My first visit to the hospital was brief but spent in conversation with THE Dr. Denis Mukwege, the now famous surgeon at Panzi hospital in the South Kivu province of Congo. What an amazing human being. He works endless hours to repair the bodies of women who have suffered traumatic rape. Approximately 300+ women and girls of all ages come to Panzi each month for such surgery. Despite the obvious despair that would harden most of us, Dr. Mukwege greets everyone warmly with a smile, affection, and genuine care. His face reveals the knowledge of a great burden but his eyes communicate compassion and his humor is certainly a sign of hope. His presence is inspiring. We quickly discussed the research I’ll be conducting at the hospital, the research methods training he wants me to provide for some of his staff, and ideas for other projects we want to pursue. Apologetically, he invited me to a 7:30 am staff meeting tomorrow, Saturday. I will be there! I’d gladly trudge through miles of mud for Dr. Mukwege!
I have finally met some of the women being treated at the hospital. After meetings on Saturday morning, I was given a tour of the hospital grounds. In a courtyard of simple, well maintained green spaces with many flowering plants, probably 100 women were resting, visiting, crocheting, weaving baskets, and interacting with staff. My Swedish tour guide, Lena (not her real name), is the project manager of the Victims of Sexual Violence program operated at Panzi. She stopped to speak with many women (in Swahili, not French), inquiring about their health and catching up on the latest news. The women, dressed traditionally in bright colored cloth, laughed easily with her and enjoyed the special visit. Lena was polite to introduce me as well and the women giggled at my very limited Swahili, correcting me when I did not respond properly. That made us all laugh! A woman named Balemba (not her real name), about my age, with obvious burn scars on her face, extended her hand for me to shake. As I took her grasp, I noticed immediately that she was missing fingers. When Lena and I responded with sympathy, she revealed her other arm, also scarred from burns and with no hand. She explained that after being raped, the men burned her home, which caused her further injuries.
Congo has been described as the “worst place in the world to be a woman.” Why are there literally tens of thousands of stories like Balemba’s? Congo has a long history of conflict, generally over control of its vast mineral wealth. These minerals, which are necessary for all electronic devices from cell phones to digital cameras, represent a multi-million dollar trade.
The most recent war occurred in 1998 between DRC and Rwanda/Uganda. This theoretically came to an end with a ceasefire in 1999 and a peace agreement in 2002. Democratic elections were held in 2006. In addition, the world’s largest UN peacekeeping operation is here, with nearly 20,000 troops. Yet, the violent conflict has never really ceased.
Over 5 million people have died as a result of the war and millions have been displaced. Rebel movements, foreign fighters, and local militias – including some of those responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda – still fight to control Congo’s natural resources and prey upon civilians, particularly women and girls. As a tactic of war, rape has been used throughout history in order to demoralize, maim, and dominate populations. Eastern Congo is no exception, where it is estimated that 70 percent of women and girls have experienced sexual violence. Overall, hundreds of thousands of females have been raped in the past decade. Additionally, approximately fifteen hundred people continue to die each day due to the disease, malnutrition and other deleterious effects associated with widespread displacement.
People often regard those of us who try to make a difference in places like Congo as brave or courageous. But my part in this is easy. I visit for three weeks and get to return home to a privileged life. It’s the women at Panzi, like Balemba who exemplify true courage and bravery. She and the other women like her are not victims but survivors. I look forward to hearing their stories over the next two weeks.
Lee Ann De Reus is the 2009 recipient of the Carl Wilkens Fellowship, given by Genocide Intervention Network, and an associate professor of Human Development & Family Studies and Women’s Studies at Penn State Altoona. She is currently in Bukavu, South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she is conducting interviews with survivors of sexual violence. This is the first in a series of posts.