The defenders of Sevastopol

Published: 30 November 2004 0:00 CET

Joe Lowry in Sevastopol

The tumultuous struggle for power following last Sunday's disputed election is not the only mass campaign being waged in Ukraine.

Far from the snowy streets of the capital Kiev, in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, HIV rates are among the highest in Europe, and young Red Cross volunteers have taken to the streets to warn their peers of the dangers of risky sex and drugs.

Sevastopol was closed to the outside world for 70 years under the Soviets, but the gloomy images that fact may generate in a visitor's mind are soon dispelled by a brighter reality.

Long the secretive home of the Soviet (now Russian) Black Sea fleet, the city is now open for business. Located on the west of the achingly beautiful Crimean peninsula, this jewel of a town's glistening architecture is only a fraction of its attraction.

There are the Greek ruins at Chernsonesus, which seem to crawl out of the azure sea. There's the robust and tasty local wine. There are the café-lined boulevards, the balmy climate. And of course, the chance for those of us reared on James Bond movies, the chance to snap pictures of Soviet submarines.

"Sevastopol, Sevastopol, beloved of Russian sailors", goes the old song, and there are plenty here, even though this is modern-day Ukraine. As a port town, it's not just sailors that visit - sex and drugs have taken up residence, and in Ukraine that means HIV infections are rising.

Andriy Klepikpov of the International AIDS Alliance recently noted that Ukraine is facing its biggest threat since World War Two - by the end of the decade, 1.5 million of them could be HIV positive. The rate of new infection is the highest in the world.

It's a good analogy; one designed by a Ukrainian to make his compatriots sit up and listen. A call to arms. And Sevastopol has always been good at that.

The city was laid waste in 1854 during the Crimean war, and even before Florence Nightingale took up her lamp a bunch of sisters led by the great Dr Nikolai Pirogov helped the wounded. Before the Red Cross was founded, humanitarians were defending Sevastopol's wounded while its fighting force, including a certain Leo Tolstoy, held off the British, French, Turks and Sardinians for almost a year.

In the Second World War, always called "the Great Patriotic War" in the former-USSR, Sevastopol was again levelled, and its massively outnumbered defenders held out against the German and Romanian attackers for eight months.

This effort is commemorated wherever you go. Every school has a museum or a diaporama dedicated to those awful days, right down to replica tanks with "For Stalin" scrawled on them, and helmets punctured by bullets.

Sevastopol's defenders are celebrated in song and story. And now a new breed of young defenders is emerging, defending their town from the spread of HIV. Their weapons are words and brochures; they prefer condoms to Kalashnikovs. Sevastopol's youth Red Cross see their mission as in some way continuing the legacy of their forebears.

Now on the edge of the expanded European Union, today's young Ukrainians realise the virus recognises neither borders nor ethnicities. A good example is 14-year-old Eldar Emiruseimov, whose Tatar forebears were kicked out of their Crimean homeland by Stalin in the 1940s.

Fifty years on, the Crimean Tatars are back in their ancestral homeland, and Eldar has found a niche as a Red Cross peer-to-peer instructor, helping dispel the stigma that condemns many HIV-positive people to a life in the shadows.

He looks slightly gawky in a T-shirt several sizes too big, but when he talks, people listen. Tensions are high between Tatars and the Ukrainians and Russians they have come to live amongst, but Eldar says "we're all in this together. My friends are Russian and Ukrainians, and I just want to warn people about this disease. It threatens all of us."

The official rate for HIV infection in Ukraine is between one and 1.5 per cent of the population, but local Red Cross workers say in Sevastopol it could be double that.

Among the young, "recreational" drug use doesn't mean puffing on a joint of cannabis. The first drug young Ukrainians are confronted with is something called "shirka", slang for "shot", an opiate milked directly from poppies and sometimes mixed with anti-depressants.

It cheap, it's quick, and if you share a needle, it's a potential killer.

Ukraine is fast discovering a whole new host of realities that have to be confronted. As the AIDS epidemic spreads, people are learning that it's not just "dirty people" - sex workers, drug users, men who have sex with men - that get AIDS.

The population at large is having to ask if it makes sense to supply needles to injecting drug users when elderly diabetics have to pay for theirs. And aid agencies are struggling to find non-pejorative ways of saying "AIDS victim" or "contaminated", and seeing how more neutral terms sound in Ukrainian.


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 190 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright