For the past 16 years at the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo, my staff and I have been treating women who have been victimized by sexual violence, which has been systematically used as a weapon of war in the armed conflict that has ravaged our country. Rape is one of the most deadly weapons of war, destroying families and communities and future generations, as well as the women brutally targeted. Last year I had some hope that the situation was improving, but since the beginning of this year the security situation has again deteriorated and victims of sexual violence have started coming to the hospital again in greater numbers.
In our hospital near Bukavu, we have been helping women not only with medical treatment but also with psychological counseling, legal representation and financial support. We work to address all the consequences of the sexual violence they have suffered, but none of the causes of this violence which bring the women back to the hospital again and again. So now I am trying to use my voice, domestically and internationally, to address the causes of this violence and to call for peace and justice. I have attended many conferences in Europe and the United States on sexual violence in armed conflict and specifically on the situation in Eastern Congo.
A few weeks ago, I was attacked and almost killed in my home, which is in one of the most guarded and secure areas of Bukavu. I had gone to accompany a patient who had come to see me for medical advice, and when I returned I was met by heavily armed men who forced me out of my car. They had been in my house and forced my children onto the sofa at gunpoint, which is how I saw them when I arrived. I found myself with a gun to my head, and just as the gun was loaded and ready to shoot, a member of my staff heroically intervened to save me. He shouted and came running to jump on this armed intruder, who turned and shot him. He fell down, I fell down, and I can't really remember what happened after that. I realized he was shot, and I saw him give his life for me. The attackers then got in the car and left.
Neither I nor anyone in my family have been questioned about this incident in an effort to find out who is responsible. The lack of investigation is symptomatic of the indifference that prevails in my country. After this attack many people have demanded the assurance of my security – this has been very helpful to me, but my security is not the real issue. It is not enough to assure my security, if even that can be done, when women are being violated with impunity on a daily basis.
For 16 years, these women have come to the hospital time after time, and each time, following medical treatment, I have urged them to go back to their villages. But after what has happened to me, I have a new understanding. I have seen what has been done to them. I have heard them tell me that armed attackers raped them and killed their husband, raped them and killed their children. I now understand this in a different way and my thoughts are with the women of my country who have suffered so much.
We talk about them as numbers and we don't fully appreciate that they are individual human beings who have each been through a horrifying and destructive experience. Every one of these women should have the attention of the international community that I have received. The violations continue because of indifference on the part of our government and inaction by the international community – this happened to someone else. But really, it happened to one of us. We all belong to the same family of human society.
In the Congo, we have tried to make peace and we have sacrificed justice for the sake of peace. But today we have neither peace nor justice. And the problem is that the present Congolese army has been put together by the integration of former armed rebels who are responsible for rape and pillage. Perpetrators have been given the job of protecting their victims – it is a death sentence. It cannot work and we need international support to help our country make the security system function.
The dedicated and courageous staff who work at Panzi Hospital are scared, and my thoughts are with them. I want them to respond to this hatred with love because I think that it is the only way we can make a difference. If they continue to do what they do with love and care I have to believe that peace and justice will prevail. Violence can only create violence.
I believe that together we can conquer this hatred and we can help the Congo end the long standing armed conflict that has caused so much suffering and so much destruction. This is an easy problem to solve. It is fundamentally a question of political will, not only at the Congolese level but at the regional level and the international level. At the international level there is much talk of the conflict as a problem, and one United Nations report after another has clearly stated the problem. With political will we can solve the problem but unfortunately this political will is lacking.
We do not need more proof of what is happening, we need action to stop it, action to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice. We need unanimous condemnation of the rebel groups who are responsible for these acts, and we need concrete action with regard to member states of the United Nations who support these barbarities from near or afar. All the elements are there to put an end to an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war. Congolese women have a right to protection just as all the women on this planet. It is an honor for me to serve these courageous survivors, these women who resist, these women who despite all remain standing.
Denis Mukwege is the Medical Director at the Panzi Hospital in the Congo.