The “Angel of Bukavu”: A light in the heart of darkness

Blog contributor: Jessica M. Keralis

To most, the Rwandan genocide that began in 1994 is a page in the history books, and the resulting instability in the Kivu region of eastern DRC is old news.  But for Dr. Denis Mukwege, a surgeon who specializes in the repair of vaginal fistulas, the atrocities of Congo’s “second war” are a harsh, every-day reality.  Vagina fistula, a condition in which the tissue wall between the vagina and the bladder and/or colon is torn, is a common result of the systematic rape to which the women of this region of the Congo are subjected.

During Rwanda’s civil war and genocide in 1994, thousands of refugees and armed militant groups fled to the eastern region of the Congo, generating a climate of political instability and local anarchy.  A “second war” began in 1998, in which Rwanda and Uganda organized and fostered armed bands to terrorize the local people and maintain the insecurity to justify militarization that enables them to plunder the resource-rich region.  This conflict has been the deadliest since World War II, and more people have died than in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur combined.  Intermingled with the high death toll is the widespread calculated rape of women of all ages.  It is used to physically and psychologically terrorize: the women are raped or gang-raped in broad daylight and in plain view of their families and neighbors.  As a result, social networks are destroyed and family ties are fragmented.    The widespread sexual violence has taken its toll on public health both physically and socially. Sexually assaulted victims outnumber wounded soldiers 4 or 5 to one and civilians with gunshot wounds 2 or 3 to one.  Medical sources estimate that between 19 and 30 percent of the victims test positive for HIV.  Half of them have syphilis.  The women are virtually destroyed, often abandoned by their husbands, and their children are traumatized.  Those that survive become outcasts.

In the midst of such atrocities, Dr. Mukwege has been called the “angel of Bukavu.”  He typically performs ten surgeries per day, often working 14 hours or more.  To the women he heals, he is more than just their doctor: he is their brother, their counselor, their confidant.  He has been featured by CNN, the New York Times, and Glamour magazine, and has been given numerous awards, including the Olof Palme Prize and the UN Human Rights prize.  But while Mukwege is grateful for the attention drawn to the conflict and money for the hospital, what is truly needed, he says, is a political response to the violence.  “Visitors come from the international community.  They eat sandwiches and cry, but they do not come back with help. Even President Kabila has never put his foot here. His wife was here. She wept, but she has done nothing.”

Interview with Cécile Mulolo Kamwanya, psychologist at Panzi hospital:

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