A Congolese gynecologist and human rights activist who has treated thousands of female survivors of mass rapes, Dr. Denis Mukwege, survived an assassination attempt that resulted in the death of a security guard.
The tragedy underscores the horrific violence that has ravaged the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the need immediate international attention.
Denis Mukwege, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is a renowned surgeon and humanitarian activist in DR Congo. He founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in 1999, and has since treated more than 30,000 female survivors of sexual violence.
“I thought they would kill me,” Mukwege told the Guardian newspaper, detailing how four armed assailants held his family hostage in the dining room and waited until he arrived home. “These people got into my home and my two daughters were there…They sat with them in the dining room and waited until they heard my car drive up.”
Mukwege was forced out of the vehicle when one of the armed assailants tried to shoot him.
“He came to me and tried to shoot me but Jeff [security guard employed at Mukwege's home] was behind him and called out. The man turned around and shot him two times,” Mukwege said.
Out of instinct, Mukwege threw himself to the ground. “[The gunman] turned back to shoot me but I was already down. He jumped in the car and left quickly.”
Having stolen Mukwege’s car, the assailants swiftly abandoned the vehicle to hijack another car to flee. Their identity and locations remain unknown to the authorities, so is their motive.
The murder attempt came after Mukwege’s speech at the United Nations last month, in which he condemned the country’s 16 years of violent conflict, resulting in millions of women being brutally and systematically gang raped by militias, soldiers, rebels and ordinary citizens. In his speech, Mukwege called for “urgent action to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice.”
The doctor often travels around the world to speak about the devastating conditions in DR Congo, trying to bring international awareness to the endless violence in his country.
He has received numerous awards, including the UN Human Rights Prize, African of the Year, the Clinton Global Citizen Award, King Baudouin Africa Development Prize and many others.
During an interview once when he was asked “Do you think that people in the United States know what is going on in Congo?,” Mukwege replied: “My big concern is that if people know what is going on, [then why] is there no action?”
Indeed, while many people in the United States are aware of the conflicts in Middle East, very few pay much attention to the bloody warfare in Africa as a whole, and DR Congo in particular, where the death toll has reached 5 million – although some estimates claim the actual carnage is much higher.
The prevalence of mass rape in DR Congo reflects an ongoing horror. In 2010, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Margot Wallstrom called the country as the “rape capital of the world.”
According to BBC news, a single hospital in DR Congo alone recorded up to 5,000 cases of rape this year.
Many human rights activists, including Mukwege himself, have claimed that mass rape is used as a weapon to systematically destroy communities.
“Because when women are raped in front of their men and children, the whole family is destroyed. Not only physically, but mentally. By destroying the family, you destroy the dignity of the entire community.” he said during an interview last year with the Huffington Post.
“When you have five or 10 perpetrators committing these rapes, the intention is to destroy the continuation of life. It's not just an act of trying to show superiority; when you commit these acts on a young woman who is 14 or 15 years of age, you actually destroy up to four lives.”
Mukwege, 57, told reporters that when he started to receive women patients in the hospital, he didn’t anticipate what he would witness.
“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. They even fight for me and my rights.”
Mukwege also said that some serious injuries can be treated physically through surgeries, but some psychological pain takes a lifetime to heal, especially for those girls who are as young as 12 years old.
“At the end of some days, [I] just want to cry and [I] 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,” he said.
Describing Mukwege as "one of my heroes", New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote: “although he is a skilled surgeon who could easily have left for other countries, Dr. Mukwege has toiled in Congo at the hospital he started in Bukavu, Panzi Hospital… [he] doesn’t just repair individuals: He concluded that ‘there is no medical solution,’ and so he has become an advocate for peace and for his country.”
He added: “I refuse to accept that what is going on in Congo will be ignored in the 21st century.”