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Can Congo’s ‘Miracle Doctor’ Save Lives Without UN Security?

Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi Hospital in South Kivu, Congo, has been treating women for more than two decades for their ob-gyn needs, including rape by fighters in the region. Until recently, he and the hospital were provided limited security by United Nations peacekeepers, but that may end as they exit South Kivu soon. PANZI HOSPITAL/INSTAGRAM


April 9, 2024


For nearly 26 years, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a politically outspoken gynecologist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been running a renowned hospital in a turbulent war zone over mineral resources in the country’s east to heal thousands of women raped by roving armed militias.


Until recently, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, called Monusco, had maintained security around the hospital perimeter and “le docteur miracle” — “the miracle doctor,” as the 69-year-old’s patients at the Panzi Hospital call him. But there’s only so much even Dr. Mukwege, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, can do when contending with forces beyond his control.


The hospital was established in 1999 by Dr. Mukwege, when it was initially expected to serve pregnant women in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu Province in eastern Congo. Yet the doctor soon started dealing with the daunting task of helping survivors of extreme sexual violence.


But its future security could be at risk. Monusco is slowly withdrawing, starting with South Kivu Province, where the hospital is located. (It is also where the doctor grew up.) The withdrawal is scheduled to be done by the end of April, the UN says, following a request by the Congolese government for the mission’s total exit from the country by the end of 2024.


Yet escalating fighting among militias and the Congolese military in eastern Congo, including the UN-sanctioned armed group M23, whose actions have led to mass civilian displacement, are driving deep instability in the region after a period of relative calm, according to the UN and a range of human rights advocates and other experts.


Supporters of the Panzi Hospital and Dr. Mukwege, an ordained pastor who shared his Nobel Peace Prize with the fellow activist and rape survivor Nadia Murad, escaped an assassination attempt in 2012, possibly for speaking against the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.


Dr. Mukwege’s backers are concerned about his safety and that of the hospital as Monusco leaves South Kivu. They are calling for the UN Security Council to do more to safeguard Dr. Mukwege’s crucial medical care there.


Therese Svensson, the spokesperson for PMU InterLife, the Swedish Pentecostal Churches’ aid organization, which built the Panzi Hospital in 1999 and has been its long-term partner, said by email: “If Dr Mukwege’s voice and the many voices of survivors of sexual violence are silenced or restricted due to the loss of protection against him as a person, it would be devastating.”


Payal Shah, an international human rights lawyer and expert on conflict-related sexual violence who oversees the Congo for the Physicians for Human Rights nongovernmental organization, also said in an email to PassBlue: “Survivors desperately need more robust humanitarian assistance and access to medical care. We urge the international community to take urgent steps to empower and support documentation and accountability for grave human rights abuses committed by various actors in the DRC.”


At a press conference in 2019 held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, in Tokyo, Dr. Mukwege described how his hospital started dealing with sexually abused women.


“The first victim that came to my hospital was a woman who had been raped by seven people,” he said, speaking as part of a world tour to raise awareness of the problem. “As if this wasn’t enough, they then shot her in the genitals. It was the first time for me to see such a barbaric act.” There were times, he added, when he was performing as many as 10 restorative operations a day on the victims.


Over the years, his hospital has become one of the largest medical institutions providing medical care for women in eastern and central Africa. It has treated more than 70,000 survivors of sexual violence and 85,000 women with complex gynecological injuries, while also serving as the general hospital for over 400,000 people in the region, according to its website.


A rehabilitation and training center is also attached to the hospital, called Maison Dorcas. After patients are discharged from the hospital, they can recover at the center while learning job training skills. They also meet with lawyers at the center or at a legal clinic nearby.


Dr. Mukwege openly criticizes the armed groups that have gang-raped women in the hills of eastern Congo in the fight over natural resources and continue to use sexual violence as a weapon of war. He also rails against the Congolese government for not doing enough to identify and prosecute the alleged perpetrators of the crimes and, like independent experts reporting to the Security Council, accuses the Rwandan government for deliberately creating chaos in Congo.


Neither Dr. Mukwege nor the hospital answered emails for a comment.


The hospital was founded in 1999, serving pregnant women in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu Province in eastern Congo. But soon Dr. Mukwege started dealing with the daunting task of helping survivors of extreme sexual violence in the region. IG/PANZI HOSPITAL


On Feb. 28, 2024, Bintou Keita, the UN special representative who also heads Monusco, handed over the mission’s Kamaniola base, in South Kivu, about 31 miles from the hospital, to the Congolese government. UN military and police personnel are set to fully withdraw from South Kivu by the end of April, Keita said in a press briefing on March 27, and civilian personnel by the end of June. A Security Council resolution authorized the withdrawal from South Kivu in December 2023.


