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Roka village grapples with shame

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Yem Chroeum, who is on trial for his involvement in a HIV outbreak in Roka village, is escorted out of Battambang Provincial Court yesterday by authorities. Heng Chivoan

Roka village grapples with shame

As the trial of the doctor accused of causing a mass outbreak of HIV in Battambang province’s Roka village entered its second day yesterday, away from the courtroom his alleged victims described how the virus had left them crippled by shame.

With all eyes on the Battambang Provincial Court, one of the witnesses in the case remained at home. The 18-year-old said he had lied to the court about needing to study to avoid having to take the stand.

“I didn’t dare to go to the court because I was afraid that when other people knew about this, they would discriminate against me,” he said quietly. “I feel ashamed because I am young and I am infected with a disease that society hates.”

Almost 300 people in the quiet village have been infected with the virus, which is thought to have been spread by the unlicensed doctor’s use of tainted needles.

The teenage victim said he had only told close friends that he was HIV positive.

“I hide it from other people including my teachers because they discriminate against me already because they know I come from Roka village, so if they know that I am an HIV-positive boy what will happen to me?” he asked, as he stroked the knee of his 6-year-old sister who is also infected with the virus.

Outside of Roka Health Centre, 20-year-old Pek Sokha, who was waiting for anti-retroviral drugs, said she, too, feared discrimination because of the infection.

“People use the insult that if you don’t have money for marriage, you should find a cheap bride in Roka village,” she said. “They look down on the victims. I don’t dare to walk outside of the village because of this”.

Another Roka resident who gave her name only as Raksmey said that while she had not contracted the virus, the stigma surrounding her hometown since news of the outbreak emerged in December had led her to drop out of school after being bullied by classmates.

“I am worried about the future of girls like me,” she said. “We will have to relocate to avoid these problems.”

Kan Sambath, deputy chief of Roka commune, said that when the outbreak first emerged, the area was left divided, with some HIV-positive residents ostracised.

But, he said, after authorities educated locals about the infection, the discrimination “disappeared”.

The authorities are now struggling to combat prejudice emerging from outside the community.

“I heard that some students do not dare to attend school or tell their teachers [they are HIV positive] because they fear discrimination and some university students dropped out because of rumours that girls in Roka village are cheap,” he said.

In the courtroom yesterday, victims took the stand to answer questions from the investigating judge.

Many called for compensation from the doctor, Yem Chroeum, whom they accuse of spreading the virus, while two urged for the charges to be dropped.

“I am infected with the virus but I don’t want any compensation. I want the court to drop the charges against him because he is a good man,” said Sro Em.

The trial continues today.

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