The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been raging for over 10 years and has left in its wake a horrific trail of human destruction, with women as the primary targets. Mass rapes and sexual warfare are daily occurrences, and women of all ages are killed, broken or scarred for life. In response to these atrocities, Dr. Denis Mukwege in 1999 founded The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where he has since treated over 20,000 women.
This week Dr. Mukwege was honored by The Clinton Global Initiative with the organization's Global Citizen Award for Leadership in Civil Service. He talked with The Huffington Post (through a translator) about the award, his ongoing work and how important it is for Americans to understand the need for action to stop what's going on in Congo.
What does the Global Initiative award mean to you?
Even for me, that is a big question. I think the meaning should be about creating more awareness. If we have awareness, we should get action. Because it's not only to know, but to act.
Do you think that people in the United States know what is going on in Congo?
My big concern is that if people know what is going on, why then is there no action?
What are the immediate needs to make real change there?
The first need is to make people understand that what is happening is not normal. After 10 years, women are still being raped and tortured systematically. We have people speaking about what's happening, but no action. I refuse to accept that what is going on in Congo will be ignored in the 21st century. And the second need is to make people understand that the world is capable of stopping what is going on.
You've said that rape is being used as a weapon of war in Congo. What does that mean exactly?
It's not just a weapon of war, it's a strategy. Because when women are raped in front of their men and children, the whole family is destroyed. Not only physically, but mentally. By destroying the family, you destroy the dignity of the entire community.
And so it’s because women are so important that they are destroyed?
Exactly. When you have five or 10 perpetrators committing these rapes, the intention is to destroy the continuation of life. It's not just an act of trying to show superiority; when you commit these acts on a young woman who is 14 or 15 years of age, you actually destroy up to four lives.
There is the physical repair and reconstruction, but how do you repair the psychological damage?
When women come to the hospital, they have both [physical and psychological] problems. Before we do surgery, we assess their psychological stability. The operation could take about three weeks to heal from physically, but a woman who has been raped by five or 10 people, it could take her entire life to heal psychologically.
What is the best hope for a young girl who has been brought into your hospital, who has enough time to heal both physically and psychologically -- what kind of life might she have?
It all depends on the level of trauma. If we have a girl coming in at the age of 12 who has been completely destroyed, sometimes there's nothing to save when it comes to the physical reparations. We try not to discuss how long it will take to heal, we focus more on what we can do. The most important thing is how much we can help.
How do you brace your heart for the kind of horrific trauma you see every day?
When I started to receive women at the hospital, I didn't think I would see what I have seen. I see women and young girls who don't have genitals anymore, and they stand up and they fight for others and they fight for their rights. They even fight for me and my rights. I have met men who have experienced trauma that is less than what these women have experienced, and they are nearly suicidal. They don't have the same coping mechanisms as women. These women are remarkable.
You work such tireless, almost endless hours. How do you find peace and joy within yourself?
Every day is different. At the end of some days, you just want to cry and you have no hope. And other days, a woman will come up and give me a hug because she's so happy that for the first time in forever, basically, she's able to urinate. And then I feel the hope to operate on 20 more women.