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‘I can’t explain how I am still alive’: Dr Denis Mukwege on risking his life to save African women | Women’s health

In 1984,on the age of 29, Dr Denis Mukwege moved to France from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to full his coaching as a junior obstetrician. It was his first journey to Europe, and he had spent half his life financial savings on the air fare. Town of Angers was to be his house for 5 years, however he struggled to make it one. He would prepare to view flats and on arrival could be informed that they’d simply been let. It took him some time to determine that it was his pores and skin color that was making residences disappear. He lastly discovered a house in a houseshare with different college students.

When he took up his coaching place, he was astonished at how properly staffed and geared up the hospital was in contrast with the one he had come from within the DRC, which delivered the identical variety of infants yearly with simply two medical doctors, as opposed to 30. Mukwege was already much more skilled than his friends in France. He had gained experience past his years working in a small, under-resourced hospital the place he operated on women and ladies by torchlight and infrequently broke away, mid-surgery, to seek the advice of medical literature for directions.

Helping in a caesarean part, he stunned a French professor who, puzzled by Mukwege’s talent, requested him if he had completed this earlier than. “About 500 instances,” Mukwege stated.

“Then why are you right here?” the professor requested.

After his coaching, Mukwege would return to the DRC and embark on a profession that will save hundreds of lives and galvanise medical doctors and activists globally. He turned not solely a surgeon, treating victims of rape as a weapon of warfare, but additionally an advocate, a champion of women within the DRC and the world over.

He understood early on that his medical work would have restricted impression till the basis causes of sexual violence have been eradicated. So he ran his surgical procedures, but additionally challenged totally different armed teams, and his personal authorities, for his or her complicity in sexual warfare crimes, inviting threats to his personal life.

Dr Denis Mukwege with author and supporter V (formerly Eve Ensler) at a protest in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2008.
Mukwege with writer and supporter V (previously Eve Ensler) at a protest in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 2008. {Photograph}: Getty Photographs

This has made him an inspiration to feminists the world over. Michaela Coel called him a “real hero”. Jill Biden stated that “beyond healer to these women and girls, he is hope”. The writer V (previously Eve Ensler), after assembly Mukwege in 2008, solid a private friendship with him, in addition to knowledgeable partnership to elevate funds and consciousness with him. This culminated within the development of the City of Joy in Bukavu, Mukwege’s delivery city in japanese DRC, “a protected house for raped women that provides safety, schooling, and inspiration for its residents”. Mukwege has been clearing these protected areas for women because the first day he stepped right into a small rural hospital within the DRC in 1983. Thirty-five years later, he discovered himself in Norway, accepting a Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to finish using sexual violence as a weapon of warfare and armed battle.

Immediately, Mukwege is speaking to me on a video name from a resort room in Paris, the place he’s on a whistle-stop tour prior to the French publication of his ebook, The Energy of Women: A Physician’s Journey of Hope and Therapeutic. His accent is unmistakably French, as is his outfit: a darkish swimsuit, a white shirt, and a vibrant silk cravat tucked into his collar. His physique language, the way in which he leans into the display screen, ear first, calls to thoughts a health care provider listening earlier than he may give an opinion.

After I inform him that his ebook resonated with me, an African girl with a tough obstetric expertise previously, and whose grandmother who misplaced a number of kids shortly after delivery, he gained’t let me transfer on. “You may have to speak about these items,” he says. In lots of elements of Africa, he explains, there may be an excessive amount of hidden trauma that folks carry round. “We want to get folks wholesome in order that they will have this capability to take into consideration the long run. However when we now have all this trauma, it may be arduous.”


Mukwege’s path to medication began early, when he was a baby in Sixties Bukavu, touring the houses of sick kids with his pastor father. But it surely was the tenacity of his mom that explains why he’s right here in the present day. It wasn’t till he was an grownup that he realized how shut he got here to demise within the days after he was born. “I found that my mom fought for my life,” he says.

Child Denis was born at house, like his different siblings. His father was away and a neighbour doubled as a midwife. Her solely qualification was the possession of a pointy razor. His umbilical twine wasn’t lower appropriately and the ensuing septicaemia would have claimed him in hours. His mom was alone however acted quick, bundling him right into a material wrapped throughout her again. A Swedish missionary nurse intervened on the eleventh hour and organized for remedy. Mukwege still speaks with awe in regards to the lengths to which his mom, and women like her, have gone to save their kids. “I am so grateful for what she did,” he says.

He was unaware of his personal brush with demise when, at eight, he resolved to develop into a paediatrician. “When my father was praying for a kid, I noticed how weak he was.” His father defined to him why he was powerless. “He informed me, ‘I am not a health care provider.’ So my impression was, if my father can’t do it, I will do it. So we is usually a group.” The 2 made a pact. Mukwege would develop into a health care provider. He would heal, and his father would pray.

