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Sakharov Prize winner Mukwege on justice for DRC's women

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Sakharov Prize winner Mukwege on justice for DRC's women

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For the last fifteen years he has been helping women from the Democratic Republic of Congo who have been mutilated in the most intimate way. Doctor Denis Mukwege is a gynaecologist, forced by the state of things to specialise in reconstructive surgery.

The European Parliament has chosen him to be the recipient of this year’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Euronews met him on his way through Brussels at the St. Pierre hospital, an establishment that supports both his medical mission and ethical position.

Audrey Tilve, euronews:
“Denis Mukwege, thank you for being with us. The Sakharov prize is far from being the first you’ve won, many others have preceded it. What use are all these medals and prizes when you are confronted every day with the worst of what man can do?”

Denis Mukwege:
“Well, we need this solidarity expressed by European states to fight this evil that we have seen arrive in the Congo, and now today the violent rape of women in times of conflict is tending to become a generalised thing. I think it is extremely dangerous to use this as a weapon because it is an arm that destroys all humanity:”

Audrey Tilve:
“You have cared for more than 40.000 women and girls at your hospital since you opened it 15 years ago. What are they victims of?”

Denis Mukwege:
“These are women who have been raped, often in public, in front of their husbands, in front of their children, and then after this collective rape are tortured genitally. Women come to see me because they have serious physical injuries afterwards.”

Audrey Tilve:
“These attacks are sometimes surreal in their sadism, with stakes being used, or shards of bottles, gun barrels…Who commits these atrocities, and why?”

Denis Mukwege:
“Unfortunately in the Congo in the eastern part there are many armed groups from Burundi, Rwanda, or Uganda and they associate with local armed gangs of youths we call the Mai-Mai. They get brainwashed to go on the rampage and destroy everything, raze entire communities so the people leave the land, and then the gunmen move in to exploit it.”

Audrey Tilve:
“You refer to Kivu, the eastern region where the DRC has suffered from 20 years of violence. Armed groups fight it out for control of territory, but why? Because of the natural resources there. Can you tell us what they are and how they are linked to the plight of Kivu’s women?”

Denis Mukwege:
“In fact this part of the Congo is extremely mineral-rich. There’s abundant tantalite and cassiterite, in high demand in the electronics industry. So when armed groups take over territory they take over the mineral rights, too, which they exploit any way they want.

This way they have of attacking women, destroying them in public, ruining their genitals in show punishments in front of everyone is a way of terrorising the community.”

Audrey Tilve:
“Where is the authority of the state in all this? The army is stationed there, the UN has more than 20,000 men deployed. Does that mean they are all accomplices?”

Denis Mukwege:
“All we can say is that 12 years after the peace deal was signed the government hes yet to exert control over certain territories. Armed groups kill, rape, and destroy while the army which is supposed to protect them…well, the women and children are still waiting for their help. The UN? I always thought the presence of the UN would help to build peace, but it will be very, very hard to put a UN soldier beside every woman and baby, because I tell you even babies have been victims.”

Audrey Tilve:
“Have these criminals been tried? Have they been punished? Is there any justice in Kivu?”

Denis Mukwege:
“Unfortunately I have to say there is total impunity.”

Audrey Tilve:
“Some people, mostly women, are calling for an International Criminal Tribunal to be set up for eastern Congo to put an end to this impunity. Do you support this demand?”

Denis Mukwege:
“Not only do I support it but I have signed a petition calling for an ICT to be set up. When you start counting the numbers, the millions of deaths and hundreds of thousands of women raped, then they can no longer be ignored. We cannot continue to simply count numbers, we have to start a process that will lead to the truth coming out and justice being done. The world can today draw a red line and say in armed conflicts women should never be used as a battleground and if anyone breaks that rule they should be isolated from society:”

Audrey Tilve:
“You have yourself survived an assassination attempt, two years ago, in your home. After that you went into exile in Belgium, but two months later you returned home, despite your five children and the resumed threats, which continue. Can’t you imagine living anywhere else?”

Denis Mukwege:
“Congo’s women mobilised. They started by writing to the authorities, all of them, then the UN Secretary General, the president, saying that I had to return and that if the state could not assure my security then they would. They really wanted me back.

“At that point I just thought it was an emotional response but a month later when they saw there was no reaction these women started to organise and every day they sold produce from their fields at the hospital to pay for my return ticket. That really moved me, I realised their great strength, these women who lived on less than a dollar a day but who were able to club together to get me home.

“When I finally weighed things up I think these women tipped it because I said to myself in any case, my one life is hardly worth more than the lives of these thousands of women, so I decided to return home.”

Audrey Tilve:
“So why don’t you really go to the logical conclusion of your commitment and enter politics, because until the political battle is won victims will continue to come to your hospital, won’t they?”

Denis Mukwege:
“Unfortunately what I have seen on my operating table…when I have seen the injuries done to babies I do effectively feel revolted and tell myself this cannot be possible. This is why I decided to denounce it, but from criticising to joining politics is a big step and I’m not there yet.”

Audrey Tilve:
“One last question. What keeps you smiling?”

Denis Mukwege:
“Women. I cannot tell you how many times I have despaired when treating a woman wondering how she can possibly overcome the injuries she’s suffered. But they do. And they never do it for themselves. They rise again for their children and their families. I think we can learn a lot from these women.”