Saturday, May 25Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Healing Wounds and Fostering Hope in the City Of Joy: The Battle of Dr. Denis Mukwege

By Olivia Taylor

Trigger Warning: Discussions of rape and violence.

Rape is the cheapest weapon in war. It has the power to destroy families, empty villages and rid victims of any sense of dignity. Finding a solution for a crime against humanity like this feels almost hopeless. Still, there is one man who has dedicated his life to changing the world’s perspective by saving the lives of thousands of Congolese women who have endured the harrowing weaponisation of rape in times of war.

Dr. Denis Mukwege decided to study medicine after witnessing the complications that women in the Congo experience during childbirth due to their lack of specialist medical attention. As a result, Dr. Mukwege established Panzi Hospital to address his country’s alarming maternal mortality rates. It was 1999 when Panzi Hospital first opened in Bukavu, the capital of the South Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dr. Mukwege had fled back to his home, Bukavu, following the Lemera massacre, a massacre which marked the commencement of the First Congo War in 1996-1997. Dr. Mukwege had been working at the Lemera Hospital, where his patients and co-workers were killed and the hospital was ransacked. Whilst the establishment of Panzi Hospital was based upon the need to address maternal mortality, Dr. Mukwege, to his surprise, found his first patient to be a victim of gang rape who had been shot in her genitals.

Since then, Dr. Mukwege has treated thousands of women who have been raped. His advocacy has often resulted in violence against himself and his family, but he continues to fight for the women he has treated throughout his career. Alongside the Panzi Hospital, Dr. Mukwege and his team established the City of Joy, a centre designed to empower and rehabilitate survivors. This community provides women with education, vocational training, and a supportive environment to rebuild their lives. Dr. Mukwege’s holistic approach has been instrumental in helping survivors regain their dignity and independence.

At the age of 68, Dr. Mukwege has not slowed down. In fact, throughout the years, his voice has continued to spread further afield. In 2018 he won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside human rights activist Nadia Murad, who was kidnapped and raped by the Islamic State during the genocide against the Yazidi ethno-religious minority in Iraq. 

Dr. Mukwege stands as a prominent advocate for justice and accountability in the face of these atrocities that surround his career, denouncing the prevailing culture of impunity that perpetuates these crimes. In his Nobel Lecture, it is somewhat distressing to watch such a kind man talk his audience through the horrors of his work. He underscores the imperative nature of these concerns, ultimately suggesting that these grave violations against humanity can be traced back to the failures of those in positions of authority; those who turn a blind eye to the use of rape as a weapon in war. As the camera pans around the room, Mukwege’s entire audience is seemingly aware that his clarion call for accountability resonates with a truth that is not discussed enough. 

Perhaps what is most unbelievable is the historical scarcity of prosecutions targeting wartime rapists before the late 1990s, a pivotal era marked by the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. This period served as a watershed moment, shedding light on the long-neglected issue of sexual violence as a tactic of warfare. However, these events leave us wondering why it took so long to devise preventative strategies and extend meaningful support to victims. 

I have spent a considerable amount of time listening to and reading the horrific accounts of these women living in DRC. They are not easy to comprehend, particularly for those of us who will never truly understand what they have experienced. However, what I can understand is that many victims find solace in sharing their stories, perhaps because it gives them a sense of power, something that in times was taken away from them so brutally. Looking back upon Dr Mukwege’s Nobel Lecture, one story that remains a prominent reason behind my desire to write this article is that of Sarah. Remembering her time at the Panzi Hospital, Dr Mukwege recounts her story:

“Sarah was referred to the hospital in critical condition. An armed group had attacked her village, massacred her whole family and left her alone. 

Sarah was taken to the forest as a hostage, and tied to a tree. Naked. Sarah was gang-raped every day until she lost consciousness. 

The aim of these rapes used as a weapon of war is to destroy the victim, her family and her community. In short, to destroy the social fabric. 

When she arrived at the hospital, Sarah could not walk or even stand on her feet. She could not control her bladder nor her bowels. 

Because of the seriousness of her genital, urinary and digestive injuries coupled with an infection, no one could imagine her one day being able to get back on her feet.”

As he tells Sarah’s story, I could not imagine how she would recover from such an experience. But Dr. Mukwege goes on to share Sarah’s recovery, informing his audience that she is now, thanks to those at Panzi Hospital and the City of Joy, a “beautiful, smiling, strong and charming woman”. 

These stories, no matter how hard they are to read, must be remembered. This is not just happening in the Congo; it is happening worldwide and has been throughout history. Taking action is not always easy, but it is necessary, and even by hearing these stories, we are compelled to find ways in which we can help. Thanks to Dr. Mukwege and his team at Panzi Hospital and the City of Joy, these women have found a sense of safety and belonging, but their pasts will undoubtedly scar them. No one can erase their experiences. But what we can do is educate ourselves to prevent such atrocities from continuing whilst promoting the end of impunity to those causing such violence.

For those wishing to educate themselves further, I strongly recommend Christina Lamb’s book Our Bodies Their Battlefields and the documentary City of Joy, which can be found on Netflix.