Over the last two decades, Dr Denis Mukwege has seen his fair share of horrors. The Nobel laureate and his colleagues have treated tens of thousands of war rape survivors at Hospital Panzi in the Democratic Republic of Congo – stitching little girls’ intestines back inside them after militias and soldiers tore them apart. The gynaecologist’s efforts have won him international acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. But these days, Dr Mukwege can barely wander past the hospital’s gates because of death threats. “It feels like living in a prison,” Dr Mukwege told The Telegraph in his office in the city of Bukavu, a stone’s throw from the Rwandan border. “The threats are written and verbal. There are moments when armed men come outside my house and shoot into the night just to traumatise us and create fear inside you.”
Some of the female survivors of sexual violence at Panzi Hospital, Bukavu CREDIT: 2021 ©Simon Townsley Ltd/Simon Townsley
The doctor does not say who wants to kill him. But he is clear that people would like to silence him for daring to speak up against the various groups jostling for power in Eastern Congo, a fabulously beautiful hellscape cursed with some of the greatest mineral reserves on earth.
“I cannot tell you who exactly,” he says. “But what I do know is that the people who do all the bad things in this area are the ones who are threatening me.”
From the Rwandan genocide in 1994 to 2003, the great wars of Africa raged across Congo. Eight African armies and dozens of armed groups fought over the future of the vast nation and access to some of its lucrative mining zones. Almost six million people died in the bloodbath, the most deadly conflict since the Second World War.
Dr Mukwege founded Panzi hospital in 1999 to stop women and children from dying in labour. But soon it was overwhelmed by women and girls who had suffered horrific injuries from sexual violence and gang rapes at the hands of marauding soldiers, ethnic militias, and bandits.
An in-patient with her baby CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph
In the past, he has lambasted both Rwanda and Uganda for the role they played looting the east of his country through proxy militias, made an enemy out of the country’s former president Joseph Kabila for damming the culture of rape and impunity in his country, and called for a special tribunal to get justice for crimes committed in the country over the decades.
His words have already almost cost him his life. In 2012, five gunmen in civilian clothes came to his house to kill him. Dr. Mukwege only survived when his bodyguard distracted the armed men. He managed to hide but his bodyguard was shot and killed.
Denis Mukwege's words almost cost him his life CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph
The threats died down for a while, but in July last year, the doctor called for justice for the crimes recorded in a landmark UN investigation from 2010, called the DRC Mapping Exercise Report.
The report documented more than 600 “indescribable” war crimes and crimes against humanity from 1993 to 2003, implicated more than 20 militia groups and eight foreign armies, including Rwanda and Uganda, and called for further investigations and prosecutions.
Many powerful figures in the region would prefer for the world to forget the report’s findings, and since September, the Nobel laureate has had to have constant protection from a squad of UN peacekeepers.
He is still allowed to travel internationally sometimes but this has been severely limited because of the pandemic. Now there are rumors that the UN wants to withdraw the troops protecting him.
“I think without the protection of Monusco [peacekeepers] here at the hospital, it would have been practically impossible for me to continue working,” he says, explaining that he almost never leaves the hospital except on ‘very rare’ occasions.
Instead, the doctor sleeps and eats in his hospital quarters. While the Second Congo War has been over for more than a decade, the work barely stops for the 66-year-old and his colleagues.
Panzi is still running at almost full capacity, as both a maternity hospital and a clinic for victims of sexual violence CREDIT: Simon Townsley
A dizzying array of militias, war parties, and bandits armed with battered Kalashnikovs and machetes still exact a horrific toll on the lives of millions of civilians. Hospital Panzi is still running at almost full capacity, as both a maternity hospital and a clinic for victims of sexual violence.
All around, women and girls hobble through bare corridors before painfully lowering themselves down on beds or chairs.
Lucia’s* voice breaks as she describes what happened to her. The woman in her mid-30s was ambushed by three men when she was walking back from the town market.
“They held me down and tried to strangle me,” she says. “I fought and fought and bit one of their fingers and lips hard but they were very strong…I don’t know who they were. I don’t remember coming here. I just woke up at the hospital.”
The psychologist treating the mother of seven, explains that the men sexually abused Lucia for about an hour on the side of the road, leaving deep cuts on her lip and tearing her vagina so badly that she passed out from blood loss.
The wounds inflicted on some of the patients still have the capacity to shock Dr. Mukwege CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph
Lucia has been recovering at the hospital for about two months. But while she’s been undergoing surgery and psychotherapy no one has been looking after her children.
“I don’t have a phone and I haven’t been able to speak to my children since I arrived here,” says Lucia, her eyes heavy with anxiety.
“My eldest son brought my youngest daughter to see me here on the bus. She looked really weak. I don’t know who is looking after them. I don’t know what they are eating. Their father has never been around.”
Even after all these years, the wounds inflicted on some of the patients still have the capacity to shock Dr. Mukwege.
“In the first part of 2021, there was a young girl of three years old who was raped in her village by a [government] soldier,” he explains. “When this small girl was brought here, all her intestines had fallen out. She was unconscious and bleeding. We never thought she’d survive.”
Dr. Mukwege operated on her twice, miraculously bringing her back from death. But he can’t stop thinking about the little girl.
“I told myself that if an adult soldier can attack a three-year-old girl, who I see as a little angel, and cause such destruction,” he says, pausing to find his words.
“I believe it is revolting. It is a total loss of humanity… I find it abominable. Unacceptable. And I ask myself, what are we doing if children are not protected in our society.”
Twenty years after he set up the hospital, the doctor still cannot fathom why the armed groups use rape as a weapon of war.
Denis Mukwege has treated many thousands of women and his demands for victim justice have resulted in death threats CREDIT: 2021 ©Simon Townsley Ltd/Simon Townsley
“It is usually gang rape, massive rape. A lot of women raped at the same time and also raped with extreme violence publicly. I think the main objective is to traumatize the population by doing things that a human cannot do to another human just to show power, strength,” the doctor says.
“I think rape as a weapon is one that, when it occurs in a society, destroys the capacity of a society; destroys the identity because the bride and groom no longer feel married, the village chief is no longer the village chief.
“And when the identity is completely destroyed for everyone, you don’t have the ability to overcome something together.”
“I think once people no longer have the ability to organize themselves, they become fragile and whoever can attack them and do whatever they want to them. It’s a path that leads to involuntary slavery.”
*Lucia’s name has been changed to protect her identity