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.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

2013 American Values Survey: Libertarians by Michael Sean Winters: “As you can guess, I would place myself firmly in the communalist camp. And, I am not alone. One of the happier findings of the study is that Catholics are only about 11% of libertarians, but a full 29% of communalists. Go Catholics!”

Food stamps will get cut by $5 billion this week — and more cuts could follow by Brad Plumer, Wonkblog: “The U.S. food-stamp program is set to shrink in the months ahead. The only real question is by how much.”

A Reason for Hope in Congo’s Perpetual War by NY Times: “By Saturday evening, after two straight days of pitched battle with artillery, tanks and mortars, the Congolese Army had driven the M23 rebels out of the strategic town of Kibumba.”

Kony 2013: U.S. quietly intensifies effort to help African troops capture infamous warlord by Washington Post: “U.S. troops have forged unconventional alliances, collaborating with members of the advocacy group whose viral Internet video last year made Kony one of the world’s most famous thugs and coordinating with two American philanthropists who are paying for teams of tracking dogs to accompany the African forces.”

Atheists Don’t Get God By Robert Barron: “I often tease the critics of religion who take pride in the rigor of their rationalism. I tell them that, though they are willing to ask and answer all sorts of questions about reality, they become radically uncurious, irrational even, just when the most interesting question of all is posed: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?”

A prime time for learning by Arnold Schwarzenegger: “There is a large and growing body of evidence showing that comprehensive after-school programs help inspire kids to learn and help working families. They also give children a safe place to be in the afternoon hours when school is out and parents are still at work.”

Communion(s) of Saints by Rev. Aaron Pidel, S.J.: “If we are now more aware of and articulate about social dimension of our faith, paradoxically, it may be that we are inwardly removed from community to such a degree that it now comes into focus as a conscious object of aspiration. In other words, we may thematize faith’s social dimension more precisely because it has ceased to be the very air we breathe.”

A Saint for Our Times by John Carr: “Who are the Catholic lay men and woman who sees faith as an asset, not a burden; public life as a vocation not war by other means; who stand against the tides to defend the weak, the unborn, the poor and vulnerable. They are there, but there will be more of them if we find ways to lift up the lives, faith, hope and love of people like Sargent Shriver.”

A War on the Poor By Paul Krugman: “So there is indeed a war on the poor, coinciding with and deepening the pain from a troubled economy. And that war is now the central, defining issue of American politics.”

To be in that Number: Death and the Communion of Saints by Andrew Staron: “We can find that in our love for our friends, we are freed from our fearful desire to be the exception and instead embrace the end shared by us all, not because it is inevitable, but because it is the end that comes to our friends.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Tea Party vs. the Common Good by Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter: “The individualism that is such a part of the American psyche has developed into something deeply pernicious, a denial of the possibility of the nation coming together, in the form of government action, to promote the common good.”

Could Pope Francis make women cardinals? A pipe dream, and an opening by David Gibson: “Pope Francis has said repeatedly that he wants to see greater roles for women in the Catholic Church, and some argue that he could take a giant step in that direction by appointing women to the College of Cardinals – the select and (so far) all-male club of ‘Princes of the Church’ that casts secret ballots in a conclave to elect a new pope.”

Everything Is Yours by Annie Selak: “Every act of self-gift becomes an act of bringing God into the world. As a result, the faithful are continually giving to the world and building the kingdom of God, renewing the church.”

Sr Eugenia Bonetti wins EU award for anti-trafficking work by Vatican Radio: “Italian Consolata Sister Eugenia Bonetti, a driving force in the fight against trafficking and prostitution, was among the recipients of the European Citizen’s Prize 2013.”

Paradise Lost by Anna Nussbaum Keating: “In a culture that values individualism and personal choice, we have forgotten that we are social animals, interdependent from conception, and that our relationships and communities, to a large extent, determine the quality of our lives.”

Pope’s Address to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization: “No one is excluded from the hope of life, from the love of God. The Church is sent to reawaken this hope everywhere, especially where it is suffocated by difficult existential conditions, at times inhuman, where hope does not breathe but is suffocated.”

