From the ground zero of rape in conflict: An interview with Dr. Denis Mukwege

By — September 27, 2012

I’ve found that there are few men who want to sit in a room and talk about how to stop rape. Few show up at panel discussions, few show up in virtual social media spaces to reflect or express outrage. Rape is a woman’s problem, they tell us implicitly.

Men don’t show up because they feel shame or fear, as if their entire gender is being blamed for the actions of a few. As if we hate them for the actions of others. But the men I’ve met who are willing to sit in the room are smarter than that—they know that this is a problem for all of us, that this is a human rights crisis and without men calling other men to account, without men working alongside women, we cannot stop one of the most disgusting epidemics in the world today.

This weekend I met one of the smartest men I have ever had the fortune to meet: Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder and medical director of the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Panzi is located in Bukavu, eastern DRC, one of the loci of a war marked by extraordinarily high levels of sexualized violence.  

We spent Sunday with our fellow advisory committee members on the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict, hunkered down in a midtown New York office building to plan out our next 15 months of action. Among about 25 women was Mukwege, who said he has performed more than 15,000 operations on women whose genitals and internal organs have been destroyed by sexualized violence and treated more than 40,000 women overall in the past 12 years.

Mukwege told us that he’s been seeing increased levels of violence against women in the past few months and that it was “very painful” for him to be in New York with us as the situation for women deteriorates in his country. I wanted to try to understand how he manages to not only physically face such horror daily but also carry his experience to the world in order to create change. Our interview was carried out in English, which is not Mukwege’s first language, but I think his message is clear:

How do you do so many surgeries on women who have been brutalized and not fall apart?

Dr. Denis Mukwege at the advisory meeting. (Lauren Wolfe)

I feel that today I have really a big question about what I am doing, especially about the reaction of the international community. It’s a question because what I’m saying are really dramatic things, horrible things, and I can’t understand why we can’t spend time to make a strategy to fight it. I have an impression that we are people who are sensitized to this question—but where are others. It’s horrible. In French, we say “drame.” We have a dramatic sense that we should stand up and say: Never.

But why? That is my question. I think that today my big question is how people can ignore…no, they don’t ignore, they know. How they can keep silent. How they can stand by silent? That is my big question.

When they ask me to give a talk, I can start with a picture of a 4-year-old girl completely destroyed. How can they keep silent with something like that? It’s not a question of being a professional; it’s a question of humanity. It’s a question of all of us. I think that it’s not a question for feminists or for doctors—it’s a question of life, humanity. And why, why this silence?

I think that it’s creating in me a kind of just revulsion—because I have the impression that the world could do more than what they’re doing.

I was with a lady from Libya [at a conference on sexualized violence in Africa], what she was talking about, it’s exactly the same like what I experience in Congo. When she was trying to talk about it, other people were asking her to keep silent, don’t talk about this. I have an impression that—where are women [at] in our society? Even in Libya.

I’m a man. We should do more. We are men, and we know where we come from, all of us. Why we can just be silent when our origin is trying to be destroyed and kept silent? We are born all from women. Maybe I’ve lost my way—I’m in a world I don’t understand.

Does the extreme level of violence against women in Congo have something to do with levels of inequality between women and men in the country?

I don’t have that impression. I have an impression we should talk about more why is there this attitude in the world. In Libya for this lady, she was not able to talk about it. She was just crying because what she witnessed was just terrible but they asked her to keep silent—men, her family. I don’t know what the shame is. How they can talk about shame when others are destroyed?

You more than anyone in the world have probably seen more of this physically, the brutality. How can you express that? How can you get that out?

I think that today I have lost all my words. I don’t have enough words to explain the brutality I’m watching. I was just asking myself, okay, maybe, today, it must be, you know…I’m not [giving talks] with pictures. It’s horrible. What I have [seen] is enough. I don’t need to transfer it to others. But the big question today is, What is the important strategy to bring people to understand? I don’t know. I don’t know.

In terms of the situation on the ground, there’s the Panzi Hospital, but there’s not much else to help these women. How many women from what you’ve seen actually get help?

I think that when they can reach the hospital they can get help, but I’m sure when I have 10 at the hospital maybe another 19 don’t have help in the bush, or they died. Things like that. Because the picture I was showing you it was a girl of 4 years old [I had earlier seen a photo of a girl’s torn vagina], and she has been completely opened. She gets a chance to come to the hospital, but how many go through it and died?

When people have just the impression that it’s “just” women, it’s there that all my sorrow starts. When people say it was “only” women, it was a “sexual relation”—no. [Thumps his chest repeatedly.]

You are saying that you are frustrated that the world only seems to care when we talk about the rape of men?

I have seen men with a cut penis and I can remember that even Nicholas Kristof, he did a column talking about maybe 10 men [raped]. But when I’m talking, I’m talking about 40,000 women. Yet when you have 10 men, people care.

So you want to know why people don’t care about women, when the number is so skewed?

Yes.

You can say it is the same in Syria. All Syrians say, “Don’t talk about it, it is a shame.” For women they can’t talk about it for sure. It is a shame for sure for our society.

I think people should understand that when a woman or a man is raped, [her or] his life is completely destroyed. I have seen men who are raped and I can tell you that after he is raped, I have never seen a man who becomes normal. And even if it happened for the wife or the doctor, it is the same. It is terrible. When sometimes people are talking about it [the rape of men], it’s just to talk about common things. My sorrow today is how to bring people to understand that these are terrible things. How?

How much of it do you think is about race, the fact that the world isn’t paying attention?

Sometimes you can get this impression. I have my friend from Bosnia and I know how the international community reacted when it was Bosnia. If you can see the reaction for Congo, you really have a question. The scale—you can ask yourself if really somewhere, if it’s not… [laughs sadly].

Are the 40,000 women you’ve treated survivors of sexualized violence in conflict, or also of domestic violence?

What we can call domestic violence is related to the conflict because now we are in the process of creating a new army, and all the young boys who were in the army before, they come home, but no one helps them to change their mind so they’re still going on to do the same thing and we can call it domestic violence, but for me, it’s a consequence. It’s the same thing. I think that the Nobel women [who lead the stop rape campaign] should really use the power they have to bring leaders of countries to understand that when you rape, you have no place in society.

How do you keep yourself from going crazy? How do you do it inside yourself?

I don’t know if really [laughs]…I don’t know how I’m doing it. I can say that today I’m just wondering for how long I can go on with this question.

The following is from Mukwege’s remarks to our advisory committee, not my one-on-one interview with him:

I think the Congolese state actors, MONUSCO [the UN stabilization mission in DRC], and the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region are just trying to create distractions by having endless meetings instead of really attacking the true problems and finding solutions. I don’t think that we can say anymore that this is a complex, complicated problem that Africans need to figure out. I think it is an economic crisis and we need to treat it as such.

If the reports of the different experts of UN are not sufficiently credible for us to be able to even condemn the perpetrators of these crimes, I think our institutions are losing credibility.

We’re living in a situation in which you have to call into questions the very credibility of our institutions. That’s why I think we need to start moving toward grassroots organizations. The women in these organizations have really amazing capabilities. That’s where I think we’ll find solutions.