‘I can’t explain how I am still alive’: Dr Denis Mukwege on risking his life to save African women

1 year ago 121

In 1984,at the property of 29, Dr Denis Mukwege moved to France from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to implicit his grooming arsenic a inferior obstetrician. It was his archetypal travel to Europe, and helium had spent fractional his beingness savings connected the aerial fare. The metropolis of Angers was to beryllium his location for 5 years, but helium struggled to marque it one. He would put to presumption flats and connected accomplishment would beryllium told that they had conscionable been let. It took him a portion to fig retired that it was his tegument colour that was making apartments disappear. He yet recovered a location successful a houseshare with different students.

When helium took up his grooming position, helium was astonished astatine however good staffed and equipped the infirmary was compared with the 1 helium had travel from successful the DRC, which delivered the aforesaid fig of babies annually with conscionable 2 doctors, arsenic opposed to 30. Mukwege was already acold much experienced than his peers successful France. He had gained expertise beyond his years moving successful a small, under-resourced infirmary wherever helium operated connected women and girls by torchlight and often broke away, mid-surgery, to consult aesculapian lit for instructions.

Assisting successful a caesarean section, helium amazed a French prof who, puzzled by Mukwege’s skill, asked him if helium had done this before. “About 500 times,” Mukwege said.

“Then wherefore are you here?” the prof asked.

After his training, Mukwege would instrumentality to the DRC and embark connected a vocation that would prevention thousands of lives and galvanise doctors and activists globally. He became not lone a surgeon, treating victims of rape arsenic a limb of war, but besides an advocate, a champion of women successful the DRC and crossed the world.

He understood aboriginal connected that his aesculapian enactment would person constricted interaction until the basal causes of intersexual unit were eliminated. So helium ran his surgeries, but besides challenged antithetic equipped groups, and his ain government, for their complicity successful intersexual warfare crimes, inviting threats to his ain life.

Dr Denis Mukwege with writer  and protagonist  V (formerly Eve Ensler) astatine  a protestation  successful  New Orleans, Louisiana, successful  2008.
Mukwege with writer and protagonist V (formerly Eve Ensler) astatine a protestation successful New Orleans, Louisiana, successful 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

This has made him an inspiration to feminists the satellite over. Michaela Coel called him a “real hero”. Jill Biden said that “beyond healer to these women and girls, helium is hope”. The writer V (formerly Eve Ensler), aft gathering Mukwege successful 2008, forged a idiosyncratic relationship with him, arsenic good arsenic a nonrecreational concern to rise funds and consciousness with him. This culminated successful the operation of the City of Joy successful Bukavu, Mukwege’s commencement municipality successful eastbound DRC, “a harmless abstraction for raped women that offers protection, education, and inspiration for its residents”. Mukwege has been clearing those harmless spaces for women since the archetypal time helium stepped into a tiny agrarian infirmary successful the DRC successful 1983. Thirty-five years later, helium recovered himself successful Norway, accepting a Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to extremity the usage of intersexual unit arsenic a limb of warfare and equipped conflict.

Today, Mukwege is talking to maine connected a video telephone from a edifice country successful Paris, wherever helium is connected a whistle-stop circuit anterior to the French work of his book, The Power of Women: A Doctor’s Journey of Hope and Healing. His accent is unmistakably French, arsenic is his outfit: a acheronian suit, a achromatic shirt, and a colourful silk cravat tucked into his collar. His assemblage language, the mode helium leans into the screen, receptor first, calls to caput a doc listening earlier helium tin springiness an opinion.

After I archer him that his publication resonated with me, an African pistillate with a hard obstetric acquisition successful the past, and whose grandma who mislaid aggregate children soon aft birth, helium won’t fto maine determination on. “You person to speech astir these things,” helium says. In galore parts of Africa, helium explains, determination is excessively overmuch hidden trauma that radical transportation around. “We request to get radical steadfast truthful that they tin person this capableness to deliberation astir the future. But erstwhile we person each this trauma, it tin beryllium hard.”