Project Gubbio at St. Boniface: sanctuary of sleep by Heather Knight, San Francisco Chronicle: “The Rev. Tommy King, pastor at St. Boniface for nearly two years, said the church’s congregation doesn’t mind homeless people sleeping in its pews during the day since the church would otherwise sit empty, save for the first few pews reserved for those coming to pray. The family of a recently deceased parishioner even agreed to allow the homeless people to keep sleeping while it held a funeral service at the front of the church – complete with 150 mourners and a full choir.”

Pope Francis Lays Out 4-Point Plan by Greg Erlandson: “What excites many and disturbs some is simply that the Pope seems to be living this agenda. In word and in deed, he is inviting those who do not know Christ to “let God search and encounter” them. And to those who call themselves Catholic, he is challenging us that if we claim to be disciples, we had better get out there and meet the world.”

Open the Doors by Karen Gargamelli: “Although the number of women religious is dwindling, they remain the lifeblood of our church, and their convents are holy and fertile ground for new communities of faith. My suggestion: Keep the convents. Open the doors to lay people. Welcome migrants and the homeless.”

Assad regime snipers targeting unborn babies by The Telegraph: “Snipers belonging to the Assad regime in Syria are shooting pregnant women and their unborn babies in a disturbing “game” of target practice, a British surgeon has claimed.”

‘Super nun’ in Congo helps victims of Lord’s Resistance Army by CNN: “Sister Angelique Namaika has been recognized for her extraordinary humanitarian work with victims of atrocities committed by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the militant group led by African warlord Joseph Kony.”


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

The Poor Get Poorer by Michael O’Loughlin: “Now I don’t call attention to this extraordinary wealth to begrudge those who have money. Having spent a few years working in the nonprofit sector, I see firsthand the immense good that wealthy individuals create with their financial resources. The problem is, as the upper class gobbles up more of the nation’s wealth, the middle class is being depleted and the working class falls further behind.”

First Impressions of the 2012 Poverty, Income, and Health Insurance Data by Jared Bernstein: “Yes, the economy has expanded over these past few years, but to use a seasonal analogy, today’s report is yet another piece of evidence that this growth has once again done an end run around middle and lower income households on its way to the top of the scale.”

The Habits Of Supremely Happy People by Kate Bratskeir: “And while it might sound like a big feat to to tackle great concepts like meaning and engagement (pleasure sounded much more doable), happy people have habits you can introduce into your everyday life that may add to the bigger picture of bliss. Joyful folk have certain inclinations that add to their pursuit of meaning — and motivate them along the way.”

Death of an adjunct: “Meanwhile, I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation. I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Duquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits, and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty.”

The Theology of Breaking Bad by Jordan Monge (Spoilers): “And so, too, Breaking Bad is the study of change—of a change from moral indifference to horrendous evil. It paints a picture of the development of sin in a way unparalleled in today’s television story-telling.”

Congolese nun wins U.N. prize for work with internally displaced women by CNS: “‘It is not my work only. It is the Lord’s.’ Such was the summation of Sr. Angelique Namaika, a member of the Augustine Sisters of Dungu and Doruma, as she spoke to reporters in an international conference call upon winning the Nansen Refugee Award bestowed annually by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.”

Brazilian rancher found guilty of ordering American nun’s death by Reuters: “A rancher in Brazil’s Amazon was sentenced to 30 years in prison for ordering the 2005 killing of American nun and environmental activist Dorothy Stang, an emblematic case for the many conflicts over land use in Brazil’s resource-rich interior.

Anatomy of a war crime by CNN: “In Syria, the death toll from chemical weapons pales in comparison to that from conventional warfare. Britain’s Channel 4 has the chilling story of a massacre in Al-Bayda.”

I’m a 35-Year-Old Veteran On Food Stamps by Jason Kirell: “I didn’t risk my life in Afghanistan so I could come back and watch people go hungry in America. I certainly didn’t risk it so I could come back and go hungry.”