Rachel Pulfer is the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, Canada’s media-development organization
Bukavu is the capital of South Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Set on the shore of beautiful Lake Kivu, it is known as the rape capital of the world, thanks to its horrific record of mass sexual assault.
As of October, 2018, it is also now home to the Nobel Peace Prize.
This year, the Nobel Peace Prize goes to two activists. One, Nadia Murad, a survivor of sexual violence herself, is a Yazidi activist for women raped in conflict. The other is Dr. Denis Mukwege, a surgeon legendary across the eastern DRC for his hospital dedicated to helping heal women survivors of brutal sexual assault. The Nobel jury is to be applauded for shining a spotlight on the issue of sexual violence as a weapon of war – and recognize those who are doing something about it.
Prince Murhula is the leader of Journalists for Human Rights’ media-development programs in Eastern Congo. Back in 2014, he was Dr. Mukwege’s communications director. “To experience first-hand the pain and suffering of women who were raped – sometimes by 10 men – only to then watch their husband be killed? It was powerful.”
In their heads, said Mr. Murhula, these women were dead. It was the job of Dr. Mukwege and his team to bring them back to something approximating life.
The trickle of women rape survivors became a flood. The cases kept coming. To date, Dr. Mukwege’s hospital has treated more than 20,000 women. Dr. Mukwege faced more than the usual difficulties of operating an under-funded, over-subscribed hospital in DR Congo. When women are raped in the eastern DRC, they are rejected by society. The hospital had to work around this intense social stigma.
Dr. Mukwege and his team also faced challenges from government. Local authorities disliked the negative publicity associated with the hospital’s work. They cut the hospital’s funding, claiming that the thousands of women seeking surgery for rape were "false victims” lying about their experiences to get attention.
This makes it all the more locally and regionally significant that Dr. Mukwege’s work has been recognized. “This is a chance to invite Canadians to understand that there are people there who suffer – but despite their suffering, there is a beautiful hope in the Congo that things can change,” said Mr. Murhula. “There are initiatives that deserve recognition and support, in order to help the Congolese people recover from mass trauma.”
Mr. Murhula is in Toronto to speak about the work he and his wife, Sandra Bashengezi, do in Bukavu, training journalists with Journalists for Human Rights, the organization I run. Dr. Mukwege heals these women’s bodies. Mr. Murhula and Ms. Bashengezi’s work tries to heal their minds. They do this by giving women who have been raped a platform to tell their stories. One recent example is a new film, The Prophetess, by Sylvie Weber and Margaret Flatley. It documents the lives of women who have survived horrific rape in the eastern DRC, only to find hope and healing through story.
Mr. Murhula and Ms. Bashengezi also train journalists in how to cover incidents of horrific sexual violence with sensitivity, while bringing perpetrators to justice. A documentary created by Mr. Murhula’s trainees, Esther Kamwa and Jean-Claude Bisimwa, tracked a militia that had been perpetrating mass rape on girls as young as two years old in the village of Kavumu. After the documentary aired, the militia was shut down. This year, its backer, a powerful parliamentarian, was sentenced to life imprisonment.
"Even though women suffer, we believe in change and we have hope,” said Ms. Bashengezi. “Our message to Canadians: Do not be afraid to accompany the Congolese in their journey towards healing, because real change is possible.”
There is a phrase in the DRC: No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come.
It is a great day for Dr. Mukwege – and for all who live for the day when the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war is no longer possible.