Mukwege’s way to medicine started early, erstwhile helium was a kid successful 1960s Bukavu, touring the homes of sick children with his pastor father. But it was the tenacity of his parent that explains wherefore he’s present today. It wasn’t until helium was an big that helium learned however adjacent helium came to decease successful the days aft helium was born. “I discovered that my parent fought for my life,” helium says.

Baby Denis was calved astatine home, similar his different siblings. His begetter was distant and a neighbour doubled arsenic a midwife. Her lone qualification was the ownership of a crisp razor. His umbilical cord wasn’t chopped correctly and the resulting septicaemia would person claimed him successful hours. His parent was unsocial but acted fast, bundling him into a cloth wrapped crossed her back. A Swedish missionary caregiver intervened astatine the 11th hr and arranged for treatment. Mukwege inactive speaks with awe astir the lengths to which his mother, and women similar her, person gone to prevention their children. “I americium truthful grateful for what she did,” helium says.

He was unaware of his ain brushwood with decease when, astatine eight, helium resolved to go a paediatrician. “When my begetter was praying for a child, I saw however anemic helium was.” His begetter explained to him wherefore helium was powerless. “He told me, ‘I americium not a doctor.’ So my content was, if my begetter can’t bash it, I volition bash it. So we tin beryllium a team.” The 2 made a pact. Mukwege would go a doctor. He would heal, and his begetter would pray.

The Power of Women is not a work for the faint-hearted. In it, Mukwege writes of however helium arrived arsenic a recently qualified doc successful a infirmary successful the colony of Lemera, successful a distant eastbound state of the DRC. By the end, his volition to go a paediatrician had evaporated. The grade of the maternal wellness situation successful a state wherever women gave commencement astatine location successful a cruel lottery (both his grandmothers died successful childbirth) overpowered him. Women were dying from treatable infections and commencement obstructions. They would look astatine the steps of the infirmary aft travelling for miles connected foot, sometimes with their dormant babies inactive wrong them.

Once helium had completed his 5 years of grooming successful Angers, helium returned to Lemera successful 1989 arsenic the archetypal trained obstetrician-gynaecologist successful the region. It was the commencement of a vocation that would prevention an incalculable fig of lives.


In the mid-90s, Mukwege and his infirmary were caught successful the governmental and tribal crossfires of the Congo’s archetypal and 2nd war. Ethnic tensions successful the portion had boiled over, starring to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, wherever Hutu slaughtered Tutsi wherever they recovered them. Two years later, the Tutsi-led Rwandan service invaded eastbound DRC (then Zaire) to hunt down Hutu groups who had fled into the country, and made communal origin with the Congolese rebels there. Mukwege’s infirmary successful Lemera, adjacent the Burundi and Rwanda borders, became engulfed successful the chaos. Mukwege went from treating women who simply didn’t person capable attraction to women who had been gang-raped, and past changeable oregon stabbed successful their vaginas. He tried hard to support neutrality, refusing to let authorities troops to dictate to him who helium should and should not treat. Lemera was yet overrun by Tutsi forces. He was distant astatine the time, but scores of patients and respective members of his unit were killed. In 1997 Mukwege fled to Kenya. That year, rebel person Laurent-Désiré Kabila was installed arsenic president.

A twelvemonth aboriginal Mukwege returned to the DRC with his wife, Madeleine, and his 3 daughters, and started again. In 1999 helium began to physique a infirmary successful Panzi, a suburb of Bukavu, a maternal and intersexual wellness installation that came to specialise successful treating the intersexual unit inflicted by assorted troops and rebel groups since the aboriginal 90s. Mukwege discovered that helium was up against not conscionable the carnal effects of unit against women, but an full patriarchy and justness strategy that ensured these crimes would continue. “I realised I wasn’t doing enough,” helium says, and truthful helium began to campaign, talk astatine conferences and implore the United Nations to bash more. He had to get utilized to the planetary stage.

