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Doctor In Eastern Congo: 'Not Normal To Be Attacked'


As we just heard, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is plagued by violence and has been for quite some time. The government and various rebel militias have clashed over control of natural resources and ethnic tensions, as well. But it's women who are often the chief casualties, and many rely on the skills of a man who's devoted his life to healing wounds of a particular kind. Dr. Denis Mukwege is a gynecologist.

Back in 1998, he started to build what's now known as the Panzi Hospital in the town of Bukavu. There, he's treated tens of thousands of women who suffered internal injuries resulting from being raped. Dr. Mukwege was in New York City recently to receive an award given by Human Rights First. And when I spoke to him, I put it to him that, according to one study, 48 women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 are raped every hour in eastern Congo. But Dr. Mukwege says the women he treats are not just statistics, and he said they're not the only ones who suffer.

DENIS MUKWEGE: I think that this problem is not a women specific problem. It's a problem for humanity because women are raped, and most of them are women. We have also a small number of boys who are raped, and this is bad. But if we can take this, like, really, a problem of our humanity. To rape women in front of the husband, her children and the community - all these people also are victims. And I can tell you also, a child who born after the mother to be raped - he don't know the father - and this child is also a victim. So I think that if you can see this broadly, we have many victims after this happened to just one woman, maybe, who can be wounded physically, but psychologically. The consequence is on the women but also to the community.

HEADLEE: When a woman is violently raped, there often is severe damage to their internal organs. And I wonder, how do you go about healing a woman who has those kind of injuries, but is also emotionally scarred? A woman who, perhaps, has - in despair?

MUKWEGE: Yes. You know, when women come at our hospital, most of the time they are rejected by their families. They are rejected by the communities and, of course, are stigmatized. And what we have to do before any kind of physical treatment that you can give is to treat them psychologically because, you know, when the mind is going wrong, other things can be wrong. So we have a program with psychologists and social assistant who are helping women - to help them to be enough strong psychologically before to treat them physically. This is two things that you are combining when we are taking care of women.

HEADLEE: You know what, it's been years since you made the decision, but I wonder what it was that made you decide to focus on helping survivors of rape. What was it that made you decide to make this your life's work?

MUKWEGE: It was not a decision. I think that it was just that I was an obstetrician and a gynecologist, and when I met the first time women who was raped and destroyed, I think that it make me just to say, I have to do something. And I can say the truth that, at this time, I have never seen something like that. I've never seen this kind of wound on the genital part of women. So it was something very strange for me, and I saw the first case and I get just impression that it was a barbary of the war. But when I start to treat many of this case, then I understand that it's something really new in the region. And today, we are faithing to treat eight to 10 cases per day. And this is really a tragedy, and is a tragedy I didn't decide to go in. It just found me in the hospital and, like a human, I could not do anything than just to try to do what I can.

HEADLEE: It hasn't been that long, maybe a year or a little more, since your home was attacked by armed men. A loyal security guard of yours stepped in the way and was shot and killed. Your life has been threatened. I wonder how it affects your work if you're afraid for your own safety.

MUKWEGE: Yes. I and my staff, of course, we face danger. And one of our nurse was abducted earlier this year and tortured before being released. We are walking in, really, a fear because we are human and it's not normal to be attacked when we are just doing what we have to do.

HEADLEE: You feel like they wanted to stop you from letting the world know about what was going on in Congo?

MUKWEGE: Maybe they just would like to silence me because it was after to make a statement at the U.N. that this happened, the day that I come back home. No investigation was done to know really who was behind it. So I don't have more information, but it looked like it was just to try to silence me.

HEADLEE: I wonder - I mean, you're highly awarded. I read a newspaper account and they were - in which they were talking about the reception of you back in Congo as almost a conquering hero. That people wait for your car and cheer, and women stand guard for you and shout hallelujah when they see you. I wonder what kind of affect that has on you. I mean, obviously, you say that it has an effect when you walk in fear. What about when you walk as somebody who's kind of idealized and worshiped? How does that affect the work that you do?

MUKWEGE: Yeah, I think that women affect my - all my life because when I was in Boston, and I got a letter from the women of Congo who wrote to me and asked me to come back. And they said that we will protect you. We want you to be back, to be with us, and we support you in a way that we can. And I think that, for me, it was already something that touched me a lot because I know that they don't have police, but they are ready to do what they can with just their will.

So at the end, they said they will pay my ticket. And then I was really, really so touched, and I took the decision to go back home. And when I returned in Bukavu, it was really a big event because on the road women were dancing. And it was really something that touched me a lot, and I feel that this is the place that I should be, and I have to be with them. We need to fight together, and we are sure that victory will come.

HEADLEE: Dr. Denis Mukwege is the founder and medical director of the Panzi Hospital in Democratic Republic of Congo. He was kind enough to join us from our New York studios. Dr. Mukwege, thank you so much.

MUKWEGE: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And please, stay safe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.