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The fight for human rights

Panzi Hospital founder works to restore dignity of sexual-assault victims in Congolese war zone

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Dr. Denis Mukwege, founder of the Panzi Hospital for women who've been brutalized by deadly conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo.  He's in Winnipeg for the first time to fundraise for the internationally renowned hospital.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Dr. Denis Mukwege, founder of the Panzi Hospital for women who've been brutalized by deadly conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo. He's in Winnipeg for the first time to fundraise for the internationally renowned hospital. Photo Store

In 1999, Dr. Denis Mukwege founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a city on the frontline of a war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Since then the hospital, which treats 17,000 patients a year on a US$5-million annual budget, has treated thousands of patients, mostly women who have been victims of sexual violence, as rape has become a weapon of the war.

Mukwege is in Winnipeg this week -- he added Manitoba's Order of the Buffalo Hunt to a long list of honours he has received -- and he will speak at Make Music Matter, an event billed as an evening of dialogue and music in support of the Panzi Hospital.

Also speaking will be University of Winnipeg president and vice-chancellor Lloyd Axworthy, who was Canada's minister of foreign affairs from 1996 to 2000; Senator Romeo Dallaire, the retired Canadian lieutenant general who led the United Nations mission in Rwanda during its civil war in 1993 and 1994; and Dr. Samantha Nutt, executive director of War Child Canada.

Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo will also perform during the event, which will raise money for the Panzi Hospital.

Prior to his arrival in Winnipeg, Mukwege took part in an email Q&A session with the Winnipeg Free Press. An edited version of that interview is here:

 

WFP: What convinced you that you needed to act to help the victims of sexual violence and other atrocities that were taking place in your region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Rwanda and Burundi?

 

Dr. Denis Mukwege: I am a gynecological surgeon and founded Panzi Hospital in 1999 in order to reduce maternal mortality. Unfortunately, the first woman we treated 15 years ago did not come for a C-section. She had been raped and tortured with extreme violence. It was the first time we had witnessed such a barbaric act and we thought it was an isolated one, but it was the beginning of a humanitarian disaster of tremendous proportions that plagues us to this day.

WFP: How are you able to not become desensitized to all the horrors you've witnessed while being surrounded by them day after day?

Mukwege: I find my strength in God and in the fierce determination of the women I am treating. If they find the courage to overcome the torture they have been victims of to come to our hospital to seek assistance, we have the obligation to help them.

In the past, I was spending a lot of time listening to the patients and providing psychological support, in addition to the medical care, but I realized that I could not perform always the best surgery when I was getting too close with the patients. Hence we have now a team of social workers and psychologists who prepare them before entering the operation room.

This being said, it goes without saying that no human being can become desensitized by the reality of mass atrocities committed on the bodies of women and girls. It is an everyday challenge for me and all the staff of Panzi Hospital, and we do our best to provide high-quality care and restore the dignity of our patients. And we find our inspiration in the fierce determination of survivors who become actors for social change in their communities and are rising for their rights and for peace. They are my heroines. They are the future of Congo.

 

WFP: When you travel abroad to make personal appearances like the one in Winnipeg, how worried do you get about loved ones back home?

Mukwege: After the murder of my guard and my own assassination attempt in October 2012, I went in exile with my family in Europe and in the U.S. At that time, I thought I would not go back to my country.

When women from eastern Congo started to mobilize, writing letters to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo and to the United Nations secretary general, collecting money to pay my return ticket, I felt like I had no other choice than to stand alongside them and to continue my work and our combat against sexual violence. You know, Congolese women are very strong and I could not resist to their call and together with my family, we decided to come back to Bukavu.

Since then, I am living with my family at the hospital and my freedom of movement is restricted as I am exposed to risks. No light was ever shed on the murder of my guard. The investigation has been a masquerade, hence we have upgraded security measures for me and also for the hospital.

 

WFP: What can people in Canada do to help stop the sexual violence and other atrocities when we live so far away? What can western governments do that they aren't already doing?

Mukwege: We are all bearing a responsibility to respond to these crimes that shock the conscience of humanity and to end sexual violence in conflict...

My combat is not related only to the situation in the Congo. I met Bosnian, Libyan, Colombian women and girls and they all share the same stories. A single case of sexual violence is too much and unacceptable whether it is in Africa, in Europe, in Asia or anywhere in the world.

I believe in the universality of human rights and that every woman has the right to a life free from fear and violence. Rape is not only a women's issue, it is a global issue and the future of our societies which is at stake...

Many of your readers will discover this article on devices made with conflict minerals. The Congo produces minerals of the utmost interest to every modern economy. These include tin, tungsten and tantalum -- 'the three Ts,' as they are often called.

Struggles over the metals in our electronic devices have contributed to the loss of more than five million lives in my country. DRC is ready to embrace globalization and its resources shall benefit to all, but in a transparent manner, without recourse to violence against civilians. Therefore corporate social responsibility and transparency shall guide all mining companies operating in the DRC.

The international community recently asserted a red line against the use of chemical weapons. Today, we are urging world leaders to establish a red line against the use of sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war.

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2014 C16

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