A cool breeze is blowing as the wasted body of Jean David Droitdieu, carried down steep rocky trails on the shoulders of men chanting an almost cheery dirge, approaches his mother's house.
There's a faint smell of rum in the air -- it's what's fueled the men for this grueling journey, four hours' hike from the nearest road in southeastern Haiti. The men cross a shallow stream at the base of a deep valley, then lumber up a bank into a remote village of white stone homes known as Galette Mousambe.
The mother's small house is quickly cleared of its furnishings and swept clean. The white-shrouded remains of the 28-year-old native son, the face soaked with more rum to mask the smell of death, are placed inside.
As one mother's lost son, the dead father of an orphaned child, a wise brother and good friend, Jean David will be celebrated for a night, then quickly buried.
As one more life claimed by AIDS, his death will be something less than a statistic. It joins countless other deaths, officially unrecorded, but mounting on a scale at which experts can only guess as the epidemic sweeps through the Caribbean.
"This was a good man, a very respectful guy," says Junior Droitdieu, the dead man's brother, as villagers try to console his mother. She rocks back and forth on her feet, wracked by heaving sobs.
"He worked hard, took care of his family," Junior says. "But now everything's gone -- I've spent all my money trying to buy him medicine, make him feel better. And now he's dead. But you know, I had to do it. I had to. He was my brother."
Now entering its third decade under the brunt of the epidemic, Haiti is the epicenter in the Caribbean's struggle with AIDS. This desperately poor nation has the largest number of cases in a region with one of the world's highest infection rates.
During the last two decades, an estimated 300,000 Haitians have died of the disease. It's by far the largest toll in either the Caribbean or Latin America.
All told, an estimated 87 percent of all AIDS cases in the Caribbean are occurring on Hispaniola -- the island home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
In both countries the disease is exploiting the same endemic poverty that has allowed it to wipe out a whole generation of Africans. And it moves effortlessly in a global age of international travel, tourism and weakened borders. Political upheaval, economic collapse and cultural taboos have allowed the disease to spread virtually unchecked.
"The biggest problem is medical care -- there really isn't any public medical care," says Jean Saurel Baujour, a leading AIDS activist in Haiti. "There is no national reference center. Not even the most basic statistics are really being kept.
"It's a long fight. It's a lonely fight. Many of us are going to die," concedes Baujour, who has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. "We know that. But we can help change things for the sons and daughters that follow us."
By the time of Jean David Droitdieu's death on Feb. 28 at a missionary hospital near the Port-au-Prince slum called Cité Soleil, his brother had sold their small house and three cows to pay for medicine to keep him alive. The dying man's wife had abandoned him months before, returning only once to leave their infected daughter with Droitdieu's mother.
"Now the child is sick, too, but we don't know what to do -- she's only 14 months old," Junior says. "There's no energy and the baby cries all the time. We've already carried her to the hospital twice."
Galette Mousambe, where Jean David grew up, is a remote area without electricity, public sanitation or piped water. But it's hardly out of touch. Local youth, wearing baggy trousers and Chicago Bulls jerseys, tend goats and cattle along the rugged mountain trails while listening to hip-hop on Sony Walkmans.
Like many other Haitians in their teens, Jean David left for the big city at 15 to search for work. Two-thirds of Haiti's population lives in rural areas, but life in Haiti is one of constant movement between the city and country. In the last two decades especially, the major cities have swelled in population as more sons and daughters have left the severely deforested, eroded countryside looking for jobs as maids, drivers and street vendors. This movement has further fueled the spread of AIDS around the island.
Living with his younger brother, a laborer, Jean David found work as a driver of a tap-tap, the colorful buses built onto the backs of pickup trucks to ferry people around Haiti. He and Junior scrimped and saved, and eventually bought a house in Cité Soleil.
AIDS IN THE CARIBBEAN
Some come here and die very rapidly.
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