The caller government, helium says, fought him astatine each turn. His enactment was seen arsenic a signifier of governmental dissidence, a rebuke to authorities who had abandoned women; “a mode to situation them, to inquire them to bash what they are expected to do. This didn’t make a bully relationship.” In 2011, helium was delivered a decease menace by a Congolese curate successful a mafia-like gathering successful New York. Mukwege was told that if helium wanted to instrumentality to the DRC and live, helium would person to cancel a code connected intersexual unit which helium was scheduled to marque astatine the UN. Bewildered, Mukwege relented.

As Panzi infirmary took successful much victims (to day the infirmary has treated 60,000), Mukwege was opening to conflict psychologically, truthful horrific were the intersexual injuries helium saw connected women, girls, adjacent toddlers. His acquisition has taught him that the caput is slower to heal than the body. “I deliberation that the world is, you can’t enactment for a agelong clip with each these women who are truthful traumatised without yourself being affected,” helium says. “If you are not affected, you are not human.” Because helium applied perfectionist standards during procedures, helium would beryllium paralysed by an interior monologue. He would inquire himself: “What if this happened to my daughter, to my wife? But precise rapidly I understood that I could not spell connected that way.” Procedures that should person taken 1 hr were taking three, “because I was conscionable reasoning astir each the questions that I get. When a miss of 14 asks you: ‘Doctor, bash you deliberation I volition beryllium capable to person sex?’ But her vagina is wholly destroyed. ‘Doctor, I anticipation that with this operation, I volition not beryllium incontinent.’ And you can’t reassure.” He shakes his head. “I decided to get a scientist to enactment me.” Today, helium manages to practise without taking connected the load of his patients’ turmoil. “Many of my staff, particularly the psychologists, truly pain out. It’s a precise traumatising concern and you request to find a mode to spell connected doing the job, without yourself falling down.”

Mukwege, who is besides a Pentecostal pastor, finds comfortableness successful his faith, too. He preaches successful a tiny section religion successful the aforesaid parish his begetter covered successful Bukavu. I inquire him however helium tin reconcile the horrors helium has seen with his faith. “I judge that we are created to beryllium good, but astatine immoderate infinitesimal we person a choice. The God I judge successful calls america to emotion others, and this is simply a decision. It’s a responsibility. It’s not a substance of God – it’s a substance of ourselves.”


Mukwege’s publication is hardly a memoir. His communicative is told much successful stories of the women helium has met on the way, who, successful utmost distress, recovered deeper wells of resilience. There is the young pistillate helium treated aft she escaped a pack of rapist soldiers, lone to permission the infirmary and instrumentality a fewer years aboriginal with HIV. There is the miss helium attended to erstwhile she was raped and pregnant, who returned a small implicit a decennary aboriginal with a daughter, herself large arsenic a effect of rape. And determination is the aged pistillate who told him that she wanted an apology from the authorities for the information that she had been gang-raped by a radical of soldiers young capable to beryllium her grandchildren.

These women, helium says, “don’t person galore possibilities, they don’t person galore means, but they inactive combat to prevention lives, to prevention their children. They effort to springiness their children food, education. I americium truthful grateful for African women – they are doing a batch for our humanity.”

Dr Denis Mukwege astatine  Panzi infirmary  successful  DRC successful  2007.
Mukwege astatine Panzi infirmary successful the DRC successful 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

He sees them not arsenic utmost cases that exemplify immoderate African pathology, but examples of what happens anyplace successful times of societal breakdown. In his book, helium traces a wide sweep, from sexual unit successful the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to the warfare successful the erstwhile Yugoslavia, done Yazidi women enslaved by Islamic State, and Japanese “comfort women” forced into intersexual slavery during the 2nd satellite war, to amusement that women are the archetypal victims erstwhile things autumn apart. Mukwege believes that challenging misogyny successful peacetime is paramount, successful bid to fortify nine successful moments of conflict. The archetypal things to face are soundlessness and shame utilized “to support women nether power of men”. He adds: “When I speech successful the west, I americium ever telling them: ‘What I americium showing you, it’s happening adjacent here, successful your country.’”

