By Jennifer Fierberg
True heroes are hard to find in our world today. So when one courageously stands up for the rights of others there deserves to be recognition and celebration of such a man. In the Democratic Republic of Congo a man dwells there who is a local hero, a true hero in every sense of the word. He serves selflessly, loves unconditionally and heals more than just the body of his patients. He is a man that serves with everything he has and when he can’t serve anymore due to exhaustion, heartbreak or discouragement he digs deeper and finds the strength he needs to keep going. This man is Dr. Denis Mukwege. He serves at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DRC as the primary gynecologist to the women of the region who have been viciously raped and left with debilitating injuries. He specializes in the treatment of women who have been gang-raped by Rwandan militia. Dr. Mukwege has become the world’s leading expert on how to repair the internal physical damage caused by gang rape. He has treated several thousands of women since the 1998 Congo’s war, some of them more than once, performing up to 10 surgeries a day. He has described how his patients arrive at the hospital sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and feces from torn vaginas. His work is nothing less than miraculous to the women he so faithfully cares for and the families he treats.
Many sources reported, and Dr. Mukwege himself stated, that In September 2012, Mukwege made a strong speech at the UN condemning impunity for mass rape in the DRC, criticizing both President Joseph Kabila and the Rwandan government’s role in mass rapes in Eastern Congo. On October 25, 2012, four gunmen attacked Dr. Mukwege’s home, killing his guard. Shots were fired at Dr. Mukwege who avoided the bullets by throwing himself to the ground. After the assassination attempt, Dr. Mukwege fled to Brussels and the Panzi unit reported that his absence had an “overwhelming effect” on daily operations at the unit due to the ongoing and ever increasing instability caused by the FARDC soldiers as well as the Rwandan backed M23 rebel group.
Dr. Mukwege’s absence from Panzi Hospitial these last twelve weeks left the place with many patients and medical needs that required his attention. Though far away, the needs in his homeland were never far from his mind. In turn, the women and families he served missed him dearly and raised the needed funds for him to return. Obviously, Dr. Mukwege could afford the cost of the plane ticket to return but the women devoted their salaries of $1USD per day to purchase the ticket for him. These women organized from many parts of the area to save their monies from selling their vegetables and fruits in order to bring him back. Dr. Mukwege felt compelled to return without concern for his safety but for the safety of his patients and the community he serves. He returned to a hero’s welcome of women dancing and singing, yelling his name and tears of joy for seeing the man who they knew would help him. Thousands gathered at the airport and hailed his arrival.
Dr. Mukwege once said, “Rape as an atomic bomb lasting for generations.” Not only are mothers raped but so are their children and sisters and cousins and many others. Women are raped in front of their husband and children thus destroying the family unit. Rape goes beyond being a military tactic because when you destroy the women of a community you destroy every facet therein. Men can no longer look at their wives and will most often leave them and shun them in their communities. Even children have been known to turn on their mothers after seeing them raped. In one interview Dr. Mukwege stated that he can tell which rebel group has raped a woman that has come in for his services. He stated that there is a method and pattern to the way each group viciously destroys these women and he can track who is in which area based on this data.
While in Sweden and Belgium Dr. Mukwege answered the questions he is most often asked, “How can we help?” He provided three levels of actions people can take: 1) Make Congolese government accountable to its citizens, 2) There need to be pressure on regional leaders to make them become part of the solution not part of the problem as they have been so far, 3) Human people are suffering not just Congolese. He urged the people to stop looking at rapes in Congo as statistics; it’s not numbers but human lives. Further he stated to lobby local officials in all countries to support humanity in Congo. Imagine it was your mother, sister or daughter and act accordingly.
In a press release today published by Physicians for Human Rights, they stated that:
Thousands of people, many wearing T-shirts of welcome, were on hand to greet Dr. Mukwege at the airport, where he arrived, accompanied by several Belgian physicians and PHR’s DRC coordinator, to an emotional outpouring of support.
“In my life, I have started to dream again,” Dr. Mukwege said in a subsequent phone call with PHR. “When the population stands up to say they support what we do, it is so positive. I was crying. It was beautiful. I have hope.”
“The tremendous welcome Dr. Mukwege received today in Bukavu is a clear sign of the admiration, respect, and love so many Congolese have for this champion of women’s rights and peace in his country,” said Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of PHR. “As a distinguished doctor, he’s put himself in harm’s way to stand up for these women and ensure that they receive not just medical care, but justice.”
This is the hero that the DRC needs. Dr. Mukwege cares not for his own safety but for the healing of the DRC. His work, his devotion and his love for his country are undeniable and should be recognized by all.
For more information on what Dr. Mukwege does visit the Panzi Hospital website here. Further, there is a Facebook page with a petition for Dr. Mukwege to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Please visit the page and sign the petition.
Our world needs more heroes like Dr. Denis Mukwege.