The winner of the 1996 International Rolleston Award, Aaron Peak, a hero of harm reduction and a great friend of many, many people, died in hospital in Chiang Mai recently, after a long illness. Even through his illness, as through his whole life, his work and caring was untiring, for the last several years for his adopted village, Unawatuna in Sri Lanka.
Aaron's contribution to harm reduction was unequalled. We know no-one who was as grounded as was Aaron in his humanity, and in the humanity of our enterprise - he knew the people we work for, he was of them and among them. He blazed trails where nobody knew trails were needed. His humility and his ability were his hallmarks – we know nobody who worked so hard, and so effectively. Aaron brought harm reduction to a whole continent, and inspired so many of us – us two included. But his focus was always the person he was working with on the street, in Kathmandu, in Chiang Mai, in Vietnam, wherever he was.
Aaron began the second legal needle and syringe exchange program in the U.S., and the first statewide program, in Honolulu. Having decided that was too easy, and having heard about what was happening in Manipur, Aaron went to India to start NSP there. Manipur was a restricted zone at the time, and Aaron ended up in Kathmandu, where he saw people injecting in the street. With his bankcard and Sujata Rana, Aaron began Asia’s first harm reduction program, the Lifesaving and Lifegiving Society of Nepal. LALS hosted the first workshop on harm reduction in Asia, in Kathmandu in 1994, which Alex Wodak and NC were privileged to be part of (and where we met for the first time two icons from India, Jimmy Dorabjee and Luke Samson from SHARAN). He subsequently worked all over Asia, implementing harm reduction, supporting and inspiring.
We remember how the street beggars in Kathmandu adored him, there's not a strong enough word; he was their equal, there was not the slightest hint of condescension. He was the most complete Buddhist we've ever known. We remember him in Imphal, with Jimmy, when he was very sick but just kept on working, treating everyone with exactly the same humanity and kindness and respect.
Aaron was not around the harm reduction movement over the last few years, since he moved to a hill above the village of Unawatuna, 30 kilometers south of Galle in Sri Lanka. He arrived just before the tsunami hit and destroyed the local village. He started a Foundation, with a lot of help from DP, and rebuilt the village. He started a number of enterprises there which are supporting 40+ extended families, and which he has passed on to the locals.
Aaron changed our lives, enriching them like no other; our life is diminished now we know he's not here, but the change he wrought is irrevocable. And the thing about Aaron is, he never, ever set out to change anyone's life - he had no mission, he wasn't an evangelist - he was just family, to all of us, brother, sister(!), uncle ... and he did what the best family members do - he cared.
“I wasn’t out to change anything. HIV found me; I didn’t find HIV.”
Nick Crofts and Dave Purchase