The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the 2nd largest country in Africa and home to one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history. By the year 1996 tensions had spilled over from the Rwandan genocide that resulted in the conflict spreading to the nearby DRC (then called Zaire). The violence resulted in two wars dragging in at least 8 African countries and resulting in the death of 5.4 million people making it the most deadly modern war since the World War II.
The conflict in the DRC has now been raging for over 16 years, in a report by the New York Times in 2009 it was estimated that people were still dying at a rate of 45,000 per month due to widespread disease, famine and lack of clean drinking water.
Alongside the reports of brutal violence, massacres and displacement, it is estimated that some 200,000 women have been raped. Sexual violence is used as a weapon of war by belligerents to degrade and punish local civilian populations, causing not only horrific physical injuries to the women who suffer at the hands of their abusers but also untold amounts of psychological damage to their victims and families alike.
One man, Dr. Denis Mukwege has been seeking to make a difference in the region. Dr. Mukwege founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in 1999 which has become known worldwide for the treatment of survivors of sexual violence and has since treated over 30,000 women over the last 13 years.
Some of the violence we are discussing here pale beyond most people’s understanding of cruelty. Dr. Mukwege has stated that many of his patients, sometimes girls as young as 9, arrive at his hospital still bleeding having been gang raped often by groups of 10 men or more. The women are often suffering horrifying injuries to their genitalia, sometimes leaking urine and fecal matter into their own bloodstreams from the brutality involved in the rapes. Many of these injuries are so severe they can never be repaired.
Dr. Mukwege does not just repair the horrific injuries sustained by these women, Panzi also offer support and counseling for the victims of sexual violence and their families stating that “there is no medical solution” for the trauma caused by sexual violence. As such he has become an outspoken advocate for peace for his country and defender of women’s rights within Africa. He has been awarded the U.N. Human Rights Prize among other prestigious awards in recognition for his work and has also been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On the evening of October 25 Dr. Mukwege narrowly escaped with his life as four armed gunmen tried to assassinate him, instead killing his security guard. The armed men forced their way into Dr. Mukwege’s home and forced his two daughters and their friend at gunpoint to sit silently on the floor until he returned home. Upon Dr. Mukwege’s arrival, one of the armed men opened the gate and forced Dr. Mukwege out of the vehicle, demanding he hand over his keys. The security guard on duty ran out shouting to intervene and was shot and killed, the men then opened fire at the Doctor who ducked for cover narrowly avoiding death. The men then fled the scene, their identity and whereabouts are still unknown.
NY Times journalist and friend of Dr. Mukwege has suggested that he was targeted for the strong speech he gave at the United Nations last month where he called for “urgent action to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice.” Dr. Mukwege publicly denounced the mass rape and slaughter in the DRC and has also been an outspoken critic of Rwanda’s role in the slaughter and rape in eastern Congo.
These outspoken views have now made Dr. Mukwege a target. In reality there has been very little action from the international community to punish those responsible or protect those most at risk from these attacks and many of the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes against humanity live in impunity.
In 2010, UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict Margot Wallstrom said the country was the “rape capital of the world”.
Director of Physicians for Human Rights Susannah Sirkin released a statement last night saying, “Thousands of Congolese women and girls put at risk following incidents of sexual violence have depended on Dr. Mukwege for their lives and well-being.”
“Dr. Mukwege has served the Congolese people with passion, expertise, and extraordinary dedication. Dr. Mukwege’s safety must be of the utmost priority to the Congolese government.”
In an interview with BBC Afrique today Dr Mukwege said, “They wanted to kill me,” and added that his work had angered some people in the region.
“It upsets them when we denounce their crimes,” he said.
In a shocking and heartbreaking interview with the Huffington Post Dr Mukwege explains some of the things he has witnessed, “I see women and young girls who don’t have genitals anymore, and they stand up and they fight for others and they fight for their rights…”
“At the end of some days, you just want to cry and you have no hope. And other days, a woman will come up and give me a hug because she’s so happy that for the first time in forever, basically, she’s able to urinate. And then I feel the hope to operate on 20 more women.”
More must be done to not only protect individuals such as Dr. Mukwege, but also the countless millions of women in Africa at risk of gang rape, sexual violence, torture and murder. We live in a world which is steadying itself for an armed conflict in Iran whilst turning a blind eye to unimaginable acts of cruelty around the world. The time has come for us to speak out.
To donate to the Panzi Hospital please visit the Panzi foundation at this address: http://www.panzifoundation.org/help.aspx