors at the local hospital recently tested 50 pregnant women to see how many of their babies were infected.
Ten percent of the tests came back positive.
The most recent HIV statistics for Chad were compiled before waves of violence scattered thousands of Chadians into close quarters with Sudanese refugees.
The UNAIDS office estimates that at the end of 2005 about four percent of women were infected in Chad, slightly more than men.