Wed, 24 May 2000

Speaking out against AIDS discrimination

JAKARTA (JP): Tonight, a candle is lit -- for you, for friends with shared feelings and for those who have already preceded us. These are the words from a poem titled Together Building Hope, written by Suzana Murni and recited from memory by Rachmawati from Bandungwangi, who works for a sex worker cooperative in North Jakarta.

There were perhaps 100 of us crammed into a small youth center meeting hall in Warakas, one of the poorest areas of Jakarta, close by the port. Beside members of the local youth group and Bandungwangi, there were also several representatives from the local branch of the Family Welfare Movement.

The district head, (lurah), was there as guest of honor, together with several of the local community heads. We were all there in solidarity with thousands of others around the globe who would be commemorating the 17th International AIDS Candlelight Memorial on the same day. We had just lit our candles, and the room hushed as Rachmawati continued reciting.

I witness in my mind's eye as your body is wrapped in plastic/ while your soft blanket that I recognize is thrown into a hot flame ... She, like many of us, can no longer control the tears, which roll down her cheeks. Although I have heard this poem read a hundred times, it always has the same effect on me.

Earlier, another speaker asked why it was that, even when we now all know how HIV is -- and is not -- spread, only last month the body of a person who died of AIDS in Jakarta was sent to a crematorium nailed into a simple coffin, the body unwashed and wrapped in plastic while still in hospital robes. It is this kind of inhumanity and indignity which triggered the first Candlelight Memorial in 1983. Surely after 20 years of the epidemic, we should have learned?

Tonight I light this candle for you/ for all the meaning that you gave me of life and love. The poem takes on a brighter note, but Rachmawati's tears still fall. Later we will all join together to sing a song written many years ago by James F. Sundah for children, Little Candles. This simple song was "adopted" by The Candlelight in Indonesia in 1996, and is now sung at every commemoration.

What drove the Warakas youth group to organize this commemoration? And the others to attend? Few if any have had any direct contact with AIDS. So far, it has hardly touched their community. It's a question I often find myself asking as, once more, Indonesia is listed with the second highest number of groups participating in The Candlelight, not far behind the U.S.

Somehow our candles unite us with other groups with similar aims -- like Bandungwangi. We all see in AIDS a reflection of the ills sweeping through our society, the intolerance, suspicion, violence toward women and children, and the strife which has engulfed so many parts of the country.

Such ills so often form a fertile breeding ground in which the AIDS epidemic develops.

Embrace love which makes us feel strong and willing to face all challenges;/ love's miracle that lives on because life is indeed precious.

The poem ends. Silence. You cannot applaud that type of performance, those words. The strains of the Little Candles brings us all back down to earth as we start singing with all our hearts.

--Chris W. Green