Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo: Inside the guarded Panzi hospital lies hope for hundreds of women who have suffered sexual violence in one of the world’s most war-torn areas. Now, MAF ́s bush planes can help the doctors reach out even further.
Story by Odd Arild Nessa, translated to English by Clare Wilshaw. Photos by Martina Holmberg & Jacob Steentoft
It is early morning in Bukavu. The clouds are low and it has rained heavily throughout the night. The sounds coming from dancing women in colourful clothes at Panzi hospital lead us out of the shadowy dawn and into a new day. The song translates painful feelings into words; there is power in expression, in their tone, in the African drums. Suffering is expressed as only the wounded can truly express it; the song also gives hope that today will be better than yesterday.
The brutality of war
The history of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is that of a fertile and mineral-rich land which over the course of several decades, has been robbed, exploited and torn to shreds by the forces of greed, evil and war. Powerful groups of people have made themselves rich through gold, diamonds and cobalt. Lawless soldiers leave a trail of murder, violence and theft behind them. The civilian population suffers, particularly women, who are brutally raped in front of their husbands and children. Their humiliations complete and is causing a breakdown in society.
Over the past 25 years, several wars have ravaged the DRC. This started after the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when groups of soldiers from the Hutu militia Interahamwe fled to the forests of eastern Congo.
"I will spare you the details", Dr. Denis Mukwege (65) said to the whole world when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. All the same, there are countless stories of violence and attacks on women and children. In a land where women normally enjoy great respect, this cripples society. Often, it is the women who hold the family together, putting food on the table and getting the kids to school. This is why this form of warfare is so crucial.
A humble specialist
Dr. Denis Mukwege is one of only two specialists in gynaecology in the DRC, a country with 84 million inhabitants. The UN estimates that close to half a million women have been victims of sexual violence there in recent years. In addition to this, post-birth complications are a major problem. At Panzi hospital, 3,000 women can have operations each year. Justine, one of the women who has been given a new life through meeting Dr. Mukwege, says: "I ́d lost everything: my village, family and friends. Dr. Mukwege took me under his wing and supported me like a father would have done. Here at Panzi, we just call him Papa."
Rescued by MAF
In his own home, several attempts have been made on Dr. Mukwege’s life: this man, so peaceable and worthy of respect, has paid a high price for helping the women and children who come to him. In 1996, when the second Congo war broke out, he was working in Bukavu. Soldiers wanted to take the equipment at the hospital, and when he refused out of concern for the patients, they thought he was on the side of the rebels. His and his family’s lives were in great danger. "It was pure madness, soldiers killing for no reason. We thought it was the end. But I managed to get hold of Roland who worked for MAF Kenya; two MAF planes were sent, and there was a lot of drama when they landed. We had hidden, and it must have been with God ́s help that we managed it. As if by a miracle, all the soldiers gathered at a larger passenger plane that had just landed on the other side of the runway, which gave us the chance to rush on board," recounts Dr. Mukwege.
Walking for weeks to get help
The infrastructure in the DRC is among the worst in the world. The roads are often damaged, muddy and have deep holes. Women walk to Panzi hospital from very remote areas. Some do manage to make the long journey to a hospital that has the expertise to help them. "Some women walk for over a month to get help at Bukavu. Their legs are damaged by the time they get here. Now, the air bridge can make their journey simple and pain-free," says Dr. Mukwege.
The need for more than an operation
The women who survive abuse are often rejected, and as a result, have to live with the shame without their family and friends around them. "An operation is one thing, but rehabilitation and the road to recovery also goes through treatment for trauma, group therapy and relationships. Women who come to Panzi are also given the opportunity to develop their skills. At our school you can be trained for example as a hairdresser or tailor, learn a new language or computer skills. This is important for building up their self-respect and providing opportunities for a better future," says Dr. Mukwege.
The air bridge creating new opportunities
2020 marked the start of an exciting joint project between MAF and Panzi hospital. An air bridge was established, enabling bush planes to overcome the challenges of local infrastructure. The planes transport medical teams out to isolated areas to carry out operations and provide sorely needed medical help. Women who are badly injured are flown back to the hospital for further treatment. Dr. Mukwege sums up: "Having MAF back at Bukavu is like a miracle to me. I can say that this is truly an answer from God to the women in Congo who are going through inconceivable suffering."