In 2014, the European Parliament awarded its prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Past winners include the likes of Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Malala Yousafzai, who followed her 2013 Sakharov with a 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
The 60-year-old Mukwege, who was on the short list for the Nobel in 2013 and is considered a front-runner for this year’s award, is quite well-regarded outside his homeland. But within his country he is a living legend – for a reason that he can only wish did not exist.
A gynecologist, he is the founder and medical director of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a city in the eastern part of the country. But he is best known for having dedicated his career to treating rape victims in what Margot Wallström, at the time the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, decried in 2011 as the “rape capital of the world.”
The DRC’s first civil war began in 1996, and lasted a year. Its second internal conflict started in 1998, and while it technically ended in 2003, violence has continued, with militia groups, such as the M23 movement, having risen in recent years in opposition of the current leadership.
Both government and militia troops are said to be responsible for many acts of sexual violence against women – and men and boys, as well – with disparate groups using rape as a tool to control, demoralize, and intimidate.
A U.N. report released in 2011 stated that on average, 48 Congolese women are raped per hour. In 2012, the world was horrified by reports that soldiers raped up to 1,000 people in a small village called Minova during a 10-day run of violence as Congolese soldiers fled from M23 rebels.
Somewhat unusually, dozens of soldiers were brought to trial after the horrors of Minova came to light. A court, however, later found only two officers culpable, outraging foreign observers, but shocking almost no one within the DRC itself.
Thus, while politicians debated and outsiders shuddered in horror at the injustice, Mukwege quietly went about his work.
Hearing of him mostly through word of mouth, women from the poorest segments of society were soon traveling dozens, even hundreds, of miles to Bukavu, many with irreparable injuries from repeat violations, others suffering from psychological trauma deeper than their physical wounds.
By his own count, Mukwege has treated tens of thousands of rape victims. And most of those patients told him that they had not even bothered to contact the authorities. While there are a few Congolese laws on the books that criminalize rape, the social stigma attached to those who have been assaulted – to say nothing of fears of retaliation – essentially make prosecuting sex crimes a fantasy.
As a result, Mukwege told CNN, “I may be the only one to whom they can express what they feel. Sometimes it’s important to help them heal psychologically and tell them: ‘You are not destroyed. They wanted to destroy you, but you are still a woman. You are a woman, and you need to be strong.’”
It is a message that he wishes could be delivered in the nation’s schools – and not just to girls.
“The concept of equality begins in children’s minds with the very first contact,” he told The Guardian. “We usually tell girls to dress a certain way and instill fear in them that if they don’t, they might be attacked. But we don’t tell boys about how to behave and the consequences of bad behavior.”
Such views have endeared Mukwege to scores across the globe, but his popularity is tenuous and dangerously conspicuous in the DRC. In 2012, gunmen broke into his home and held his children hostage while waiting in ambush. When he arrived, they fatally shot his bodyguard, but their bullets narrowly missed him as they sped away.
He and his family fled to Brussels to recover from the ordeal, staying away from Bukavu untill the following year. His return trip was paid for, he told CNN, by patients who had raised the airfare by selling pineapples and onions.
Enter Thierry Michel, a Belgian documentarian who spent decades chronicling life in Zaire (the name by which the DRC was known from 1971 to 1997). As he told The Bulletin, a Brussels-based English-language news site, the fact that Mukwege’s good deeds had nearly gotten him killed was reason enough to make a film “showing the alchemy of his character, where he comes from and how he has developed the conviction to deal with all these obstacles.”
Michel enlisted Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman to help him write the screenplay for “The Man Who Mends Women: The Wrath of Hippocrates.” In the film, several women discuss their attacks, their countless surgeries and their hope for a future many had not dared believe in before finding their way to Panzi Hospital – which, ironically, has become their rescuer’s hiding place.
“After the attempt on his life, when his family [was] taken hostage, he could have remained in Europe and enjoyed a comfortable life,” Michel said. “But he returned to his home country with his family, and now he finds himself almost imprisoned at the hospital, guarded by U.N. soldiers. This requires an enormous amount of bravery and shows his determination.”
The documentary debuted this year in Brussels, Paris and The Hague, and future screenings are scheduled worldwide.
Where it won’t be seen is in the DRC.
Michel said government officials originally green-lighted the film’s showing, but DRC Media Minister Lambert Mende told Al Jazeera that he reversed the call: “There is a clear intent to harm and sully the image of our army, and no country in the world could tolerate it. That is why we have banned the showing of the film here.”
The about-face came just days before the documentary was to be shown at the Institut Français in Kinshasa, the capital. Michel accused the government of trying to shut down a growing debate on the role of cultural attitudes in the sexual abuse of women.
“Our aim was to provoke the debate and try to end the spiral of violence in the Congo,” Michel told The Guardian. “The courts in the DRC have already convicted some men, including army officers, so it is not as if this is a surprise or a secret or something that has not already been accepted as a fact.
“It is disappointing for everyone, especially those in the documentary. Many of these women have never told their stories. They need to tell their stories and be heard because then they can feel they exist.”
Mukwege, in a statement, said the decision “demonstrates the willingness of the government to deny the Congolese people the right of access to information . . . in order to better manipulate and control . . . [W]e live in a climate of oppression, diminishing human rights and a shrinking space for fundamental freedoms.”
The documentary is to be shown next month in New York and Washington, D.C., according to The Guardian.
Mukwege, meanwhile, rues the fact that the stream of rape victims finding their way to him is ongoing, even as he continues to advocate for equal rights for women while keeping a wary eye open for the dangers that loom just beyond the hospital gates.
And that, too, saddens Michel.
“This film,” he said, “was also a tribute to Mukwege, who is one of those rare doctors only one or two of whom come along every generation. He is another Mandela or Martin Luther King. It’s a pity his own government doesn’t [recognize] or listen to him.”