Doctor brings attention to chaos in the Congo

The Baltimore Sun

The militia of young men raided a village and took away a woman after peeling off the child that was strapped on her back. They then frog-marched her to a nearby bush where, in front of her husband and older children, they raped and then killed her.

This is one of the tales from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where war is an enduring fact of life.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, the director and chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in eastern Congo, has heard of, and sometimes witnessed, such heartrending scenes.

"I don't want to see it again, I have had enough of it," Mukwege said during a recent visit to Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, one of his hospital's partners. Mukwege was in the United States to testify in Congress and to call attention to the rape, torture and mutilation of Congolese women.

When Mukwege opens the doors at Panzi Hospital, he knows that at the end of the day, 10 women lucky enough to be alive will have been counseled and had surgery for their injuries. Many others, however, never make the trip to the doctor.

"We operate on an average 10 women [a day] who have been raped ... some of them too traumatized to speak," said Mukwege, 53, a French-educated gynecologist whose clinic receives support from Catholic Relief Services, UNICEF and the European Union.

Mukwege shrugs off militia threats about being branded a traitor for treating the women but fears that his patients sometimes bear the brunt for seeking treatment.

"The militia are using rape as a weapon of war to humiliate, demoralize, destroy, kill and terrorize the society," said Mukwege, who has been featured on CBS' 60 Minutes. He is also in filmmaker Lisa Jackson's documentary, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, airing this month and next on HBO.

"The world has been silent about the war in Congo; it has to do something about it now," said the Rev. Francois-Xavier Maroy, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bukavu, who accompanied Mukwege to America.

The two appeared before a Senate subcommittee that examined the use of rape as a weapon of war and explored what the United States and the world community might be able to do to prevent or prosecute the crime.

"Mass rape in war is frequently not the random act of individual soldiers, but a determined strategy to destroy populations," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chaired the hearing. "Perpetrators turn to mass rape because it is cheaper than using bullets."

When he spoke in Baltimore, Mukwege said he was training nurses, obstetricians and doctors at Panzi Hospital to treat victims of rape. He said he was tired of witnessing the atrocities that women go through and wants the international community to help end the war.

It is a war that the world seems to have forgotten. Yet between 1998 and 2003, the multinational fight to control Congo and its resources led to the deaths of almost 4 million people and the rape and mutilation of hundreds of thousands of women. More recently, government troops have battled rebel militia in eastern Congo, though a cease-fire was announced in January.

Conflict and upheaval have engulfed Congo since it became independent from Belgium in 1960. While much of Africa has tried to move on after independence, Congo, formerly known as Zaire, has not. The dream of a free, democratic and progressive country has not gotten off the ground, and Congo is mired in poverty, misery and deprivation.

Life expectancy in Congo has shrunk to 49 years, literacy levels are among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa and, with an average per capita income of $120, few of its 66 million people can access such basic necessities as proper health services, food and shelter.

Yet Congo's huge land mass - 905,351 square miles, about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi - has abundant natural resources. It has 80 percent of the world's reserve of coltan - used in the making of cell phones, DVD players and computers - as well as copper, cobalt, gold, diamonds and petroleum.

Foreign forces from neighboring countries such as Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi have taken advantage of Congo's anarchy to plunder its minerals -leaving a trail of killings, mass rape and torture.

Both Mukwege and Maroy, in Baltimore, called for peace and reconciliation in their country. "The people of Congo want peace. ... They love peace," Mukwege said.

Maroy said an end to the war could create investment and job opportunities. "We want peace, but peace cannot come without bread," he said.

"When one has a job, they are too tired to wage war in the evening," Maroy said. "At the end of the month, he will ask his neighbor out for a drink, instead."

The hospital's patients are urged to forgive those who have harmed them. It is a hard task, but one that Mukwege says he believes can help put the nation back on its feet.

"Unless you have God, it can be hard to forgive the person you know killed your mother and father and raped your sister," he said. "It is not an easy thing."

Andrew Kipkemboi, features editor of The Standard in Nairobi, Kenya, is an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at The Sun.

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