They say that it doesn’t matter where you come from: that the circumstances of one’s origin are hardly ever indicative of the type of person they will become.
Nowhere is this truer than in certain, war-torn parts of the world, places where every day, human beings have to go through extraordinary hoops just to survive, let alone be decent to one another. This is the story of one man who did just that and more to heal his nation in more ways than one…
Life in the Congo was not easy for Denis, his parents, or his eight brothers and sisters. His father was a Pentecostal minister and though he was raised to be religious, Denis soon found that prayer, while helpful in some respects, did little to cure the physical ailments of his father’s parishioners.
Denis was from a part of the world where proper medical care was little more than a pipe dream. This lack of medical help actually was nowhere more apparent than with the women who came in with complications due to childbirth. These women had no specialists, few hospitals, and limited access to medication. It all got Denis thinking…
Young as he was, he knew that above all else, his community needed doctors, real medical professionals. He decided that he would make it his life’s goal to learn medicine. He taught himself as much as he could, and when he finally came of age, he got to go to medical school in Burundi.
He graduated with flying colors and eventually secured a job as a pediatrician at a rural hospital in Lemera near Bukavu. He treated a number of pediatric patients but soon found that the issues of birth complication that had once plagued his area of the Congo seemed to be in full force even many years later…
Many of the new Doctor’s female patients were suffering pain and genital lesions after giving birth and his country was not equipped to deal with it. There was no gynecology to speak of in his part of the world and this was why so many lives were being claimed by birth complications. Dr. Mukwege wanted to change this.
Improve the Trade
To accomplish this goal of bringing gynecology to the Congo, Dr. Mukwege would have to travel pretty far afield. He went to France to study obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Angers. It was hard work, but like everything else he put his mind to, Denis Mukwege accomplished his goal…
After coming back from France, Dr. Mukwege returned to the Lemara Hospital in Bukavu, where he used his new knowledge to help many in his community. Many women, who would have otherwise died from lack of proper gynecological care, survived. Nevertheless, a few short years later, war came to the Congo…
The First Congo War had come to Dr. Mukwege’s homeland. The war, which was essentially a foreign invasion of Zaire led by Rwanda, ended up destabilizing an already unstable series of governments. Casualties were high and Denis was forced to use his skills to help not only his regular patients but many others as well…
From Near and Far
In 1999, once the conflict in the region had abated slightly, Mukwege decided to open up his own hospital. He founded the Panzi Hospital and prepared to receive patients from all over the region, especially from zones where conflict was still heavy. Patients often arrived at Panzi hospital naked, or else in horrific condition.
Throughout the course of the first war and into the Second Congo War, Dr. Mukwege treated thousands of women. Many of these women were victims were wartime casualties who had been sexually assaulted multiple times by enemy soldiers. He also discovered that some soldiers were purposefully damaging the genitals of a number of females on the opposition…
Even if Dr. Mukwege was not in a position to see the perpetrators of these atrocities punished, he was not about to stand idly by and let the women be scarred for life, or die of their injuries. To help, he dedicated part of his time, a rather large part, to performing reconstructive surgery for victims of sexual violence.
He worked tirelessly for these women, performing up to 10 surgeries a day and working near-constant 18-hour days whilst also raising a family and running a hospital. Nevertheless, Dr. Mukwege knew that he could do more. Of course, to do that, he’d have to get help from individuals who wielded much more power than he did…
In September 2012, Dr. Denis Mukwege traveled to the United Nations to give a speech regarding the horrific mistreatment of female victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He condemned not only the perpetrators and their ilk but also the Congolese government who did nothing to stop the atrocities.
He didn’t just stop with the Congo either. Mukwege condemned other countries as well. He believed that they had not done nearly enough to stop what he called, “an unjust war that has used violence against women and rape as a strategy of war.” His words touched many-a-nerve and not all of them were happy to hear them…
On October 25 of that same year, Denis Mukwege was at his hospital when four armed men attacked his home. The men held his daughters hostage and lay in wait for him to come back home. They were planning to assassinate him, likely for speaking out against the Congolese government.
Saved his Life
Upon his return home, Denis’ guard lept into the fray to protect him. Dr. Mukwege dropped to the ground and crawled to safety. Meanwhile, the brave security guard was shot dead at the scene. Reeling from the failed attempt, the assassins released the hostages and ran for it. This was not the end of things for Mukwege though: not by a longshot…
After that unsuccessful but terrifying assassination attempt, Denis Mukwege went into exile, taking his daughters with him. They traveled to Europe and he continued to try and run Panzi Hospital from afar. Unfortunately, the hospital needed Mukwege just as much as he needed to practice medicine. In his absence, the hospital’s normally superb daily operations faltered.
They Need Me
Determined not to let the criminals win, Mukwege returned to Bukavu, to run his hospital. The entire population welcomed him with open arms and in spectacular fashion. The whole community, the entire population reserved him a warm welcome over the 20 miles from Kavumu Airport to the city itself.
Not only had they greeted him with true appreciation, but his patients had sold pineapples and onions in order to raise funds to fly him back. Over the past few decades, the talented staff at Panzi Hospital has treated more than 85,000 women patients with complex gynecological damages. 60 percent of those have been caused by sexualized violence. Today, Dr. Mukwege is still fighting to repair the damage that decades of war had wrought upon his country.
Dr. Mukwege has earned several international prizes, including the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, the Right Livelihood Award, the European Union’s Sakharov Prize, and the Seoul Peace Prize. He’s also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on more than one occasions and was voted one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2016.