Mukwege sees feminism arsenic a straightforward substance of striving for the bully of women, not a authorities of governmental enlightenment. “Feminist,” helium says, “is a connection that recovered maine doing what I was expected to bash for humanity. I cognize galore women successful Africa who are warring regular for the rights of women, and they are not saying that they are feminists.” During our conversation, helium returns, again and again, to the humbling tenacity helium sees successful these unwitting African feminists.


In 2012, Mukwege survived the astir superior assassination effort yet, 1 successful which a person gave his ain beingness to prevention him. As Mukwege was driving into his compound, 5 equipped men jumped into his car. A antheral successful the beforehand spot jabbed a instrumentality weapon to Mukwege’s torso; from behind, different pressed a pistol to his temple. Mukwege stepped connected the accelerator. The men were thrown briefly. Then helium deed the brakes and swiftly opened the doorway of the car, seeing that the entranceway of his ain location was wrong reach. But helium was excessively slow. The Kalashnikov that was held astatine his belly was present successful beforehand of him. Mukwege braced himself for death.

At that moment, his person and worker Joseph came running, shouting: “Papa! They are going to termination you!” Joseph had already been tied up by the assassins, but managed to escaped himself. Mukwege can’t rather retrieve what happened next. Shots were fired. He collapsed successful a excavation of blood. The assassins fled. When helium came to, helium realised the humor wasn’t his. Joseph, lying dormant adjacent to him, had drawn the gunfire.

“I can’t explicate however I americium inactive alive,” helium says. “When I was attacked successful my house, and my person was killed, the reddish enactment was drawn.” He reported the onslaught to the police, who were lethargic successful their response. To this time helium does not cognize who the assassins were. His responsibilities arsenic a genitor and hubby took over, and helium fled to the US. But a fewer weeks later, helium received connection that a radical of women from the land of Idjwi successful Lake Kivu, a fewer hours from Bukavu by boat, had written to then-President Kabila demanding that the authorities bring Mukwege backmost to the DRC, and supply him with security. The women past wrote to the UN caput general, turned up astatine Panzi hospital, and pledged that, if wealth was the issue, they would merchantability effect and vegetables to wage for his and his family’s level tickets. “This truly disarmed me. I could not resist,” helium says. Only 3 months aft helium near the country, helium returned.

His reception was overwhelming. Women lined the roads for hours, celebrating and singing, arsenic the authorities received him tersely, shamed by the spontaneous gathering. “It was 30km of women connected the roads,” helium says, beaming. “They were determination conscionable to say, ‘We are present and we privation to enactment you. We privation our doc back, and we privation to support him.’” They followed him from the airdrome to Panzi hospital. “I did a tiny speech,” helium says, aft which 1 pistillate addressed the determination politician and the constabulary chief. “She told him, ‘We volition get 25 women who volition bash the information for the doctor, truthful helium tin dainty different victims. We volition provender him, we volition support him, and if idiosyncratic wants to termination him, helium volition person to termination 25 women earlier they scope him.’”

If determination was immoderate question that helium would halt his work, it was settled. Now, helium intends to enactment successful the DRC until “we tin extremity unit connected women successful Congo, oregon bring justness – truthful women tin consciousness that they are protected by a system.” He sounds determined, but besides resigned, arsenic if helium nary longer has a prime successful the matter. The authorities continues to look challenges from rebel groups, and guiltless civilians are again successful the crossfire, portion eastern DRC remains volatile and lawless. Mukwege has moved permanently into the Panzi infirmary compound, and helium has round-the-clock extortion by equipped guards and UN peacekeepers.

But helium besides feels shielded by the powerfulness of women. “Sometimes I person this question: americium I afraid? And my reply is yes. I don’t privation to beryllium a hero. But I person this feeling that determination are these invisible forces astir me.” Now, helium says, “the ones who are trying to effort connected my life” mightiness deliberation twice. “They cognize that the women are there.”

The Power of Women, by Dr Denis Mukwege, is published by Short Books astatine £20. To enactment the Guardian and Observer, bid your transcript astatine guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges whitethorn apply.

Denis Mukwege volition beryllium successful speech with Annie Kelly for a Guardian Live online lawsuit connected Tuesday 16 November. Book tickets here