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words and photographs by Carolina Harkort



rina has tears in her eyes and raises her hands.

“Yes, I have HIV but I am a human being,” she says. “I changed my direction in life but I still feel that people stigmatize people like me.” But who is this women that fights every day to get accepted by our society? Irina is 28 years old. She lives with her son, Sascha, 6, and her boyfriend Sergej, 31, in Estonia in the city of Narva. It began in the east, on Russia‘s border, just after Estonia’s independence from the U.S.S.R. Many Russians used the small border traffic in order to get cheap drugs. With the spread of injection drug use came the spread of the HIV virus into the country. In Narva, made up of 65,886 inhabitants, the spread of HIV started expanding in the year 2000. Between 2001 and 2008, more than 1,600 cases of HIV were registered. Narva is a border city to Russia and is a city with high unemployment and drug addiction. Estonia has one of the highest percentage of HIV/AIDS infection in the European Union. During 2000-2001, the infection rate in Estonia increased sharply and in 2001, the HIV epidemic was declared. Irina was one of those drug-addicted people who contracted HIV through sharing needles. Irina and Sergej are both jobless. With HIV, it’s difficult to get a job in Estonia, so they are able to spend a lot of time with Sascha.

Above: Irina is living with her family in a small one-room appartment. The entire family has to sleep in the same bed. Right: Irina goes to an HIV group in order to talk with other who have people the same disease.

Irina is sitting in a small, one-room apartment, the facade of her home and all the surrounding houses blending in with the typical grey sky of Narva City. Irina makes tea and dips one tea bag in all five cups, setting biscuits on a small plastic children’s table which serves as their kitchen table. Sergej is sitting with his head bowed down, looking on the floor, biting his nails. As she speaks, Irina’s eyes begin to shimmer and her voice gets shaky. “I started to take drugs when I was 12 years old. After half a year, I took everything except pills and ecstasy. In 1999, almost 90 percent of my friends took drugs. There were a group of two boys and two girls who were friends of Irina’s living in Narva. One of the girls went to the doctor to check her blood. She had HIV. Irina was really scared that she, too, might have HIV, but on the other hand she did not believe that she could have it. “It was so far away from me, like in a movie.“

Sergej stops biting nails, raises his head and looks up to her. “The first blood tests I did was negative,” Irina says. “I got more and more relaxed from blood test to blood test. The last blood test suddenly changed my whole life. It was positive.“ She fights against tears in her eyes but they start to roll down her light skin. “Before my testing, I just knew that HIV was dangerous and that you can die from it. Later, I got more information about HIV from brochures. By that time, when I knew about my status, I knew almost everything about HIV. And at that moment, I already had friends with the diagnosis.“ That was the time when Irina first went to Tatjana M., the head of the Rehabilitation Center for Alcoholics and Drug Users in Narva. The center, which opened in 1999, has the slogan, “You will not be alone.” Drug addicted people can go to the center to get clean needles and syringes.

“People who come to our center don’t have to tell us their real names,“ Tatjana says. “They just tell us the date when they where born and then every person gets a number.“ Tatjana and her team are also helping to get people off drugs. “If they are willing to change, they can start a methadone treatment.“ But that was not the time when Irina stopped taking drugs. “A life without drugs started from the moment when I recognized that I was pregnant.“ She looks to the room where her small son Sascha sits and begins to smile. “Sascha changed my life,“ she says. “ My sadness, anger and confusion about my HIV diagnosis disappeared and I tried to accept HIV as a part of me and stoped taking drugs.“ Sascha was born as a healthy child, without HIV, in 2006. Irina goes to the kitchen and takes out a small children’s cup. She dollops some marmalade into the glass, adding water and swirling it around. She returns from the kitchen, handing it to Sascha to drink. “Life is sometimes not easy and I have to take a lot of medicine to stay healthy but that is not the worst part. I don’t need much in my life. I just want to be respected as a human being. I just want to live in that society without getting a stamp on my forehead. The attitude of people must change against HIV.“

Sascha was born HIV free even though his mother is HIV positive.


HIV in Estonia