A doctor who's treated tens of thousands of women raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo was fiercely attacked last week.
On the evening of October 25, a handful of men carrying guns stormed the house of a Congolese doctor in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The unknown men conducted about a half an hour's vigil for the doctor's return, holding his daughters, their friend, and his wife at gunpoint on the floor in wait, according to various people I spoke to who communicated with the doctor within hours of the attack.
With the sound of a horn -- Dr. Denis Mukwege at the home's gate -- the gunmen and the family's security guard, Joseph Bizimana, collided in a desperate moment of chaos, in which shots were fired. Bizimana fell to his death. Shots flew at Mukwege, who ducked, according to my sources and The New York Times. Here is where the story takes on subtle variations: The gunmen tried to wrestle Mukwege into his own car, tearing the keys from his hand; they ran out of ammunition and fled in Mukwege's car; they fired at the doctor and missed, fleeing as neighbors who heard the shots arrived. The men soon abandoned the car, according to Physicians for Human Rights.
No money or property was taken and the car was left behind, calling into question robbery as a motive. Whether this was a kidnapping or assassination attempt, no one is quite sure, but what we do know is that the attack occurred within a couple blocks of the headquarters of MONUSCO, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- the largest current peacekeeping force in the world, with more than 20,000 troops. We know that DRC is at the mercy of multiple armed groups, including the notorious M23, FDLR, and Mai Mai militias, which are known for their inhuman mutilations of women's bodies.
We also know that Mukwege is the world's best-known doctor treating women who have been raped in that country's 16 years of conflict. He has treated more than 40,000 women as medical director and founder of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, eastern DRC, he told me recently. He has operated on more than 15,000 women whose bodies have been ripped apart by sexualized violence, he said. Mukwege is "the epicenter of resistance," said Stephen Lewis, founder of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which works to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, and a supporter of Panzi Hospital.
"He is the person who stands as the anchor for survival," Lewis said. "You lose him and you lose yet another dimension of the struggle."
When I met Mukwege in September in New York (he and I both serve as advisory committee members on the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict), he was a man at the edge of his capacity to understand how the world is allowing atrocities to continue in his country. At one point, he showed me a photo of the vagina of a four-year-old girl who had been raped in the conflict.
"He ... stands as the anchor for survival, You lose him and you lose yet another dimension of the struggle."
I asked him how he stays sane seeing everything he does. He told me in English, which is not his first language: "I don't know how I'm doing it. I can say that today I'm just wondering for how long I can go on with this question."
His frustration was palpable. He nearly shook as he went on about what is happening to the women of his country, thumping his chest as he recounted how easily DRC and the world are dismissing the rapes: "When people say it was 'only' women, it was a 'sexual relation' -- no."
The following day, on September 25, Mukwege spoke at the United Nations, along with campaign co-chairs and Nobel Laureates Jody Williams and Leymah Gbowee.
I would have liked to say, 'I have the honor of representing my country,' but I cannot," he said. "In effect, how can one be proud of belonging to a nation without defense, fighting itself, completely pillaged and powerless in the face of 500,000 of its girls raped during 16 years; 6 million of its sons and daughters killed during 16 years without any lasting solution in sight?"
Not only did Mukwege outline the reality of a country -- of women -- at the mercy of war, he pointed fingers in a way that few seem willing to do when it comes to one of the world's greatest disregarded crises. He blamed the international community, which has "shown its fear and lack of courage during these 16 years," for its inaction, and, perhaps more crucially for this narrative, he put a bull's-eye on the perpetrators.
"We do not need more proof, we need action, urgent action to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice," Mukwege told UN member states and U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague, who was also in the room that day. "Justice is not negotiable. We need your unanimous condemnation of the rebel groups who are responsible for these acts."
Mukwege has not changed what he does at Panzi Hospital recently. He has, however, upped his visibility and rhetoric on behalf of his country. The gunmen appeared at his house the day he arrived home from a trip to Europe, despite the fact that he was originally supposed to fly home on Friday, not Thursday, according to The New York Times. Have they been tracking him?