Release date
May 09, 2008

Doctor Speaks Out On Atrocities of Rape

May 09, 2008, —

By Kai T. Hill

As conflict continues to flare in Democratic Republic of the Congo, the rape of women and young girls has long been used as a tactic by militia to force villagers from their homes and tear down the social fabric of the community. The sexual attacks taking place in the eastern region of this war-torn country cannot be classified as merely rape. It's far more savage, says Dr. Denis Mukwege, head of the Catholic Relief Services-supported Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. Oftentimes the reproductive organs of these women are completely destroyed, leading to serious health problems. Frequently, the rapists infect the women with HIV. The psychological impact is immeasurable.

Dr. Denis Mukwege

Dr. Denis Mukwege works with his patients to address both the physical and psychological trauma of rape. Photo by Michelle Harrington/CRS

Rape atrocities have ravaged Congolese communities since the war began nearly 10 years ago.

Once these young women reach Dr. Mukwege's examination table, he says, their horrific stories seem to resonate in unison: The militia came, speaking a different language. They broke into the house at night. They made the father transport on his back everything they stole from the house. They took the mother and children to a place where others in the village were gathered. Then, in front of the whole village, they indiscriminately raped the children and mothers.

"I feel like I have ten thousand testimonies," says Mukwege, who recently testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee and met with congressional officials in Washington to bring awareness to the rape atrocities in eastern Congo. In early April, the respected gynecologist and Congolese native sat down for a question-and-answer session at our Baltimore headquarters.

How do you approach treatment for these victims of brutal rape?

We treat an average of 10 women and young girls a day, whose lives have been shattered from savage rape. The women coming to the hospital are the worst cases. As far as treatment, we start with the counseling, because most of them have psychological problems.

We often have to perform surgery to restore the function of mangled organs.

But foremost, as a doctor and a Christian facing something like this, the first thing we ask them to do is to reconcile with themselves. Maybe I have to accept that I have no legs, I have no uterus or I have an incurable disease, but I have to accept what I am and that other people did this to me. I have to move forward.

Could you explain the longer impact these attacks have on families and villages?

I have some patients who came for treatment and when they returned home, their whole family was killed because the attackers thought they told what happened to them. We have many more cases like this.

This tactic that the militia is using has traumatized residents in eastern Congo. These are the worst acts of terrorism: to make people leave their homes, abandon their fields, abandon their livestock. The bandit becomes the master of the territory where he knows everyone is afraid. Those who fear, flee. It's a terrible weapon. It destroys for a long time. When you rape women the way it has been done in the Congo, things are never normal for them again.

Is there one case or person you've met whose story is still etched in your thoughts?

Once I was talking to a young girl, Luisa. Her mother was raped in her presence. At age 8, her attackers completely destroyed her genitalia. But a lot about her astonished me to the point of tears. I asked her what she wanted to happen to the people who did this to her and she said they must be pardoned because they don't know what they do.

She was able to respond this way in spite of her suffering. Now 10 years old, she is unable to hold her urine. When you examine her you realize that her whole reproductive system was destroyed. Her father, who was abducted, never came back. She'll say, "I'm still waiting for my brothers to come back." She doesn't realize that her whole life has been destroyed.

As you head back to the Congo and back to this reality, are you hopeful for peace and reconciliation?

My biggest fear is that it's almost completely neglected by everyone. When the women testify as to what happened to them, [members of the international community] cry, and after that life continues.

Mother with child

After this woman was gang-raped in her early 20s, she received treatment at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. Now, she is a single mother raising her five children. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

We still have so much work in front of us. I'm not talking about 10 people. I'm talking about tens of thousands of people. Also, we know there are many women who were raped three years ago who didn't get treatment. If I could be optimistic for a moment, peace will be coming soon.

CRS' Work on Sexual Violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo

In 2004, CRS helped train more than three dozen local women in Maniema province in psychosocial counseling, so they could help other survivors of sexual attacks. These women worked at a support center in the provincial capital, Kindu, to provide confidential counseling to survivors of sexual violence and their families.

More recently, CRS has worked with Panzi Hosptial in Bukavu, South Kivu. Panzi is the leading institution for the care and treatment of Congolese women who have been raped. CRS support to Panzi has aimed to address two of the major obstacles to care and treatment for victims of sexual violence: the lack of trained health care personnel and the geographic distance between where the attacks occur and the location of treatment centers. As part of the Axxes project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, CRS facilitated the training of four medical doctors and four nurses at Panzi hospital. The trainees subsequently returned to treat victimized women in health centers and hospitals in more remote rural areas of the province.

CRS also provided funding to repair a Panzi Hospital building that was damaged from the earthquake in February 2008.

Kai T. Hill is an associate web producer for CRS. She works at the Baltimore headquarters.