Sister Martha Paul (left), who pioneered caring for HIV/AIDS patients in Myanmar for two decades, seen inside a Buddhist monastery in 2002. (Photo: supplied)
It all started in 1998 when I was posted for a third time to Kyaikkhami, a village in Myanmar's Mon State. The routine work there included teaching catechism, giving free tuition classes, taking care of a hostel with 20 girls under 15 years old.
Those days, when visiting homes and hospitals, they talked about people, including Christians, dying of AIDS, a mysterious disease at the time. People were terrified; all they knew was the disease had no cure.
They had no idea how exactly it infected people, there were no programs for creating awareness, nor any initiate for its prevention or treatment. In Myanmar, news about HIV/AIDS was like a state secret as the military government boasted there was no HIV/AIDS in the country. It was a total lie.
Curious and longing to meet and help people who were suffering, I visited a local village hospital to fully understand how horrific the situation was. The patients looked like skeletons with hollow eyes, most suffering from diarrhea and a high fever. These people were from impoverished fishing families, whose members moved along the country's coast and illegally trespassed into Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. They returned with a strange sickness and were dying.
With the death of the breadwinner, the families they left behind were destitute. Conditions deteriorated further as they spent whatever little they had on treatment, besides their home and land, as they had to pay huge sums to unqualified doctors who transmitted the disease to more people by using contaminated needles.
People suffering from HIV/AIDS faced ostracism, they were kept out of sight; locked in abandoned farms, or the corner of a hut or a room. Such awful treatment is against our culture, tradition, and belief, but parents did it to their own children and vice-versa.
After each visit to these sick people, I came back disturbed, disturbing even my sleep. In 2001, I thought of providing a good meal to the sick, which I thought was the only thing I could do with no medical training.
The military-ruled country banned gatherings of more than five persons without permission and forbade revealing information about HIV/AIDS patients. So, I started visiting each house and meeting people to distribute a bowl of bone soup. Despite no outside financial aid, I tried my best to prepare delicious soup with rice and bone.
With more people to serve, the soup container became larger. So, I invited a girl who boarded at the hostel, whom I taught catechism and who lived next door, to help me out. Going out to these families to distribute a bowl of soup was an immensely joyful experience.
In 2002, I met a Catholic doctor working on HIV/AIDS programs for the United Nations Development Programme in the area who encouraged me to form a group irrespective of race and religion. People in the community were not interested. So, I invited a long-time friend, a Buddhist nun, to work with me. She agreed. She, myself, and a university student, my former pupil, together gave birth to the charity group, Myitta Kyaemone (mirror of charity).
A Buddhist nun and a Catholic nun visiting houses to care for the sick, burying the dead, and preparing children for school became the talk of the town. We also arranged for HIV/AIDS awareness programs. This service was the first of its kind in the country.
Not everyone liked our services. A village headman complained to authorities accusing us of attempted conversion of the Buddhist nun and other people. We defended our position in the township office. The military officer accepted my explanation and allowed us to walk free.
Two years later, my congregation asked me to choose between the convent's routine activities and the challenging mission. I chose the latter. It felt like plunging into the deep sea without knowing how to swim. This is how I ended up among the town’s poorest.
The number of patients started to grow, and we faced obstacles to maintaining services and accommodation. As the news spread, the embassies of Japan, Australia, and Germany and international charities came to support us, building concrete houses and providing us with financial, technical, and medical assistance.
A Buddhist doctor, who has volunteered to help since then, eased my workload by taking care of people's medical needs. A donor's support helped send a doctor abroad for a two-week intensive training on caring for people suffering from HIV/AIDS.
We had been searching for ART (anti-retroviral treatment) and in September 2007 we met the head of Médecins Sans Frontières or Doctors Without Borders. That was amid the "Yellow Revolution" or the demonstration of the monks against military rule.
It was time for our revolution too. We received the ART, a life-saving drug never heard of in the area before. The treatment was very complicated, and only government-appointed doctors were allowed to conduct it. Yet, we were overjoyed to receive it.
It was an enormous challenge to take 35 dying patients, including 11 children (the youngest was three-month-old), to Yangon from my center. Traveling without an ID card was unimaginably difficult. I took the risk and put them all on a big highway bus.
My heart trembled at each checkpoint, fearing we would be sent back. When I told police these people were HIV patients going to Yangon for treatment, they dared not enter the bus and quickly let us pass. One of them also wrote a letter for us to show to other checkpoints.
We arrived at our destination near the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda in the evening, but we were refused permission to stay because it was the epicenter of the monks' demonstrations. I felt so helpless.
The next day, some local Buddhist friends helped us to get accommodation in a Buddhist monastery. I saw God in the generous monk, who had 200 children and sheltered our 35 HIV patients, including 20 on the last stage of their life.
Finally, we received the long-awaited, life-saving ART drugs. The volunteer doctor who just returned from the training abroad was able to handle them.
The 20 dying AIDS patients who received the ART drugs are still alive. The 5-year-old children then are now studying in high school. We are still serving over 90 HIV patients in two centers.
Now, 20 years after the mission started, I am grateful to all those who have helped me overcome the challenges.
Sister Martha Paul of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition is a Catholic nun who pioneered caring for HIV/AIDS patients in Myanmar. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.