News and Views

DR Congo rape doctor in new campaign against violence

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A gynaecologist renowned for his work in treating thousands of rape victims, Denis Mukwege has begun a new crusade against widespread sexual violence in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Why were these crimes settled within six months in Bosnia and yet persist for 15 years in the DR Congo?” Mukwege asked this week in Kinshasa when he launched his awareness campaign.

“The solution will come from taking charge of the causes of this violence.”

Mukwege, who recently returned from exile in Europe, where he fled after an assassination attempt, runs the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, the capital of strife-torn South Kivu province.

According to the surgeon, while the year 2011 saw a gradual decrease in violence against women, in 2012 and the first months of 2013, an average of 300 women a month arrived at his specialised unit.

Mukwege describes rape as “a weapon of war” in the hands of the Congolese armed forces, rebels and the numerous militias fighting over local control and the rich natural resources in the east.

Sexual violence is of “high concern” in a country that has been ravaged by conflict, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote last month in his annual report on the DR Congo, where the United Nations maintains a mission of more than 19,000 military, police and civilian personnel (MONUSCO).

In the last two months of 2012, “MONUSCO recorded cases of sexual violence involving at least 333 women, including 70 girls, that were allegedly committed by armed groups and national security forces,” Ban said. Last November, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that “medical and psychosocial assistance had been provided to 2,193 victims, including 770 children,” according to the report.

Mukwege resumed his work at the Panzi hospital in January after an assassination bid in October last year, which led him to take refuge in Europe. Deeply moved, he said his patients had begun trying to raise money by selling vegetables at the market to pay for his return ticket.

They then endeavoured to provide security measures because — contrary to announcements made in the West and by local authorities and the UN — no special steps were taken. Mukwege now lives in the hospital with his family.

“My patients took charge of me,” he said, shorn of any illusions that special security would be provided in a region wracked by violence for 20 years.

Dressed in a sober dark suit and tie, the 58-year-old doctor, who was trained at Angers in France, could pass for a local worthy or a politician, but he simply stated that “if every Congolese could understand that he is at the service of the nation, things would be better.”

‘What kind of words can we use?’

He was responding to a local journalist who called him “a national hero”. Indeed, Mukwege has won several international awards, including the UN Human Rights Prize, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But he considers that all credit should go to the women on whom he has operated, or “repaired”, in the words of a book about him by Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman called “L’homme qui repare les femmes” (“The man who repairs women”).

“They leave the hospital with $20 (15 euros) and we find them a few months later with a home and children in school,” Mukwege told journalists. “Without their courage, our team would sink into despondency.

“Their capacity to adapt, to fight for their rights and those of their children has no equal.”

“At the hospital we encourage them, but what kind of words can we use when we see them coming for the second or third time?” he asked, his eyes shining with tears.

“My first patient in 1999 had been raped by several people and they had shoved a weapon into her genitals and pulled the trigger. Her whole pelvis was destroyed. I thought this was the work of a madman, but by the end of the year, I had treated 45 similar cases. Today, we have 40,000 women in this kind of situation,” he said.

“Rape is used as a weapon of war…. It destroys the social fabric, brings about a loss of collective identity, destroys all beliefs. It is wanton destruction,” he added.

“How can we look them in the eyes?” he was asked by a husband and father who witnessed the rape of his wife and daughters.

Sometimes, in one percent of cases, men are raped.

“Generally, that finishes badly” — with suicide, Mukwege said.

Faced with the serious condition of women who come for treatment at Bukavu often after a long and painful walk, the hospital is currently setting up a “one-stop centre” system that brings it closer to the villages, shortens the wait for treatment, and aims to welcome patients swiftly, so that they do not have to tell their story several times.


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