The Energy of Women will not be a learn for the faint-hearted. In it, Mukwege writes of how he arrived as a newly certified physician in a hospital within the village of Lemera, in a distant japanese province of the DRC. By the top, his intention to develop into a paediatrician had evaporated. The extent of the maternal health disaster in a rustic the place women gave delivery at house in a merciless lottery (each his grandmothers died in childbirth) overpowered him. Women have been dying from treatable infections and delivery obstructions. They would seem on the steps of the hospital after travelling for miles on foot, typically with their useless infants still inside them.

As soon as he had accomplished his 5 years of coaching in Angers, he returned to Lemera in 1989 as the primary educated obstetrician-gynaecologist within the area. It was the beginning of a profession that will save an incalculable variety of lives.


In the mid-90s, Mukwege and his hospital have been caught within the political and tribal crossfires of the Congo’s first and second warfare. Ethnic tensions within the area had boiled over, main to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the place Hutu slaughtered Tutsi wherever they discovered them. Two years later, the Tutsi-led Rwandan military invaded japanese DRC (then Zaire) to seek out Hutu teams who had fled into the nation, and made widespread trigger with the Congolese rebels there. Mukwege’s hospital in Lemera, close to the Burundi and Rwanda borders, turned engulfed within the chaos. Mukwege went from treating women who merely didn’t have sufficient care to women who had been gang-raped, after which shot or stabbed of their vaginas. He tried arduous to keep neutrality, refusing to permit authorities troops to dictate to him who he ought to and mustn’t deal with. Lemera was finally overrun by Tutsi forces. He was away on the time, however scores of sufferers and a number of other members of his workers have been killed. In 1997 Mukwege fled to Kenya. That yr, insurgent chief Laurent-Désiré Kabila was put in as president.

A yr later Mukwege returned to the DRC with his spouse, Madeleine, and his three daughters, and began once more. In 1999 he started to construct a hospital in Panzi, a suburb of Bukavu, a maternal and sexual health facility that got here to specialize in treating the sexual violence inflicted by numerous troops and insurgent teams because the early 90s. Mukwege found that he was up in opposition to not simply the bodily results of violence in opposition to women, however a whole patriarchy and justice system that ensured these crimes would proceed. “I realised I wasn’t doing sufficient,” he says, and so he started to marketing campaign, communicate at conferences and implore the United Nations to do extra. He had to get used to the worldwide stage.

The brand new authorities, he says, fought him at each flip. His work was seen as a type of political dissidence, a rebuke to authorities who had deserted women; “a method to problem them, to ask them to do what they’re supposed to do. This didn’t create a great relationship.” In 2011, he was delivered a demise risk by a Congolese minister in a mafia-like assembly in New York. Mukwege was informed that if he needed to return to the DRC and reside, he would have to cancel a speech on sexual violence which he was scheduled to make on the UN. Bewildered, Mukwege relented.

As Panzi hospital took in additional victims (to date the hospital has handled 60,000), Mukwege was starting to battle psychologically, so horrific have been the sexual accidents he noticed on women, ladies, even toddlers. His expertise has taught him that the thoughts is slower to heal than the physique. “I assume that the fact is, you can’t work for a very long time with all these women who’re so traumatised with out your self being affected,” he says. “If you’re not affected, you aren’t human.” As a result of he utilized perfectionist requirements throughout procedures, he could be paralysed by an inner monologue. He would ask himself: “What if this occurred to my daughter, to my spouse? However in a short time I understood that I couldn’t go on that method.” Procedures that ought to have taken one hour have been taking three, “as a result of I was simply fascinated with all of the questions that I get. When a lady of 14 asks you: ‘Physician, do you assume I shall be ready to have intercourse?’ However her vagina is totally destroyed. ‘Physician, I hope that with this operation, I won’t be incontinent.’ And also you can’t reassure.” He shakes his head. “I determined to get a psychologist to help me.” Immediately, he manages to practise with out taking on the burden of his sufferers’ turmoil. “A lot of my workers, particularly the psychologists, actually burn out. It’s a really traumatising state of affairs and also you want to discover a method to go on doing the job, with out your self falling down.”

Mukwege, who can also be a Pentecostal pastor, finds consolation in his religion, too. He preaches in a small native church in the identical parish his father coated in Bukavu. I ask him how he can reconcile the horrors he has seen with his religion. “I consider that we’re created to be good, however at any second we now have a alternative. The God I consider in calls us to love others, and this can be a choice. It’s a accountability. It’s not a matter of God – it’s a matter of ourselves.”


Mukwege’s ebook is barely a memoir. His story is informed extra in tales of the women he has met alongside the way in which, who, in excessive misery, discovered deeper wells of resilience. There may be the younger girl he handled after she escaped a gang of rapist troopers, solely to depart the hospital and return just a few years later with HIV. There may be the woman he attended to when she was raped and pregnant, who returned a little bit over a decade later with a daughter, herself pregnant on account of rape. And there may be the aged girl who informed him that she needed an apology from the authorities for the truth that she had been gang-raped by a bunch of troopers younger sufficient to be her grandchildren.

