He was nicknamed Magic Man as a child, for his love of tricks and the magic he brought into the lives of the people he met. He was a practical joker, a secret hugger, an effortless charmer, and blessed with one of the world’s great smiles and a cackling laugh. A huge fan of rap, he liked to play tough, but could never conceal his soft, gentle soul.
All of these qualities were miracles given his start in life. His parents died during Cambodia’s late-’90s AIDS epidemic, and because he was born HIV positive he spent the next eight years being rejected by relatives and orphanages, before finally finding an accepting home at a residential community for children with HIV.
You might think those rejections terrible. If you’d met him as a child, as I did, you’d find them incomprehensible. It’s hard to imagine a kinder, more generous or more lovable kid than Magic Man. He was radiant. So radiant it perhaps blinded many of those of us who knew him to the pain he hid inside. The damage to his psyche - from repeated rejections and growing up outside a family - was like a timebomb waiting to go off.
That bomb detonated on 6th November, a month ago. Our Magic Man died at age 22. This young man - once a tireless footballer, breakdancer and boxer - died weighing less than 35 kilograms, barely able to walk. This week, the world marked its 36th World AIDS Day, and I ask you to use this moment to think about people living with HIV, like Magic Man.
There were a few causes to his death but I believe the real killer was stigma around HIV. He saw cruel jokes people casually made about HIV on social media. He believed people in the outside world would reject him - again - if they saw the medicine he took daily and which kept him healthy and entirely uninfectious. And so he stopped picking up the pill bottles he feared people would find, stopped taking his medicine.
In a world where treatment makes HIV a manageable condition like diabetes, one which need never turn into AIDS, he still ended his life dead from complications from that terrible disease, including a case of tuberculosis his immune system couldn’t fight off. And it was all completely, heartbreakingly unnecessary.
He leaves behind hundreds of devastated friends from across Cambodia and as far afield as New Zealand, Mexico, Tanzania, Germany and the USA. One of Magic Man’s most brilliant tricks was winning hearts. And if he had felt the world would accept him as a young man with HIV, he would be alive today, winning more.
The tragedy is that the stigma is as unnecessary and avoidable as AIDS. HIV is no longer the dangerous disease it was when it first emerged and killed tens of thousands of Cambodians. The medicine which the Cambodian Government provides for free - one of its greatest achievements - allows people to live a full life without any risk of infecting others. But medicine can only work when people take it. And some people will only take it if they feel they will not be judged for doing so.
“Stigma can negatively influence the lives of people with HIV in many ways,” says local NGO, the ARV Users Association, one of many organisations which tried to support Magic Man. “Discrimination often dissuades people from accessing HIV prevention and care, and is an added barrier to treatment.”
After many discussions with people who loved him, I am not naming Magic Man nor sharing a photograph of his face, though I know it would melt your hearts. Some have argued that this decision might reinforce the stigma around HIV. Some may say he should have been brave enough to say who he was openly. But neither are my decision to make. Magic Man died because he didn’t want to disclose his condition to a society that shamed him. I loved him too much to betray those wishes.
Besides, this burden should never have fallen on him. It’s up to all of us to make the world safer for people living with HIV. If you have ever told a joke about HIV or judged those who have the condition, please stop. There are around 74,000 people in Cambodia living with the condition –you may know one of them. Your words could stop them taking their medicine. Your words could kill them.
Even better than refraining from cruelty, do something kind. Go onto social media and write that you do not judge or discriminate against HIV positive people. Write that they deserve the same love and respect as every other person on the planet. Send this message into the world and you will make it a better place, if only slightly.
And if you are reading this and have HIV, please take your medicine as if it was a religion. The world has already lost more than 40 million people to this disease. There is no need for it to lose any more.
For the last few weeks, those of us who grieve Magic Man have shared countless stories of his acts of kindness, the way he would put his head on your shoulder when none of his friends were looking, his ingenious pranks and his sly wit. To know Magic Man was to love him.
Those of you who didn’t will just have to trust me. He was special. But there are other people, including children, who are special and still alive and HIV positive. Let’s try and create a kinder world for them all, a world where they can live happy and long lives and give back to the world. Magic Man gave so much and had so much more to give. I’m heartbroken he won’t be able to. Except, perhaps, through his story.
Goodbye Magic Man. We will miss you forever.
Jaime Gill has worked in Cambodia for seven years as a volunteer and consultant for non-profits.