Ennobling ‘Doctor Miracle’
Today (December 10) in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) surgeon-activist, Denis Mukwege, will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Iraqi Yazidi rape survivor and activist, Nadia Murad. The prize comes a decade after United Nations Security Council resolution 1820 declared sexual violence to be a war crime. The 63-year-old Mukwege is widely admired at home and abroad for his reconstructive surgery on women who have been raped during the Congo’s two-decade conflict in which over three million people have died. He becomes the twelfth African to be awarded the prize. The Nobel committee described him as “the foremost, most unifying symbol of the struggle to end sexual violence in war and armed conflict.”
Born in Bukavu in 1955, Mukwege was inspired as a child to become a doctor when he accompanied his priestly father to hospitals and observed the hopelessness of patients. He studied medicine across the border in Burundi, before earning a degree in gynaecology and obstetrics at the University of Angers in France. He later obtained a doctorate from Brussels’ Université Libre. Starting off by operating in tents, Mukwege eventually set up his 450-bed Panzi Hospital in the hilly, forest-covered eastern Congolese city of Bukavu overlooking Lake Kivu.
The facility – which has been able to attract external funding – now has 370 doctors, nurses and support staff. Performing about 10 surgeries a day, Mukwege has treated over 50,000 victims of sexual violence, which he has described as “the monstrosity of the century.” He developed an approach based on four key pillars: medical care, psychological support, education and reintegration into local communities, and legal aid. Head pastor in his local church, he also co-founded the “City of Joy” in 2011 which has helped over 1,100 victims of conflicts to heal by providing socio-psychological support, as well as language and life skills.
Mukwege has been scathing about the Congolese government’s failure to protect its own citizens from the sexual violence of government soldiers and marauding militias. He has often noted the paradox of those sent to protect citizens becoming criminal perpetrators, and described Congolese soldiers as “completely sick,” arguing that traumatised members of the armed forces were themselves victims.
His fearless outspokenness has led to threats on his life. Shortly after delivering a withering speech at the UN in 2012, he was attacked by gunmen, and only narrowly escaped death. Mukwege fled to Belgium with his family, but returned three months later, when local women community activists raised money to pay for his air-ticket. UN peacekeepers were deployed to protect his hospital where he now sleeps, making him a virtual prisoner. It is the resilience of his victims that has given him the strength to continue his difficult work.
Mukwege has also condemned the negative actions of neighbouring governments like Rwanda in the DRC, as well as the passive inaction of the broader international community. Despite the dangers involved in his advocacy, he has campaigned tirelessly for action against gender-based violence across the globe, consistently castigating the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, while noting that, just as with other weapons of mass destruction – biological, chemical, and nuclear – the idea is to destroy the social fabric of local communities. This is done through inflicting trauma and humiliation as a way of destabilising and controlling terrorised populations.
Mukwege has often argued that peacemakers must address the root causes of the Congo’s conflict, and not just its symptoms. The activist gynaecologist has thus focused on poor governance, ineffectual security sector reform, and the role of minerals – gold, coltan, tin, and tungsten – in fuelling the Congolese conflict. He has often depicted his own work merely as a palliative band-aid, arguing that more long-term solutions are needed by local and external actors to rebuild the Congolese state. Mukwege has also insisted that sexual violence is not a gender question, but an issue of humanity. He has further objected to any negative stereotyping of Africa, noting that countries like Bosnia, Syria, and Colombia have also experienced sexual violence.
In the true spirit of Ubuntu (the gift of discovering our shared humanity), Mukwege noted that: “In every raped woman, I see my wife. In every raped mother, I see my mother and in every raped child, my own children.” Images of the Congo in the Western media have often depicted helpless victims of conflicts or gun-toting militias. With this Nobel victory, Mukwege has courageously demonstrated that his country has genuine heroes with real agency and their own voices, battling against incredible odds to make a difference.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.