When Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his ‘extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples’, he had been inaugurated less than two weeks before the 1 February nomination deadline. Many thought this premature, especially as he was up against Columbia’s ‘woman of peace’ and the father of Chinese democracy, but one man stood out on the nominee list for me, a man whose selfless commitment for the last 14 years has ensured that thousands of women have been able to rebuild their lives in what has been described as the worst country in the world to be a woman.
Healthcare was poor in rural areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo when Denis Mukwege was a child. His father, a pastor, would often take him to visit the sick and together they would pray for them, but Denis couldn’t understand why his father didn’t give out medicine or prescriptions to help the patients. When he asked his father the question, he replied that he wasn’t a doctor. This experience made Denis realise that prayer alone was not enough.
He travelled to Burundi to study medicine and a few years later returned to the DRC to work as a general practitioner at the Hospital of Lemera in Kivu. But after witnessing the lack of pre and post natal care in his country he went to France to study gynaecology and obstetrics and came back to Lemera where he created a special maternity ward.
In 1996 though, during the first civil war of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was destroyed by Banyamulenge militia and Mukwege left for the city of Bukavu where he built a new maternity ward with an operating room at the Panzi Hospital.
Scores of women started arrive at the hospital everyday, travelling for hundreds of miles to seek help from Dr Mukwege. Most came for the repair of fistula’s (a hole in the tissue between the vaginal wall and bladder) which cause the women to leak urine and faeces. The two main types of fistula’s he came across were those caused by childbirth – usually from prolonged, obstructed labour in areas with no adequate access to healthcare – and those caused by a new epidemic sweeping across the DRC, that of sexual violence, a weapon of war used against women and children in the ongoing conflict.
Mukwege was soon operating on 10 women a day, dealing with some of most horrific acts of sadism imaginable. Women who had been raped with bayonets, sticks and rifles, bullets shot into them, destroying their reproductive organs. In the worst case he has ever seen, one woman lost her colon, bladder, vagina and rectum after a man shot a cartridge into her. Miraculously, she survived.
Ross Kemp visited the hospital as part of his Extreme World series in 2011. He met Dr Mukwege and some of the survivors being treated at the hospital. Here’s what happened on his visit:
Ross Kemp meets Dr Denis Mukwege at the Panzi Hospital
Eve Ensler, writer of The Vagina Monologues, visited the hospital a few years ago and wrote an article for Glamour Magazine based on her trip. While at Panzi she met a young woman called Nadine who told Ensler her story: “I’m 29,” she begins. “I am from the village of Nindja. Normally there was insecurity in our area. We would hide many nights in the bush. The soldiers found us there. They killed our village chief and his children. We were 50 women. I was with my three children and my older brother; they told him to have sex with me. He refused, so they cut his head and he died.” They then murdered Nadine’s three children, all under the age of 5, and gang raped her causing a massive fistula. “When I got away from the soldiers, there was a man passing. He said, ‘What is that bad smell?’ It was me; because of my wounds, I couldn’t control my urine or faeces. I explained what had happened. The man wept right there. He and some others brought me to the Panzi Hospital.”
Nadine is just one of over 20,000 women Dr Mukwege has helped in the last 14 years and he has ensured the work will continue by training four other doctors to perform fistula surgery. Last year they completed over 1,000 surgeries.
In 2011 Mukwege, Ensler and Christine Schuler Deschryver, winner of the Guardian‘s Women of the Year award, opened the City of Joy in Bukavu after becoming fed up with countless broken promises of help from well-meaning visitors to the Panzi.
They built a centre at the City of Joy where survivors have the opportunity to take a six month intensive educational course, learning self-defense, literacy, human rights and many other skills ensuring a brighter future for the women of Congo.
Denis Mukwege, now 57, has sacrificed a great deal to make his country a better place for women to exist. He’s received death threats, treated rape victims as young as 3 years old and endured long periods away from his family, but he continues to work 16 hour days to repair not only the bodies of the survivors of sexual violence but their souls too.
