The Lowdown Hub

The Nobel laureate imprisoned in his own hospital He has operated on thousands of survivors of rape


ByWill Brown, AFRICA CORRESPONDENT and Simon Townsley, PHOTOGRAPHER, IN BUKAVU, EASTERN CONGO


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