Doctor Denis Mukwege meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican Doctor Denis Mukwege meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican 

Sexual violence in DRC: 'International community cannot turn a blind eye'

Nobel peace prize laureate, Doctor Denis Mukwege, meets with Pope Francis shortly before the Holy Father's visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the doctor works tirelessly to save the lives of women who have suffered sexual violence at the hands of rebels in the country.

By Alessandro di Bussolo and Francesca Merlo

Congolese gynaecologist and human rights activist Denis Mukwege, the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was received by Pope Francis in the Vatican on Friday morning.

Dr Mukwege has just returned from a trip to the Italian city of Naples where he received an award and donations for his Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in which he treats women who are victims of sexual violence in war.

Speaking to Vatican News' Alessandro di Bussolo, Dr Mukwege denounced the atrocities taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in particular the support that the group of rebels M23 receive from neighbouring Rwanda.

The horrors of sexual violence in DRC

He explained that women are raped daily by the guerrillas, who use this sexual violence as a weapon of terror to sever community ties, but also as an instrument of extermination, as it also aims to make the victims sterile.

Dr Mukwege, the world's leading expert in the internal reconstruction of the female genital apparatus after rape, and his team, have operated on almost 80,000 women in recent years, working up to 18 hours a day and performing up to 10 operations a day. The courage of this extraordinary surgeon allows victims to start a new life.

Next to the Panzi Hospital, a secure facility has been built over the years where the patients - and their children - find refuge. The women learn sewing, weaving and other jobs, in order to become self-sufficient and start living again.

After having received numerous threats, and after having risked his own life to save his daughters who, too, had been kidnapped, Dr Mukwege's Panzi Foundation's facilities are today protected by the blue helmets of Monusco, the UN mission in the DRC.

DRC awaits Pope Francis

Dr Mukwege noted that the Holy Father will be making a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo at the end of January, after having had to postpone it for medical reasons.

"We Congolese await this visit with great impatience, because we think that his arrival in Congo will enable us to turn the page”, said Dr Mukwege.

At the same time, he added that the visit of the Holy Father will also help to shed light on what is happening in the country, and we therefore hope that “the international press will talk about it and that the international authorities will finally take the necessary measures to stop these atrocities, which are a disgrace to our humanity.” The world cannot continue to remain silent, he added.

He noted that there is no real problem of reconciliation among the Congolese, whom he believes can come together, from all different tribes, as it is a problem that began after the genocide in Rwanda, in 1996, and that has continued since that tragedy.

"Even today, more than 25 years later, the Congolese are still paying for a regional crisis that did not originate in Congo, but which today does much more damage in Congo than in the country where the genocide took place," he explained.

A plea to the international community

Denis Mukwege went on to note that they have made various requests to the international community, but that the demand is very clear: there is international humanitarian law to be respected.

"Congo is being attacked; Congo has been invaded, and today it is occupied by Rwandan foreign forces associated with the M23 terrorists", he explained. With this in mind, he continues, all that we are asking is that "international humanitarian law be applied", requiring all UN member states to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states, and that resolutions be put in place that "prohibit states or institutions from supplying arms to rebels in the Great Lakes region".

Today, the M23 has more sophisticated weapons that the UN Mission to DRC. "These weapons come from somewhere", he stressed, adding that for this reasons "we call for sanctions and that this complicity be stopped."

“The suffering has gone on for far too long. The humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo is unprecedented: six million people are now displaced, homeless and without food.”

The work in Panzi hospital

Dr Mukwege then spoke of the work done at his hospital, in which different categories of patients receive free treatment. "First of all, there are women victims of sexual violence, whom we not only treat and transport, but also feed and provide with hygiene kits". At the same time, "all HIV-AIDS patients are cared for free of charge, as are all children suffering from malnutrition."

"We take care free of charge of all women who have obstetrical consequences that cause fistulas, i.e. communication between the bladder and the vagina, or the rectum and the vagina, and who leak faeces or urine in an uncontrolled manner."

He explained that the means to take care fo them come from different donors, including churches, and that with this external support they are able to continue to help this category of people: abandoned and rejected.

The future of DRC

Finally, Denis Mukwege described his dreams for the people, and especially for the women of DRC.

His dream is the same as that of the women of the country, whom he says, when asked, reply: to have peace.

Peace in DRC would be a rare good, not seen for 25 years, he noted. "This is what we need to be able to rebuild our country, to give our children a future, to educate our children in acceptable conditions. Today we have malnutrition simply because people cannot farm, cannot work normally. And so our dream is peace."

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09 December 2022, 14:54