It was fitting that he was in Panzi hospital on October 5, finishing the second surgical operation of the day, when Dr. Denis Mukwege heard the noise of people crying and celebrating outside. He had just won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Nadia Murad, a Yazidi activist.
In 1999 Dr. Mukwege opened Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, more than 50,000 rape survivors and more than 80,000 girls and women with complex gynecological injuries have been treated at Panzi hospital, and Dr. Mukwege is considered the world’s leading expert on repairing injuries from rape.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee chose Murad and Mukwege for their persistence in exposing the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. “Denis Mukwege is the helper who has devoted his life to defending these victims,” the committee explained. “Nadia Murad is the witness who tells of the abuses perpetrated against herself and others.”
Mukwege dedicated his Nobel Prize award to women of all countries who face violence daily. But the women of Congo did not need to be told that the prize was their victory.
RTLinfo, a French TV station, showed the crowd outside Panzi Hospital caught up in cries of joy and gratitude. A dynamic woman, wildly waving her arms, screamed into the camera, “We weren’t only victims of rape. We were also accused of spreading disease [by our husbands], and he embraced us, he respected us; it is him who brought the peace here!” The women around her started crying for joy, dancing and lifting their hands high around the man in his white hospital coat.
The Congolese diaspora is rejoicing. As another woman said, “I only hear bad news in this country. And today we have heard very good news. Today I am proud to be a Congolese woman.”
Pain into power
Dr. Mukwege knows firsthand just how dark the news of Congo can be. As a child, Mukwege visited and prayed for the sick with his pastor father. At age nine, he knew he wanted to be a doctor. He opened Panzi Hospital as the first maternity clinic in his province. His first patient was a woman so violently raped she was unable to walk, and equally unable to see hope in life.
She underwent six surgeries. She healed, went to school and returned to Panzi Hospital. Today she is one of the hospital’s longest serving employees, and she is the first of thousands who have had their lives restored by Mukwege’s work, earning him the titles “restorer of women” and “Dr. Miracle.”
Mukwege was operating up to 10 times daily, but he discovered that the depths of damage are far greater than physical. “When rape is used as a weapon of war, the impact is not only to destroy women physically, it’s also to destroy their minds . . . to destroy their humanity,” he said. Panzi hospital expanded to provide psychological, socioeconomic and legal support. “The goal is to transform their pain into power,” Mukwege said. “We can change hate by love.”
In 2010, a UN official called Congo, “the rape capital of the world.” The title has stuck, and the problem has only grown. Since the war of 1996, the rapes are increasingly brutal. Women are targeted in what is being called a genocide of rape. The victims Mukwege cares for range from toddlers to the most elderly women, and every age in between.
Perhaps the worst part of Dr. Mukwege’s work is that he sees the same patients. A healed and restored woman returns to her village, only to be raped again. So Mukwege began addressing the cause of rape. He holds the rebels responsible for their brutal rape, the Congolese government for their passivity, and the international community for their silence. “It’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it,” Mukwege once said in an interview.
‘Justice is not negotiable’
Nor can the church stay silent. Last year, he told the World Lutheran Federation that the gospel’s credibility in this century is “to liberate the grace that we have received by making the Church a light that still shines in this world of darkness through our struggles for justice, truth, law, freedom – in short, the dignity of man and woman.”
In September of 2012, at age 57, he passionately delivered a speech before the UN General Assembly: “I would have liked to begin with the usual formulation, ‘I have the honour and privilege of taking the floor before you.’ Alas! The women victims of sexual violence in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo are in dishonour.”
There was no honour in an international community so deafeningly silent, displaying only fear and lack of courage in his nation of Congo. Nor was there honour in a nation where, at the time of his speech, 500,000 girls were raped and six million people killed in the past 16 years, “without any lasting solution in sight.”
“No, I do not have the honour, nor the privilege to be here today. My heart is heavy. My honour, it is rather to be with these courageous women victims of sexual violence, these women who resist, these women who despite all remain standing.”
“Sixteen years is too much. We do not need more proof. We need action, urgent action, to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice. And justice is not negotiable. We need your unanimous condemnation of the rebel groups who are responsible for these acts. We also need concrete actions with regard to member states of the United Nations who support these barbarities from near or afar.”
Just a month after delivering this speech, at home in Bukavu, Mukwege was ambushed by five gunmen. An employee called out an alarm, giving Mukwege time to drop to the ground, missing bullets aimed for him.
Mukwege fled the country with his family. But he couldn’t stay away for long. The women of Eastern Congo sold their harvests to pay for his plane ticket home, and their courage brought Mukwege back to continue his labour of love.
The women love Mukwege for the respect he gives them. This attitude permeates the hospital. A woman employee in a documentary by Maud-Salome Ekila explained, “He trusts us to take care of these women, who he calls his daughters. We try to treat them with the same love.”
“Because of rape,” one woman explained, “my body was mutilated. My family wanted nothing more to do with me; no one wanted to help me except him. He operated on me, and he gave me life.”
In his speech before the UN, Mukwege stated, “I have the honour to say that the courage of women victims of sexual violence in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will, in the end, overcome this evil.”
Right after hearing about the Nobel Peace Prize, Mukwege visited his mother, Mama Lydia. The video is shared on Facebook. Mama Lydia is seated on a chair outside. Mukwege, the great man, kneels before her, resting forward onto the arms of her chair as her two hands grip his bowed head. She prays over him in Swahili, face lifted to heaven, her words all but drowned out by children playing and the murmurs of the people pressed around them. Her face is tight in intensity. She shakes his head as her words rise and fall, “Father, you know the work . . . you know his work.” At the very end of the prayer, her face relaxes into an almost smile, joy shining there, as she declares, “Amena.” Everyone cries out in agreement, “Amena!”