Kamaniola was the first of the 14 UN bases across the province to be evacuated by Monusco, along with 400 civil, 2,000 military and 180 police personnel from the UN.


In an open letter to the Security Council, dated March 5, 2024, Dr. Mukwege said that Congo is still far from where “the threat posed by national and foreign armed groups has been reduced to a level that can be managed by the Congolese security and defense forces.”


Recognizing that a phased withdrawal of Monusco has been planned since 2020, as mandated by Council Resolution 2556, “to date, none of the [18 milestones for “minimum necessary conditions”] for a responsible and sustainable withdrawal of the Mission . . . have been met,” Dr. Mukwege wrote.


He argued that before the presidential elections, which were held in December 2023, when Félix Tshisekedi was re-elected, Congolese people’s “frustration at MONUSCO’s ineffectiveness in fulfilling its mandate to protect civilians” was “largely exacerbated by populist rhetoric from politicians in the pre-electoral period. . . .”


He added that “combined with disinformation campaigns directed against the international community by those with an interest in prolonging the chaos in the DRC in order to continue plundering its strategic mineral wealth,” that led to President Tshisekedi “to call for an ‘accelerated’ withdrawal of MONUSCO as early as 2022, and for a complete disengagement plan by 2024.” (Dr. Mukwege also ran for president in the 2023 election.)


On March 27, Keita briefed the Security Council on the withdrawal progress from Congo. She noted outstanding problems in the country, including “the large number of cases of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation,” and that in January alone, 10,400 such cases were recorded nationwide.


In response to Keita’s remarks in the Council, James Kariuki, Britain’s deputy envoy to the UN, said that Monusco’s withdrawal from South Kivu “leaves a security vacuum.” He encouraged the UN to continue to share “its honest assessment of the withdrawal process with the Council to inform our decision-making.”


On the same day, Keita told reporters that Dr. Mukwege lost his status as a humanitarian worker after he announced that he was running for president of the Congo last year and campaigned from October 2023 through the December 2023 elections. During that time, he and the hospital were no longer entitled to the full protection provided by Monusco that they enjoyed in the past, Keita said, because the mission needed to level the playing field of protection for all presidential candidates.


During that fall period, Monusco agreed with Dr. Mukwege and the Security Council for a “special arrangement,” Keita added, to offer him security as he campaigned only when he was inside the Panzi hospital as well as its perimeter. Otherwise, the hospital relies on private security, Keita said, noting, “So far, this is where we are.”


When reached via LinkedIn, Ndèye Khady, the spokesperson for Monusco, elaborated in a message: “Continued protection [of Dr. Mukwege] would violate the UN’s principle of impartiality in its relations with political actors. Dr Mukwege has benefited from UN protection since 2014 in his capacity of human rights defender who had been threatened due to his dedication to protect civilians. However, Dr. Mukwege cannot continue receiving such protection as an active political figure.”


Dr. Mukwege came in sixth in the December 2023 election, with President Tshisekedi winning a second term, despite allegations of irregularities and logistical problems, according to international sources.


The doctor is believed to have returned to work at the hospital since losing the election. In March, he became a member of The Elders, the institute of eminent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, working for peace and justice.


Khady did not answer an additional email from PassBlue asking if Dr. Mukwege is entitled to full Monusco protection now that he is a humanitarian again. It is also unclear if Monusco will continue its “perimeter” security of the hospital and the doctor when he is inside it after the mission leaves South Kivu.


In eastern Congo, a staggering number of sexual violence cases, including against children, that is reported to humanitarian organizations are a direct result of the displacement and the intensifying conflict.


During a visit to the Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, last year, Pramila Patten, the UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, noted that Unicef even reports “an upsurge in sexual violence against children, with victims as young as 3 years old being sexually abused.”


When asked recently by PassBlue about the possible effect of Monusco’s withdrawal on Panzi and Dr. Mukwege, Patten said in an email that “all service providers in eastern DRC, including Panzi Hospital, would have to contend with and plan and prepare for the impact of MONUSCO’s withdrawal and for a reduced security umbrella in terms of delivering services.”


Governments, she added, “must take ownership of the fight to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence, with the support of UN agencies, civil society actors and community and religious leaders.”


This article was updated to correct that the Security Council authorized the withdrawal of Monusco from South Kivu and not the entire country. The Council has yet to pronounce on a full withdrawal and its timeline.


© 2024 – PassBlue



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