“Is it a crime…to knowingly infect somebody with HIV and refuse them the right to see a doctor?”
The question came from a girl at a gender-based violence prevention and psychosocial support training organized by International Medical Corps in Vedeno district in Chechnya with the support of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). Everyone turned to look at her. She had tears in her eyes.
After the training, an International Medical Corps psychologist approached her and learned that her name was Zarema and they started to meet regularly, where she talked about her late sister.
I had the opportunity to interview her and hear the story that sparked such a provocative question at the gender-based violence training.
“To my graduation, I wore a dress made by my sister and I won the Best Dressed contest!” Zarema said. “Madina could make something incredible out of a simple piece of fabric, something stylish and fashionable. Madina made me all of my dresses. We used to call her Coco Chanel.”
We met in a cozy room decorated with sketches. Beautiful dresses filled the closet and elaborate hats covered the room. It struck me that the person who created all of this must have had an amazing imagination.
Then I saw a small photograph of a pretty, young woman. “This picture was taken a year before Madina got married,” Zarema said. “She was very popular. Quite a few men asked for her hand. She was shy and sweet.”
Madina dreamed of going to the Moscow School of Design and earning her professional degree, and everything in the room affirmed her skills and talent as a designer. She participated in local and regional competitions, where she always took home a prize, and she established a set of regular customers who always ordered clothes from her.
“Everything [is] here as she left it,” Zarema said.
It seemed that Madina was just embarking on her life, when she passed away. She was only 25 years old. What could have happened?
I soon learned the tragic truth.
A few years before her death, she married a young man from a rich family who lived in Moscow. Her parents were impressed with life in the capital and wanted their daughter to live there. “What could we have given her,” said Madina’s father. “Our pensions and temporary jobs couldn’t even get enough money for a dowry.”
“On her wedding day, Madina told me that she would rather die than marry that man,” Zarema said.
She explained that she was in love with another man, Adlan, who left the village soon after her marriage. The wedding itself was spectacular, but it was by no means the start of a happy life for Madina.
Soon after moving to Moscow, Madina had to give up the work that she loved and rarely saw her family. When she had her baby girl, she was almost completely shut inside their house. When family and friends did see her, they found a once thriving, beautiful young woman withered and pale.
When asked what was happening she would answer: “It’s too late. You cannot change anything.”
Three years passed and Madina fell very ill. “An ambulance was called and we were told she needed to be hospitalized,” Zarema said. “After some tests were done, we heard the verdict: HIV.”
“We were shocked,” Zarema continued. “It turned out that the husband’s family knew about the disease, but did not tell anyone. When they realized that Madina was also infected, they did not allow her to go see doctors because they were afraid that neighbors would find out.”
Madina lived only a few more months after she was hospitalized. She died on a Sunday morning. “We are all guilty of what happened,” Madina’s father said.
“We were shocked,” Zarema said. It turned out that the husband’s family knew about his disease but did not tell anyone. When they realized that his wife was also infected, they did not let her go to see the doctors because they were afraid that neighbours would find out.”
Madina’s daughter, Alina, 2, lives with her grandparents. Thankfully, she is healthy. She sometimes looks at family photographs and recognizes her mother, but in a few years, she will be left with only a vague memory of Madina who was taken from her, and the rest of the world, too early.