Two Years Ago He Won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, He’s Under Threat for Standing Up for Victims of Sexual Violence

7 minute read

As the world waits for the announcement of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner on Oct. 9, one previous laureate, Dr. Denis Mukwege, has to think twice before even stepping outside his door.

The doctor, a gynaecologist celebrated for his work with survivors of sexual assault in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Panzi Hospital, was awarded the Nobel in 2018 along with Yazidi activist Nadia Murad for their campaigns against rape in warfare. But Mukwege’s continuing calls for justice for the victims of Congo’s brutal ongoing conflict have since earned him threats against his life and his hospital.

The threats, delivered largely over social media, come from multiple sources both within the DRC and from neighboring Rwanda, which, along with Uganda, is accused of playing a significant role in Congo’s civil war. They seem to have been triggered by Mukwege’s increasingly vocal calls that the perpetrators named in a 10-year-old UN report mapping violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed during that conflict be brought before an international tribunal.

Congo’s war was triggered, in part, from the fallout of 1994’s Rwandan genocide when the Hutu leadership responsible for the massacres fled into Congo, pursued by the Tutsi-led forces of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who is now president. Both Congolese combatants and Rwandan forces have been identified in the report.

Amid international concern about the threats to Mukwege, UN peacekeepers were redeployed to protect Panzi hospital in September. The facility had been without any kind of protection from the UN since May, when an Egyptian contingent left because of an outbreak of Covid-19 among the troops. They were not replaced for several months, despite repeated requests from Panzi Hospital.

This is not the first time the doctor’s life has been in danger. In 2012 he survived an assassination attempt that killed an employee. This recent round of threats appears to be in response to a tweet which he sent out in the wake of a massacre in a nearby town, saying that as long as the U.N. report is “ignored,” such atrocities would continue.

“Twenty-five years is too much,” Mukwege told Radio France Internationale on Oct.1, referring to the length of time since the Congolese conflict began. “We tried to put all the reports in the drawers, hoping that time will fix things… The result is we haven’t fixed anything. If the criminals are still there, if they are free and they can continue to commit crimes, even if we try to make peace, I believe that this peace will never be.”

Read more: ‘When I Sing, the Bad Memories Disappear.’ Scenes from Panzi Hospital

Mukwege’s constant appeals for justice have struck a nerve across the border in Rwanda. In a July 18 television appearance, a prominent Rwandan general and advisor to Kagame decried Mukwege’s demands for justice as “propaganda” spread by “humiliated people” who “lost the war”. The general’s supporters amplified his criticisms, calling Mukwege a man of hatred, a “genocidaire,” and even going so far as to perpetuate the unsubstantiated claim that he is a genocide denialist. One detractor launched a poorly-received petition to demand the withdrawal of Dr. Mukwege’s Nobel Prize. Other groups vowed to burn Panzi hospital to ashes, while several Rwandan newspapers accused him of associating with Kagame’s rivals.

Mukewege has received death threats via text message, and his family has been harassed on social media. The threats have drawn condemnation from multiple international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, among others. U.N. human rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet urged an investigation. On Oct. 1, thousands of supporters thronged the streets around his hospital to demand his protection, and to emphasize the need for justice in the DRC.

“It was a strong message to the Congolese government and the international community to denounce impunity that has broken all possibilities of having a positive and peaceful future in our country,” says Maud-Salomé Ekila, Dr. Mukwege’s spokesperson. She points out that the threats don’t just come from Rwanda, but from other human rights violators who are now serving in the Congolese Army, in politics and in the government bureaucracy, presenting a further danger. “Those who do not want the truth to come out are those who threaten his life. We call for a strong protection for Panzi Hospital where hundreds of survivors are fighting for their lives, and for his personal protection as a leading activist for human rights.”

Mukwege built Panzi Hospital in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu in 1999, when his small maternity practice became overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of women suffering the consequences of wartime rape. He and his specialized team of doctors have helped 85,000 patients since the hospital’s founding. Quiet but charismatic, Mukwege has often said that rape is a far more powerful weapon of war than bombs and bullets, because it breaks down societies with a generational burden of stigma, disease and unwanted children.

Wartime rape, one of his patients, Jeanna Mukuninwa, told TIME in 2015, “is a living death.” But despite that grim legacy, Panzi has become a place of hope. At Maison Dorcas, a rehabilitation center that shares the same leafy compound as the hospital, patients are given the psychological help, skills and opportunities to knit their lives back together, turning rape victims into survivors.

Read more: The Secret War Crime: The Women Living with the Legacy of Wartime Rape

For its part, Rwanda’s government strenuously denies that its forces played a role in Congo’s conflicts. In early September, President Kagame dismissed the U.N. report, saying, “I don’t know what that nonsense is about.” John Prendergast of The Sentry, an investigative and policy organization co-founded by actor George Clooney that focuses on war crimes and profiteers in Africa, says that has long been Rwanda’s line, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless, accountability is vital for the region, he says. “For there to be any hope for peace and human rights in the DRC’s future, there needs to be some form of accountability for the mass atrocities committed by numerous Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan forces over the past two and a half decades.”

The report’s recommendations for an international tribunal have not been implemented, Prendergast alleges, “because powerful forces in these governments are completely opposed to justice of any kind for these human rights crimes.”

Mukwege is not the only internationally fêted figure to have drawn the Rwandan government’s ire over the past few months. In late August, Paul Rusesabagina, whose heroism during the 1994 genocide was the subject of the 2004 Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda, was arrested and charged with terrorism, arson, kidnapping and murder. An outspoken critic of Kagame, he had been living in exile at the time, and was duped into coming to Rwanda. His family says he was kidnapped. He has been denied bail, and has not been given access to his own lawyers. No trial date has been set, and Rusesabagina denies all charges. To Prendergast, it is just part of Rwanda’s longstanding strategy of silencing the country’s critics, no matter the reason for their criticism.

Despite the threats, Mukwege continues with his calls for justice. It is, he says, the minimum of what the world owes the victims of Congo’s wars, and the only way to ensure that he won’t have to keep treating victims of wartime rape in a conflict without end. “Justice means saying who did what, and after that, we can move to reconciliation with our neighbors, saying ‘never again!’,” he said on Oct.1. “As a Nobel Peace Prize winner, how can I continue to keep this honorary title if I am not working for peace in the region?”

The original version of this story misstated the number of patients treated at Panzi Hospital since its inception. It is 85,000, not 35,000.

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