Graham Denholm / Getty Images
Graham Denholm / Getty Images

Delegates at HIV/AIDS conference mourn colleagues killed on MH17

MELBOURNE, Australia — Days before the start of the 2014 International AIDS Conference here, the Mississippi baby whom scientists celebrated just last year for having been functionally cured of HIV, began showing detectable traces of the disease in her bloodstream.

But that troubling news paled in comparison to the bulletin that an unknown number of attendees had perished on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The plane was allegedly shot down on Thursday by a surface-to-air missile in an area of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting government forces.

“It’s painful for all of us right now, and there’s no point denying that pain,” said Michael Kirby, a former justice of the High Court of Australia, in a statement on the tragedy during the opening press conference on Sunday.

Most attendees had arrived that morning, many via Malaysia Airlines flights (the carrier has frequent, discounted trips to Australia). They walked into an event overshadowed by a swelling international crisis, where talk of terrorism dominated hallway chatter. The atmosphere was one of grief — simultaneously familiar and jarringly new to the global AIDS community.

Flags flew at half-staff throughout the city. Hand-painted signs, candles and flowers marked designated areas of mourning, including the entrance of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, where the bulk of conference events were held.

Among the 298 passengers and crew members killed were 37 Australian citizens and permanent residents. The nation had not experienced such a sense of loss since the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 88 Australians. 

Every year we lose more and more people who are instrumental to the fight against HIV/AIDS, but to lose some of them this time to something as stupid and completely pointless as a missile shooting out of the sky – that was the real tragedy from our perspective.

Richard Burzynski

senior adviser to UNAIDS

Initial reports suggested more than 100 conference participants had died aboard MH17. However, conference organizers have been able to confirm the names of only six. Five were prominent members of the Dutch delegation: Dr. Joep Lange, a celebrated researcher and a former president of the International AIDS Society; Dr. Lucie van Mens, an advocate for the female condom; Martine de Schutter, an activist and single mother; Jacqueline von Tongeren of the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development and Lange’s partner; and Pim de Kuijer, a parliamentary lobbyist for Stop AIDS Now, who, in a sad irony, had used his vacation time to help oversee fair elections in Ukraine.

The sixth victim was Glenn Thomas, a former BBC journalist who worked for the World Health Organization, was the lone British citizen among the delegates who died en route to Melbourne.

At Sunday’s press conference, Richard Ingham, a senior reporter for Agence France-Presse who has long covered the disease, speculated that a global audience had “latched onto the narrative” of delegates being killed by the hundreds because of the public’s desire to see the AIDS community as “a living, breathing symbol.”

Leading AIDS researcher Dr. Joep Lange at a conference in Paris in 2003. Lange was killed aboard Flight MH17.
Jean Ayissi / AFP / Getty Images

Many attendees, such as Richard Burzynski, senior advisor to UNAIDS and a veteran of 17 past conferences, framed the MH17 tragedy in the context of a larger struggle.

“Every year we lose more and more people who are instrumental to the fight against HIV/AIDS, but to lose some of them this time to something as stupid and completely pointless as a missile shooting out of the sky — that was the real tragedy from our perspective,” Burzynski said.

Dutch AIDS workers joined Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a leading French virologist and AIDS researcher during a moment of silence in Monday’s opening ceremony. “Tonight, let our minute’s silence represent our sadness, our anger, and solidarity,” Barré-Sinoussi said.

Tuesday’s memorial walk, a biannual march organized by activists to draw attention to civil rights issues affecting the HIV/AIDS community, featured hand-held signs that read “Remembering Our Colleagues on Flight MH17” side by side with more traditional ones such as “Gay Blood is Good Blood.” Other placards advocated a more widespread licensing of PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis), a prevention option for people who are at substantial risk of getting HIV.

Some carried red umbrellas with “Putin Guilty” in black lettering and accused the Russian president of funding the separatists who launched the missile attack against MH17. The marchers also criticized his government’s harsh treatment of gay people and intravenous drug users, two of the most vulnerable groups affected by the disease.

Later on Tuesday evening, MH17 victims were again remembered, this time alongside the 35 million people worldwide who have died from HIV/AIDS-related causes, during a candlelight vigil ceremony held in Melbourne’s Federation Square.

Former President Bill Clinton mourned the loss of the MH17 victims on Wednesday during his keynote address to delegates, noting that they “gave their entire lives to the proposition that our common humanity matters a hell of a lot more than our differences.”

From left: Head delegates Chris Beyrer, Françoise Barre-Sinoussi, Michael Sidibe, Brent Allan, Ayu Oktariani, Sharon Lewin and Michael Kirby, at the opening press conference for the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, July 20, 2014.
David Crosling / EPA

But possibly the most poignant tributes happened away from large crowds, cameras and microphones.

Olena German and Liudmyla Shulga, two Ukrainian AIDS workers from Alliance, a nonprofit focused on AIDS prevention and care, approached a table reserved for members of the Dutch delegation with gifts of USB memory sticks emblazoned with a Ukrainian symbol of prosperity and strength.

“Please don’t hate us,” Shulga said to the Dutch volunteers and activists, grief rising in her voice. “Our country is at war right now, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

Later, Shulga and German said that the violent conflict in their country is among the principal obstacles to providing adequate care to patients affected by HIV/AIDS.

“We were working with about 80 patients in Crimea, and when Russia took over, we’ve heard that 20 died from a lack of medication,” Shulga said. “The rest have either fled back to Ukraine or disappeared.”

Shulga arrived at the conference on Saturday as planned, but German was delayed until Tuesday. She watched news of MH17 on television with “feelings of shock and helplessness."

“I wanted the Dutch people to know that I feel the same pain they do,” Shulga said of their decision to approach the Dutch delegation. “This happened right near my parents’ home, so their pain is also my pain.”

The global AIDS community as whole has experienced lots of setbacks through the years, and we move on. We always go on.

Ton Coenen

colleague of the Dutch researchers who were killed

Many members of the Dutch delegation expressed a desire to mourn in peace, referring questions about the tragedy to their press officer. Condolences were collected in a book alongside photos of the victims next to their table.

But Ton Coenen, one of the leaders of the Dutch AIDS community and a friend and colleague to the five Dutch deceased, volunteered to speak about his experience after the tragedy.

Coenen traveled on a Malaysia Airlines flight that took off shortly after MH17 and heard of the downing when a friend called his mobile phone during a layover in Kuala Lumpur. He received the news moments before his connecting flight to Melbourne took off.

“Six hours of horror where you just sit there,” he said of the second flight.

He spoke with pride of the Netherlands’ record in the fight against HIV/AIDS, noting that the disease first entered the country around 1983, infecting its gay male population as well as intravenous drug users, and that the Dutch have been battling it in a “pragmatic, human-rights-driven manner” ever since.

Asked whether the losses of his colleagues would set his country back, Coenen nodded solemnly.

“Yes, it will,” he said. “But the global AIDS community as whole has experienced lots of setbacks through the years, and we move on. We always go on, and we will go on until one day we find a cure for this disease.”

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter