Magazine | August 15, 2016, Issue

Dealing with Darkness in Congo

Dr. Denis Mukwege (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty)
The work of a singular doctor.

Denis Mukwege is one of the most honored men in the world. In 2013, he received the French Legion of Honor. The next year, he received the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament. The next year, he received an honorary doctorate from Harvard. Yet, in a sense, the work he does is thankless. It must rank near the worst work in the world, impossible to repay. And saintly to do.

Mukwege is a doctor in the country that calls itself “the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” (Informally, people say “Congo.”) He treats victims of rape, often of gang rape. A gynecologist, he tries to heal them physically and mentally. The second task is harder, but the first is hard enough. His patients range from infants to the elderly.

Congo is one of those countries described as “war-torn.” For years, it has been known as “the rape capital of the world.” Rape is a weapon of war, maybe the foremost weapon. It is systemic, even normal. Boys are trained to rape as child soldiers. The normality of rape has been transferred into the civilian world. In Congo, boys and men rape, and girls and women are raped. That’s the way it is.

Jeffrey Gettleman is an Africa correspondent for the New York Times. In 2012, he wrote that, every time he goes back to Congo, he meets “a whole new set of thoroughly traumatized people.” Some of them “are impossible to forget, like Anna Mburano, an 80-year-old woman who was gang-raped a few years ago and screamed out to the teenage assailants on top of her: ‘Grandsons! Get off me!’” There is worse where that came from.

I met Dr. Mukwege at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May. I talked with him about some important questions. First, however, I will give you some biography. And tell you how to pronounce his name, when speaking English: “Moo-KWAY-gay.”

He was born in 1955 in the Congolese city of Bukavu. It is on the border with Rwanda. Mukwege lives there still. His father was a Pentecostal pastor, who, in the course of his duties, would visit the sick. His son would make these rounds with him. And that inspired the boy to become a doctor. Mukwege trained as a pediatrician. But then he found that Congolese women suffered terribly in childbirth, often dying, which women were not doing elsewhere in the world, he knew. So he switched to obstetrics and gynecology.

In 1999, he founded Panzi Hospital, named for a village on the outskirts of Bukavu, now essentially a neighborhood of Bukavu. He intended to work on general maternal health. But then came a wave of rape victims — thousands and tens of thousands — and Dr. Mukwege could do no other.

In 2012, he spoke to the United Nations, denouncing those responsible for war in Congo, and asking that they be brought to justice. Several weeks later, armed men entered his home. They terrorized his family. They did not succeed in killing Dr. Mukwege, but they killed his friend and bodyguard, Joseph Bizimana. With his family, Dr. Mukwege went abroad. But the women in Congo prevailed on him to come back. Though they had nothing, they sold fruits and vegetables, to pay for his plane ticket. Touched, he came back, three months after he had left.

In Oslo, I am told that he will need a translator: His English is not good enough for an interview. I begin our conversation by telling him about a piece I did on Sudan, some ten years ago. It was about U.S. policy in view of the genocide in Darfur. “I could handle the murder,” I say. “It was the rape that got me. The constant rape. I could barely stand to read about it or hear about it. And I was comfortable in my office, thousands of miles away. How do you keep your sanity, day after day, face to face with this evil?”

Translator at his side, he answers in French. He makes a general statement about common humanity: reaching the humanity in the other person. I then tell him another story, although the interviewee, not the interviewer, is supposed to do the talking.

About 15 years ago, I did a report on pornography. I talked to researchers and activists in the area of child pornography. I thought they had the most thankless job in the world, for three reasons. First, they had to be immersed in evil all day — the evil of child pornography. Second, nobody wanted to hear about the problem. It was too awful. Third, some people would say, “What’s your interest, huh? Do you get your kicks this way? Do you actually like it?” I could not imagine a worse job than these researchers and activists had. Yet it was a job so vital.

At this point, Dr. Mukwege sits forward in his chair and fixes me with a gaze of utmost gravity. He then speaks at length, in competent English.

