After losing his job as a barman in Moldova’s capital of Chisinau, 26 year-old Ivan found some raised dark brown blemishes on his skin.
At a local clinic, the doctors diagnosed a sarcoma and took blood tests to establish the problem.
Two weeks later the results confirmed that Ivan was HIV positive.
But he was not surprised.
“I knew the kind of life I had led,” he says. “It was not good.”
Since he was 11 years old, Ivan was aware he was gay.
“I did not know about sex, but when I was at a school camp I saw two boys kissing and realized I liked it.”
He first slept with a man when he was 16.
“We met through the Internet - it’s where you can get the attention of another man by writing something along the lines of ‘I like beautiful, sporty boys’.”
After dropping out of studying psychology, he worked as a barman and every night went to clubs.
Here he would pick up girls - a lot of girls - and tells me he slept with “one hundred”.
“Every day I got to know a new girl.”
How did you manage this? I ask. What was your technique - your secret? I push for the answer, intrigued at the quantity.
“Women liked me. Some were much younger than me. Some were in school.”
He did not use condoms, nor did he worry about pregnancy.
“I didn’t think about it,” he says. “Sex was the most important thing for me.”
However his female liaisons were eclipsed by the number of men he slept with - perhaps 200.
“It was an unhealthy lifestyle,” he adds.
Now he works as receptionist and takes pills to ensure his viral load of HIV does not develop into full-blown AIDS.
“I don’t have a long-term partner,” he says. “I have sex with men and use condoms. For me it’s not hard to find men in Chisinau. I never had problems.”
Sex: the major reason for HIV
The number of new victims of HIV in Moldova is rising steadily, with between 700 - 800 new reported cases each year, although the real figure is much higher.
While the incidences of HIV is increasing among homosexuals - this is not a gay problem.
The majority of new cases are heterosexual and this year the largest number of new victims are women.
The route of transmission has also switched.
In 1996, 85 per cent of new cases were due to drug users sharing infected needles and only 15 per cent were due to sex.
Now 92 per cent are due to unprotected sex - and only five per cent from drug use.
The country’s drug users are more responsible - and have stopped sharing dirty syringes.
But a large part of the population refuses to strap on a prophylactic.
Is this because Moldovans just don’t talk about sex enough?
Here are four reasons why this may be the case.
One: The Young: straight and protected - half the time
Youngsters do use condoms - but only some of the time.
Serge, 17 from the southern Moldovan town of Cahul, does not use condoms with his current girlfriend.
“The best condoms in Moldova are expensive,” he says. “How can a student who has no money to buy a pack of condoms daily? I trust my current girlfriend and I never talked to her about the possibility of a disease - because she is a nice girl.”
Meanwhile 21 year-old Ludmila from the town of Glodeni, says that, yes, the young know about HIV, but there is a wider stigma that embraces tradition and attitudes to women in Moldovan society.
“Boys from Moldova are not used to carrying condoms - and for girls it’s shameful to have condoms,” she says. “So if a hook-up is not planned and neither person has condoms, we may have unprotected sex.”
In daily contact with new HIV cases is Lucia Pirtina, vice-director management HIV/AIDS in Chisinau’s Hospital for Dermatology and Infectious Diseases.
When she taks to patients in her ward about how they contracted the virus through sex, the most common response she hears is that -‘I did not think that I needed to protect myself’.
“Because the media promotes the idea that HIV is among prostitutes, drug addicts and gays,” she says, “they think there is no risk because ‘I am not a prostitute, an addict or a gay.’”
Two: Not gay, but sleeping with men: silent danger
Moldovan’s small homosexual community likes to talk - only between itself - but it likes to talk. They know they should use condoms and the risks of HIV.
Nevertheless there is a larger group of men who have sex with men (MSM) - and they do not gossip.
In total these men account for around ten per cent of new HIV cases - not a critical mass, but one of concern.
“Men who have sex with men don’t want to be seen,” says Roman, a consultant at Chisinau’s Regional Social Centre providing services for people living with HIV. “They don’t want to be open. Many have a family.”
But it’s clear they exist - and they are copulating.
Such men meet using social networks, such as Mamba, Planet Romeo and Odnoklassniki to hook up.
When registering for a website such as Planet Romeo, the webmaster asks the client to expose minutiae about his own personal appearance and what he desires in another man.
The client must describe his eye color, frame, height and style of body hair and reveal whether he wants anal sex, active or passive fisting, S&M and his preferred size of penis (or ‘member’, as it is called).
It even asks the client to elaborate on what fetishes he desires, such as ‘costumes’, ‘stockings’ or ‘skater’.
Men looking for casual sex with men are willing to share the tiniest of details about their preferences online, but nothing in real life.
Here the men are looking for ‘naughty guys’ or ‘sex sex’.
