In Democratic Republic of Congo, they call him “Doctor Miracle” for his surgical skill and dedication in helping women overcome the injuries and trauma of sexual abuse and rape.
Denis Mukwege is a crusading gynaecologist who has spent more than two decades treating appalling injuries inflicted on women in DRC.
He has also emerged as an excoriating critic of President Joseph Kabila, set to be replaced in the pivotal December 23 elections.
He set up the Panzi hospital in 2015 in his war-weary native province of South Kivu, part of an eastern region riven by a conflict involving government forces and various rebel groups.
“A man ceases to be a man when he does not know how to give love and when he no longer knows how to give hope to others,” Mukwege told his staff in 2015.
A father of five, the tireless 63-year-old is an outspoken critic of the abuse of women in war and has repeatedly accused the world of failing to act.
The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner had been repeatedly nominated for his work with gang rape victims from the conflicts that have ravaged his homeland. His work was the subject of an acclaimed 2015 film titled: “The Man Who Mends Women.”
“Denis Mukwege is the foremost, most unifying symbol, both nationally and internationally, of the struggle to end sexual violence in war and armed conflicts,” Nobel committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen said when the award was announced in October.
“His basic principle is that ‘justice is everyone’s business’.”
Mukwege has dedicated the prize to women victims of conflict and violence around the world.
“For nearly 20 years I have witnessed war crimes committed against women, young girls, tots and babies,” Mukwege said, adding that he had operated on some 50,000 women victims of rape and sexual abuse.
In his French autobiography, “Plaidoyer pour la vie” (“Plea for Life”), Mukwege recounts the “depths of horror” he encountered in South Kivu.
Mukwege recounted how rapists had inserted a gun into a woman’s genitals and fired.
“Her whole pelvis was destroyed. I thought it was the work of a madman, but the same year I treated 45 similar cases,” he said of the incident in 1999 — the year he set up Panzi hospital in the provincial capital Bukavu.
“I have witnessed mass atrocities committed against women’s bodies and I cannot remain with my arms folded because our common humanity calls on us to care for each other.”
The 450-bed Panzi hospital treats more than 3,500 women a year, though not all for sexual abuse.
It provides free consultations and performs reconstructive surgery on women who have suffered serious internal injuries.
Mukwege’s work has also put his own life on the line. He narrowly escaped an attack on his life in October 2012, in which his guard was killed.
He now lives under the permanent protection of UN peacekeepers at his hospital.
Aid agencies have accused all sides in the conflicts that have ravaged the eastern regions of North Kivu and South Kivu of using “systematic rape” against women as a weapon of war.
In 2016, Mukwege said there were “unbearable atrocities” being committed in the country’s east, including the mutilation of babies and the disembowelling of pregnant women.
Earlier this year, he told AFP there had been a rise in such attacks since 2016, with the majority of sexual violence in South Kivu now committed by civilians and not by armed groups or the security forces.
Many civilians are former rebels.
Levi Luhiriri, who works as a doctor at the hospital, said Mukwege was fair but tough and strived for internationally-recognised standards.
As well as his tireless medical work, Mukwege has fronted a worldwide campaign against trade in conflict diamonds and minerals.
He has also spoken out several times against a “climate of oppression” in his country.
Instead of relying on the elections, he said, he would endeavour to “struggle peacefully” against the influence of Kabila, who has ruled since 2001.
DR Congo has not known a peaceful transition of power since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960.
After his Nobel award was announced, DR Congo authorities congratulated Mukwege for his “very important work”, but accused him of mixing humanitarian work and politics.
Born on March 1, 1955, in Bukavu, the third of nine children, Mukwege was inspired to become a doctor by his father, a pastor who used to visit the sick.
After studying medicine in neighbouring Burundi, he returned to work at Lemera hospital, south of Bukavu, before pursuing specialist training in gynaecology in France.
A devout Christian, “he lives up to his values in everything he does,” said one European woman who worked with him in Panzi. “He never gives up.”
He has been honoured by the United Nations and has received many other international awards, including the Olof Palme Prize in January 2009 and the Sakharov Prize in 2014. In September 2016, he also won the Seoul Peace Prize.
He was appointed a professor at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium in 2015.
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