“This is a terrible thing that I am living myself. When you see how women suffer for their whole lives . . . I have never seen a woman who was raped who was normal afterward. Most of them, their lives are completely destroyed, psychologically and physically. You see how hard it is to help them. And if it has happened to children, it’s even worse.”

When you do what he does, “sometimes you are just crying. You are operating on a young girl and she is incontinent. She has no control over her urine or bowels. And she keeps saying, ‘Doctor, what will my future be? Will I ever be able to go to the bathroom?’ Even for you, it’s a trauma. You are doing your job, but it’s a trauma.”

I observe to Dr. Mukwege that he is like a soldier at war, seeing the things that people at war see, but unendingly. “Yes,” he says.

Furthermore, “when you try to talk about it, you have the impression that people don’t want to hear.” This is especially true abroad. “You have the impression that people are thinking, ‘This is happening somewhere else, it’s not my problem.’ Or they want to protect themselves,” which is understandable.

“I have some photos,” says Dr. Mukwege. “And even for medical staff, it’s so hard to see. When you see a baby of twelve months with the genitals completely destroyed . . . Even if you’re medical staff, you are a father, or you are a mother.”

We talk about the rape victims for a while. I then ask, “What about the rapists? Why is there so much rape? Is it because of a mob mentality?” Dr. Mukwege says that the answer, in short, is impunity. Boys and men can get away with rape. So they rape. Adult soldiers teach child soldiers to rape and kill. These children become inhuman. They enjoy total license. People who create such monsters are among the guiltiest criminals on earth, says Dr. Mukwege.

Child soldiers who become rapists have problems later in life, he says. They can neither eat nor sleep. And they kill themselves.

Dr. Mukwege outlines the wreckage of rape. “The thousands of women who are raped — they will never be normal. And the children born to them of rape. They will never be normal, because they are not accepted by the mother.” There are the rapists themselves (for whom we are unlikely to weep, granted). And there is another category: men who have watched their wives and daughters raped right in front of them. Typically, they become impotent. “They say to me one thing, over and over: ‘Doctor, I am not a man.’”

I tell him that I think of a phrase from the military: “collateral damage.” This is not quite right, says Dr. Mukwege, because collateral damage can be accidental or incidental. He believes that warmakers intend to destroy the very fabric of society, the better to dominate society. “There is no structure. You have children who don’t accept their parents, parents who don’t accept their children,” and so on. “Women have been raped by children as young as their own children. Every value in society has been destroyed.” How do you rise from that?

I ask Dr. Mukwege how his security is today. He lives in Panzi Hospital, never going out, not even to visit relatives. When he absolutely has to leave — as when traveling to the airport — he does so under escort.

“Who resents you?” I ask. “Who endangers your life? Men who don’t like your stance against rape? Men whose impunity you would take away, if you could?” Yes, says the doctor. I continue, “Maybe you make them feel ashamed.” The doctor says he doubts it. “It would be good if they felt shame, but they probably think they have a right.”

He reflects on epidemics of rape, throughout the world: in the former Yugoslavia; in Syria; in Nepal, Colombia, and elsewhere. I recall the systematic rape by the Red Army in Europe at the end of World War II. He says that he met a woman who was raped in that period.

“When she was telling me what happened, she started to cry, and it was the same as the girls whom I am treating in Congo. The same words, the same feelings. She said, ‘For 60 years, I have been carrying this burden in my heart, but you have let me break the silence and I feel better, even if I will never get healing.’ Can you imagine something that can break the life of someone for 60 years?”

Near the end of our visit, I remark to Dr. Mukwege that he could be practicing all sorts of medicine. He could be repairing the broken arms of boys who hurt themselves in soccer. He could be in Paris or L.A. or New York, giving ladies facelifts (and making tidy sums). Instead, he does the worst. Smiling, he says that, when he meets someone who understands him, he sleeps better at night. He feels less alone.

Every now and then, you sense that you have met a great man. I certainly think this, on leaving Denis Mukwege. Later, I think of a phrase that Churchill applied to Dr. Schweitzer: “a genius of humanity.”

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