Some pose with selfies of naked bodies, head concealed, their ‘member’ flopping free - while others use their faces and real names, stating they ‘want to chat’.
It’s a mix of open and closeted, gay and MSM.
There are hundreds of such accounts online.
Vaeceslav Mulear, coordinator of Health Problems at LGBT NGO Genderdoc, and a team supply condoms and advice to homosexuals at cruising grounds in Chisinau.
But he says he cannot cover all MSM in their services. It’s a disparate and closed group.
“They do not want to get tested for HIV,” he says. “They don’t want to recognize who they are.”
Three: What goes on in Volgograd, stays in Volgograd
Moldova is a migrant country. Up to 615,000 of its citizens are working or residing abroad.
This is a staggering 17 per cent of the entire population, half of whom travel to EU countries and the others mainly to Russia.
Men tend to go east, where over two-thirds labour in the building trade.
“They work on construction sites, tend not to have high education, they do not know the place where they are staying and they are disorientated in another country,” says Lucia Pirtina.
Sometimes up to 20 men stay together in one apartment and there are few opportunities for "fun" in the evenings - except vodka and prostitutes.
When they come home, they keep quiet about what happened.
A worrying phenomenon is that married women in remote rural areas in Moldova who have only had one sexual partner find out at a clinic that they have HIV.
Some of their husbands are coming back to Moldova with the virus - and are infecting their wives.
This fits with research from 2010, which states only around 4.5 per cent of Moldovan wives admitted to using condoms with their husband.
Work migration puts open communication between partners under strain - and the result is HIV.
“That is our tragedy,” says Pirtina.
Four: Marriage: bonded by mistrust
A failure of men to be open with their wives is contributing to the spread of the disease.
This could be put down to an excess of pride and a lack of importance placed on the need to communicate.
This is evident in an example below - researched from court reports and conversations with individuals close to the case (names have been changed).
Liana and Petrov were friends from childhood living in a small town in the north of Moldova.
She left to Russia, aged 16, with her mother. At the same time, the police caught Petrov stealing and a judge sentenced him to jail.
But they kept up a correspondence - and she visited him inside, taking him packets of goods and keeping his spirits high.
When he was released, she joined his parents to meet him outside the prison gates.
Although some in the town warned her against him, she was in love - and believed that he could change and make a good husband.
Before a wedding, it used to be mandatory in Moldova for couples to have an HIV test. At that time, the state’s assumption was that people do not have sex before marriage.
Petrov picked up the test results for both of them, which showed he was HIV positive and she was clear.
He did not tell her about his status.
After the wedding, Liana worked as a hairdresser. She was making a good living and was excited about having children.
However Petrov turned to heavy drinking and drugs, spending his time out in bars - and frequently came home wasted, stoned and angry.
She spent more time away from Petrov, in the safe company of her mother and brothers, but kept going back to him.
One evening, in the presence of Liana’s mother, he hit his wife in the face and stomach. Her mother tried to protect her, but Petrov punched the older woman.
At this time, Petrov infected his wife with gonorrhea, leading her to believe he was cheating on her with other women.
She was planning to leave him and, in the middle of an argument, he told her:
“Why are you scared of gonorrhea? That’s nothing - you still don’t know that you could have HIV.”
Liana took an anonymous HIV test. The result was that she was positive.
She was afraid that she would be a burden to everyone close to her.
But one evening later, as every day, Liana left work to visit her mother. They stayed to chat. She was in a better state of mind. Calm and level.
After talking, she went home to her husband.
The mother remembered a phrase from that evening.
Liana told her:
“I’ve thought about it all and tomorrow all will change, all will be well.”
The mother thought she had made the decision to leave Petrov.
The next day the mother telephoned Liana because she didn’t come by to see her after work. But there was no response.
All her friends and family began to search for her - but no one could find her in the town or its surroundings.
That evening the police announced that they had discovered a dead body crushed by a train on the railway tracks.
Liana left the note:
“My dears, forgive me please, especially you - forgive me mother, I love you very much. Forgive me if you can. Please do not accuse anyone of my death.”
A legal organization specialized in HIV/AIDS litigation, IDOM, demonstrated in court that Petrov infected Liana deliberately. He professed his innocence, arguing that they both knew of his HIV status before the wedding.
The judge convicted him to four years in prison - where he is now serving his sentence.
Also published here on Moldova.org
Additional reporting by Oxana Greadcenco, thanks to Irina Titica for Russian translation and to Natalia Mardari and Olesea Doronceanu from the Moldovan Institute for Human Rights (IDOM), the team at Genderdoc and at the Regional Social Centres in Chisinau and Balti.
This article is supported through moldova.org by 'Fortification of the independence of online mass-media in the Republic of Moldova through the transfter of Know-how from the EU' - with support from the 'European Partnership for Democracy' and financial resources from the 'National Fund for Democracy' (NED).