AIDS epidemic tearing families apart in rural China

The CBC's Andrew Lee travelled a dangerous mountain road to reach an area of China's Sichuan province ravaged by AIDS and learn the tragic story of an AIDS orphan.

World AIDS Day report: a look at an epidemic in mountain villages of Sichuan province

World AIDS Day report: a look at an epidemic in mountain villages of Sichuan province 3:18

I sat on a mountain pass at about 3,000 metres overlooking the scene of what had just happened. It felt like slow motion, and from the front seat of our four-by-four, I saw a dump truck slam into the car in front of us head-on, pushing back into ours as we were pushed back into another, then another, five cars in total.

The wrecks blocked the narrow road for as far as the eye could see. We all could walk away, so it was a good time to be grateful for life as my thoughts went to the story we were about to cover.

On the other side of the pass was a region that has been ravaged by an AIDS epidemic for the past 25 years. Official numbers show Sichuan as having 50,000 cases of AIDS, but the actual numbers are sure to be much higher. Half of the cases are from Liangshan, home of the Yi people, and our destination.

Zi'er, 74, has had to bury two of her sons, who died of AIDS. Her other two sons are currently infected with HIV. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

In the small isolated villages lives the Yi minority. They lead a rural life, a world removed from China's big, booming cities. Chickens run across roads while cattle amble and heavy blue capes are worn almost like an unofficial uniform. Faces are darkened by sunshine and the elderly are stooped from carrying a lifetime of burden.

A local NGO worker took me to visit a family crushed by the disease, in a village where 10 per cent of the population has AIDS.

A wrinkled 74-year-old matriarch wanted to speak, and clutching a family photo collage, she started to tell me about how all four of her sons had AIDS; two had already died.

They had gone to the big city looking for work and a better life; instead they found hard drugs and an injection habit.

She told me she feared that she herself would die soon and her greatest fear was for the future of her tiny 13-year-old granddaughter. The girl's father died of AIDS, and then her mother abandoned her, leaving the older woman as guardian.

The wrinkles on her skin seemed to grow even deeper when she told me her greatest concern: at 74, she knows her time is growing short. "My biggest concern is after I die who will take care of my granddaughter?"

The young girl, Nui Nui, was at home when we visited. The school she should be going to rejected her because she, too, has AIDS and is often very sick. Her grandma said Nui Nui "is always sick and needs to go to the hospital, and that costs a lot of money, and I don't have it."

Nui Nui, 13, is being cared for by her 74-year-old grandmother. The girl's father died from AIDS and she, too, has the disease and is often sick. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Even though the government subsidizes the cost of AIDS treatment by 95 per cent, her grandmother has to scrape together the rest, which is taxing.

Her daughter in-law, La Nui, lives in the village, too. Her husband left the family, but not before infecting La Nui with AIDS. She tells us she knew 20 to 30 people who have died from AIDS.

I watch her chopping wood … she pauses … she is tired. She says her illness is draining  her.

“I don’t want to eat, I feel powerless and have no strength," she says.

As for myself, I grew up on a tiny farm and feel like doing her chores for her and struggle with my role of observer. She takes a break and then continues with the axe until a man from the NGO comes to help her.

The NGO, the Development Centre of Yi Women and Children In Liangshan, has provided other help as well. It has provided goats and pigs to the family so they can raise them for income to pay for their treatments.

The granddaughter has asked her grandma to build her a home, where she can live alone, cook for herself.

The chances of her of finding a husband or love are virtually non-existent if people know she has AIDS. People with AIDS are culturally isolated, which leads many to choose not to have the free testing.

AIDS has left Nui Nui parentless and a target for other children.

"My classmates know I don't have parents anymore, so they often beat me and bully me."

'My classmates know I don't have parents anymore, so they often beat me and bully me.- Nui Nui, age 13

She spoke with a simple clarity. Her words weighed in the air as she told us of her life. I asked Nui Nui if she knew what AIDS was.  She said "no" instantly.

The technical explanation for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome may be too much for a country girl no longer allowed to go to school.  But after a lengthy pause she said, "I have the disease, I am very sad. I know that this disease could make people die."

The disease has taken her father, her uncle, and threatens her aunt, her cousin, and herself. It was evident she knew more about the reality of AIDS than any classroom could teach.

-Reporter's note: The family used aliases for these interviews. After the interviews were translated, the translator broke down and cried. She was from the same culture and knows what Nui Nui and her family faces.


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