In Congo, a doctor keeps helping as rape victims keep coming

A peace treaty has not stopped the rape as a weapon of war. Aid from Europe is drying up. But Denis Mukwege's efforts to help Congolese women hasn't flagged.

Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science Monitor
HEALER: Dr. Denis Mukwege in Bukavu, Congo, with one of his patients.
Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science Monitor
DOCTOR DENIS: Senior surgeon Denis Mukwege in Bukavu, Congo, chats with his patients. Many come to him after being raped by militias that roam the area.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF
Scott Baldauf
Dr. Denis Mukwege, one of only two gynacologists in Eastern Congo, is one of the few doctors who knows how to perform reconstructive surgery on women who have been brutally gang-raped. Rape has become a tool of Congo's many armed militia movements for controlling local populations through fear.

As a senior surgeon at a hospital in war-torn eastern Congo, Denis Mukwege expected that his workload would ease when a peace treaty was signed earlier this year.

But while the war ended on paper, it continued on the ground. The combatants kept their weapons. They dug in, and took out their aggressions on local villagers.

Dr. Mukwege is a gynecologist. The majority of his patients are rape victims. And Congo, home of the world's bloodiest conflict since World War II, also has the globe's highest incidence of rape.

"It is always a joy when you treat someone and they get well, and you see them, for the first time, smile again," says Mukwege, resting after a long day of reconstructive surgery on rape victims at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. "But then I start seeing women I treated in 2003, and I ask myself, why should I continue with this work?"

He sighs. "I can't be discouraged by the work if the problem will end. But if you can't see the end...."

For more than a decade, Dr. Mukwege and his small team of assistants at Panzi Hospital have fought a small war of their own to help women recover their dignity as well as their health, during a long regional conflict that has turned gang rape into a weapon of war. The conflict shows few signs of stopping.

A peace treaty brokered by the European Union in January, and signed by dozens of armed groups – including the Rwandan rebel group responsible for the Rwandan genocide of 1994 – fell apart quickly on charges of government insincerity. Among the first victims to come to Panzi Hospital were once again the victims of rape – a crime of intimidation against Congolese communities, and often carried out in public to spread fear among the local population.

"Everyone says the war in Congo is complicated. It's not complicated. It's an economic war that's been fought on the bodies of women. It is the systematic destruction of the female population of the Congo, and it's conscious and it's intentional," says Eve Ensler, an American playwright and founder of V-Day, a women's rights group.

"I'm here to say we can do something – we can end impunity, we can arrest war criminals who are orchestrating this war from abroad ... and we can support building a huge women's movement on the ground."

Ensler heads up a funding effort for Panzi Hospital called "City of Joy," which creates a safe environment for rape victims to live and get job training.

Rape victims say they have difficulty returning to normal lives. If they are married, their husbands often reject them for having sex (even involuntarily) with another man. If they bear children, their children are often rejected by their families and local communities. Children whose mothers have been raped by Rwandan rebels are particularly reviled, and are often called "the children of snakes."

Bernadette Mushagalusa, a middle-aged mother of eight, was one of 12 people kidnapped from her village of Budodo in 2006 by members of the FDLR – a remnant band of Rwandan Hutus who took refuge in Congo after carrying out the genocide of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda. During her month in captivity, she was raped repeatedly. While her husband borrowed money to pay a ransom for her release, he rejected her when she finally came home.

"He said he doesn't want any woman who was the wife of a Hutu," Ms. Mushagalusa says simply, at a Catholic Church center in the town of Kaniola where she receives counseling and job training. "It's not just him. All the people in the village laugh at me."

Another young woman, who gives her name as Esperance, or Hope, says she was forced to become a "war bride" of an FDLR rebel during a joint looting raid of her village of Budodo by FDLR and the Congolese Army. She was kept for eight months, but when she became pregnant, her "husband" lost interest in her and she escaped.

At Panzi Hospital, Mukwege makes the rounds to check up on his patients. Since 1998, the hospital has performed reconstructive surgery on 21,000 rape victims. Mukwege says this is just a small percentage of the total of rape cases in the region.

When he started out, Mukwege was the only gynecologist in all of eastern Congo, but now he has trained a few younger doctors to handle simpler cases. The new doctors couldn't have arrived at a better time. After a brief reprieve when the peace agreement was signed, raped women have been coming from all over the region since fighting broke out again Aug. 28. Most of the cases, Mukwege says, are public rapes, where even family members are forced to participate, at gunpoint.

Mukwege, the son of a Pentecostalt minister, sees his work as a kind of mission. He performs 10 surgeries per week.

He stops to talk with one of his patients, Mateso Nabutonze, who has been operated on five times since being kidnapped and raped by Rwandan rebels five years ago in the forests near her village. Mukwege is gentle and teasing, like a father, and he leaves Ms. Nabutonze giggling.

"These women, when they come to me, and say 'Papa, ça va?' (Are you well?), I wonder, what have I done to be in good health?" Mukwege says, his eyes tearing up. "How could I abandon girls like this when they are already abandoned? They have no reason to be happy, but they have a certain strength, and I don't have it."

His workload is heavy. But his supplies are diminishing. The European Community recently told Panzi Hospital that it would end its annual grant, which paid for a sizeable portion of the medical supplies for Mukwege's work, because the EC wants to focus its funds on conflict zones, and the Congo, at least officially, is at peace.

Yet Mukwege says he has no plans to stop his work. "I get more from these women than I give them," he says. "Their joy is my leitmotif."

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How to help

V-Day – a global women's rights group started by playwright Eve Ensler ("The Vagina Monologues"), has organized City of Joy, a funding drive for rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

SAFER, Social Aid for the Elimination of Rape – a Canadian group that is helping Panzi Hospital to meet its financial needs.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation – a Canadian group that funds projects in sub-Saharan Africa with a special focus on HIV/AIDS. The foundation has a fund drive for Panzi Hospital.

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