These women, he says, “don’t have many potentialities, they don’t have many means, however they still battle to save lives, to save their kids. They struggle to give their kids meals, schooling. I am so grateful for African women – they’re doing so much for our humanity.”

Dr Denis Mukwege at Panzi hospital in DRC in 2007.
Mukwege at Panzi hospital within the DRC in 2007. {Photograph}: Getty Photographs

He sees them not as excessive circumstances that illustrate some African pathology, however examples of what occurs wherever in instances of societal breakdown. In his ebook, he traces a broad sweep, from sexual violence in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to the war in the former Yugoslavia, via Yazidi women enslaved by Islamic State, and Japanese “consolation women” compelled into sexual slavery through the second world warfare, to present that women are the primary victims when issues collapse. Mukwege believes that difficult misogyny in peacetime is paramount, so as to fortify society in moments of battle. The primary issues to confront are silence and disgrace used “to preserve women underneath management of males”. He provides: “When I speak within the west, I am all the time telling them: ‘What I am exhibiting you, it’s occurring even right here, in your nation.’”

Mukwege sees feminism as an easy matter of striving for the great of women, not a state of political enlightenment. “Feminist,” he says, “is a phrase that discovered me doing what I was supposed to do for humanity. I know many women in Africa who’re preventing every day for the rights of women, and they aren’t saying that they’re feminists.” Throughout our dialog, he returns, time and again, to the humbling tenacity he sees in these unwitting African feminists.


In 2012, Mukwege survived essentially the most severe assassination try but, one during which a buddy gave his personal life to save him. As Mukwege was driving into his compound, 5 armed males jumped into his automobile. A person within the entrance seat jabbed a machine gun to Mukwege’s torso; from behind, one other pressed a pistol to his temple. Mukwege stepped on the accelerator. The boys have been thrown briefly. Then he hit the brakes and swiftly opened the door of the automobile, seeing that the doorway of his own residence was inside attain. However he was too sluggish. The Kalashnikov that was held at his stomach was now in entrance of him. Mukwege braced himself for demise.

At that second, his buddy and worker Joseph got here operating, shouting: “Papa! They’re going to kill you!” Joseph had already been tied up by the assassins, however managed to free himself. Mukwege can’t fairly bear in mind what occurred subsequent. Photographs have been fired. He collapsed in a pool of blood. The assassins fled. When he got here to, he realised the blood wasn’t his. Joseph, mendacity useless subsequent to him, had drawn the gunfire.

“I can’t explain how I am still alive,” he says. “When I was attacked in my home, and my buddy was killed, the purple line was drawn.” He reported the assault to the police, who have been torpid of their response. To today he doesn’t know who the assassins have been. His obligations as a guardian and husband took over, and he fled to the US. However just a few weeks later, he acquired phrase {that a} group of women from the island of Idjwi in Lake Kivu, just a few hours from Bukavu by boat, had written to then-President Kabila demanding that the federal government convey Mukwege again to the DRC, and supply him with safety. The women then wrote to the UN secretary normal, turned up at Panzi hospital, and pledged that, if cash was the difficulty, they’d promote fruit and greens to pay for his and his household’s aircraft tickets. “This actually disarmed me. I couldn’t resist,” he says. Solely three months after he left the nation, he returned.

His reception was overwhelming. Women lined the roads for hours, celebrating and singing, because the authorities acquired him tersely, shamed by the spontaneous gathering. “It was 30km of women on the roads,” he says, beaming. “They have been there simply to say, ‘We’re right here and we wish to help you. We would like our physician again, and we wish to shield him.’” They adopted him from the airport to Panzi hospital. “I did a small speech,” he says, after which one girl addressed the regional governor and the police chief. “She informed him, ‘We’ll get 25 women who will do the safety for the physician, so he can deal with different victims. We’ll feed him, we are going to shield him, and if somebody desires to kill him, he can have to kill 25 women earlier than they attain him.’”

If there was any query that he would cease his work, it was settled. Now, he intends to keep within the DRC till “we will finish violence on women in Congo, or convey justice – so women can really feel that they’re protected by a system.” He sounds decided, but additionally resigned, as if he now not has a alternative within the matter. The federal government continues to face challenges from insurgent teams, and harmless civilians are once more within the crossfire, whereas eastern DRC remains volatile and lawless. Mukwege has moved completely into the Panzi hospital compound, and he has round the clock safety by armed guards and UN peacekeepers.

However he additionally feels shielded by the ability of women. “Typically I have this query: am I afraid? And my reply is sure. I don’t need to be a hero. However I have this sense that there are these invisible forces round me.” Now, he says, “those who’re attempting to try on my life” may assume twice. “They know that the women are there.”

The Energy of Women, by Dr Denis Mukwege, is revealed by Brief Books at £20. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Supply fees could apply.

Denis Mukwege shall be in dialog with Annie Kelly for a Guardian Stay on-line occasion on Tuesday 16 November. E book tickets here

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