Homage to a Congolese Hero

Following a decade-long hiatus, it is pleasing to return to the lovely city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo and witness first hand the hospitality and the lively ambiance. It is certainly a far cry from headlines such as “the rape capital of the world,” meant to raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual violence in the eastern part of the country while disparaging a nation the size of Western Europe.

It is therefore fitting to pay homage to Doctor Denis Mukwege, a 59-year old gynecologist who was recently awarded Europe’s top human rights prize—the Sakharov prize—for helping thousands of gang rape victims in the country. Dr. Mukwege’s deserved recognition helps rape survivors feel they are not alone and showcases how the Congolese are taking the lead in addressing the consequences of decades of instability.

Setting up Panzi hospital

The heroic deeds of Dr. Mukwege have humble beginnings at the onset of the first war in the mid-1990s. He fled to Bukavu after patients from his hospital 60 miles south were killed in their beds and started a hospital made from tents, building a new maternity ward, only for everything to be destroyed yet again. Showing persistence in the face of a dispiriting setback, Dr. Mukwege started all over again and set up Panzi hospital in 1999 to treat women subjected to horrific sexual violence.

“It was that year that our first rape victim was brought into the hospital. After being raped, bullets had been fired into her genitals and thighs. I thought that was a barbaric act of war, but the real shock came three months later. Forty-five women came to us with the same story, they were all saying: ‘People came into my village and raped me, tortured me,’” he said.

“These weren’t just violent acts of war, but part of strategy. You had situations where multiple people were raped at the same time, publicly—a whole village might be raped during the night. In doing this, they hurt not just the victims but the whole community, which they force to watch. The result of this strategy is that people are forced to flee their villages, abandon their fields, their resources, everything. It’s very effective,” he added.

Panzi hospital adopts a four-stage system to care for rape victims. At first, a pyschological examination is undertaken to ensure the patient can withstand surgery. The next step might consist of an operation or medical care. In fact, Dr. Mukwege’s and his colleagues have treated about 30,000 rape victims, developing great expertise in the treatment of serious sexual injuries. Despite the lull in fighting prompted by the defeat of the M23 rebel movement, rape remains a significant issue. “Today, we are treating 10 cases per day and this is horrible,” Dr. Mukwege said.

The hospital goes the extra-mile to provide socio-economic care. Patients are offered basic necessities such as food and clothing. Women are trained to develop new skills and girls are put back in school. Futhermore, patients are afforded lawyers to assit them in bringing their cases to court.

Surviving an assassination attempt

In a moving speech at a United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2012, Dr. Mukwege was critical of the Congolese government and international community for failing to act and stop a conflict fuelled by economic interests with devastating effects on Congolese women.

Here is an excerpt of the now famous speech:

“I would have liked to begin my speech with the usual formulation, ‘I have the honor and privilege of taking the floor before you.’ Alas! The women victims of sexual violence in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo are in dishonor. I constantly with my own eyes see the vague stare of the elder women, the children, the mothers who are dishonored. Still today, many are subjected to sexual slavery; others are used as a weapon of war. Their organs are exposed to the most heinous abuse, often without access to medical care. And this has been going on for sixteen years! Sixteen years of wanderings; sixteen years of torture; sixteen years of mutilation; sixteen years of the destruction of women, the only vital Congolese resource; sixteen years of breakdown of an entire society […] I would have liked to also say ‘I have the honor of being part of the international community that you represent here’ but I cannot. How can I say this to you, representatives of the international community, when the international community has shown its fear and lack of courage during these sixteen years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? I would have liked to say as well ‘I have the honor of representing my country,’ but I cannot. In fact, how can one be proud of belonging to a nation without defense, left to itself, completely pillaged and powerless in the face of five hundred thousand of its girls raped during sixteen years; six million of its sons and daugthers killed during sixteen years without lasting solution in sight? No, I do not have the honor, nor the privilege to be here today. My heart is heavy. My honor, it is rather to be with these courageous women victims of sexual violence, these women who resist, these women who despite all remain standing.”

On October 25, exactly a month later, Dr Mukwege was attacked shortly after returning to his home, where he found armed men threatening his children with guns. He described the attack:

“When I was coming home after a trip outside the country I found five people waiting for me. Four of them had AK-47 guns, the fifth had a pistol. They opened the gate and got in my car, pointing their weapons at me. They got me out of my car and as one of my guards tried to rescue me they shot him down. He was killed. I fell down and the attackers continued firing bullets. I can’t really tell you how I survived […] I found out afterwards that my two daughters and their cousin were at home. They had been made to go into the living room where the attackers were sitting, waiting for me. During all that time they pointed their guns, their weapons at my daughters. It was terrible. I only saw the attackers for just a few seconds and I couldn’t tell who these people were. I also can’t say why they attacked me—only they know.”

Although it is unclear if the assassination attempt was directly linked to his activism, Amnesty International reveals that Dr. Mukwege has been threatened several times by armed groups for his denunciation of rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by them. After the attack, Dr. Mukwege fled with his family to Sweden, then to Brussels, but he was persuaded to retun to Congo in January 2013. He credits the resilience and commitment of Congolese women to fight these atrocities as the inspiration behind his return.

“These women have taken the courage about my attack to the authorities. They even grouped together to pay for my ticket home—these are women who do not have anything, they live on less than a dollar a day. After that gesture, I couldn’t really say no. And also, I am myself determined to help fight these atrocities, this violence,” he said.

Dr. Mukwege has had to sacrifice some of his personal freedoms for the sake of his safety. But he admits that the enthusiasm expressed by Congolese women gives him the confidence to continue his remarkable and important work. According to the BBC, the Sakharov prize—named after Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov—is awarded each year for the promotion of human rights and democracy around the world. Last year, it was awarded to Nobel Laureate and Pakistani child education activist Malala Yousafzai. Previous winners of the prestigious prize include Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. Dr. Mukwege had been touted as a potential winner for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. I hope that next year it will be his turn. Meanwhile, he remains a hero in my book, and we can all support his work by donating to the Panzi hospital.