If you would like to find out more about the Panzi Hospital or donate, here is the link – http://www.panzihospital.org/about/support-panzi-hospital
The origins of the recent troubles in the DR Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been taken advantage of many times, over many years and for two reasons: money and power.
In the late 1800s King Leopold II of Belgium and his army laid claim to the country and for their own financial benefit they extorted forced labour from the natives for the collection of sap from rubber plants. Due to global demand, the sale of rubber made Leopold a small fortune but at the cost of the lives of millions of Congolese natives who were killed and mutilated by Leopold’s men for not meeting unrealistic quotas.
Many years later, after their independence from Belgium in the 1960s, president Mobutu Sese Seko changed the country’s name to Zaire and used the country’s money to lavish himself with expensive clothes and trips while his country crumbled around him. Mobutu spent the rest of the money to ensure he stayed in power for the next 30 years but his rule came to an end in the mid 1990s just as ‘Africa’s World War’, the deadliest conflict since World War Two, began.
In April 1994, the president of neighbouring Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, was assassinated when his plane was shot down in the Rwandan capital Kigali. An ethnic Hutu extremist regime took control of the country and over the next 100 days they murdered 800,000 ethnic Rwandan Tutsis in the last genocide of the 20th century.
Tutsi rebels, led by the current President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, managed to overthrow the Hutu extremists and drove them across the border into Zaire where they received growing support from President Mobutu.
Hutu rebels attacked Rwanda from refugee camps across the border, killing Tutsi’s and forcibly recruiting Hutu men into their growing army. They started to attack native Tutsi’s in Zaire and when the Rwandan army got word it began to back rebel groups in Zaire who were now fighting both Hutu militia and Mobutu’s government troops.
The leader of the rebels in Zaire, Laurent Kabila, and the Rwandan army soon took control of the capital Kinshasa and President Mobutu was forced to flee. Kabila was put in charge of the country and he changed its name back to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But the relationship between Rwanda and the DRC didn’t last long when Kabila ordered all Rwandan military to leave the country and failed to expel Hutu militia.
With the help of Uganda and Burundi, Rwanda tried to topple Kabila and almost did but the DRC had help from five other African nations including Angola and Zimbabwe.
The foreign armies, though, were more interested in money and plundered the country’s most valuable commodities – diamonds, oil, gold and coltan/tantalum (a prized mineral used in mobile phones and mainly found in the DRC) – for their personal gain.
A peace agreement followed and saw the withdrawal of foreign troops but rebels with ties to the Rwandan army still controlled much of the east of the country and Hutu extremists including the men responsible for the genocide in Rwanda, started a new group, the FDLR, to drive the Tutsi’s from power.
Notorious warlord General Laurent Nkunda led a rival rebel group to protect the Tutsis from the FDLR, who he accused of being supported by the Congolese government, but he was overthrown by ‘Terminator’ Bosco Ntaganda, a man with a reputation for killing people easily. Both men are currently wanted for war crimes by the Congolese government and the International Criminal Court respectively. Ntaganda is wanted on counts which include mass murder and rape and is currently a fugitive living in the hills overlooking Kinshasa.
Nkunda was handed over to the Rwandans by Kabila’s government after they again switched sides to support the Tutsi rebel group. Nkunda is currently being held at an undisclosed location in Rwanda.
After president Laurent Kabila was assassinated by his own bodyguard 11 years ago, his son Joseph Kabila took over and was elected president in 2006 in what was the first democratic elections for more than 40 years. Kabila Jnr has managed to assert some kind of control over the country during the last 6 years, but battles in the east of the DRC still continue and the government army have been accused of supporting the Hutu’s FDLR rebel group in their quest to control the country’s mines. Reports of mass rapes and killings committed by rebels and government troops still continue. Kabila has commented on the situation stating “It’s shocking. These kinds of acts are simply unforgivable.” He even visited the Panzi hospital back in 2010 but it remains to be seen what positive changes he will make in a country where rape is becoming ingrained as part of the culture in the east.
But he needs only to look to Denis Mukwege to see what hard work and dedication can do in transforming the lives of others. Let’s hope he is inspired to make his country a better place after meeting a man who is, in my eyes, a hero.
Thanks for reading.