Last week, a modest man returned home a day early after a work trip abroad. Tired from the grueling voyage, he was looking forward to getting back to his wife and children.
When his car drove up, he was greeted, not by his family, but by a group of potential assassins. They'd held his daughters and wife captive and killed his loyal guard at point blank range.
Given this happened in war-torn Congo, it could be viewed as just another act of senseless violence in a conflict that already has claimed four million lives.
But this attack was shocking because of who the homeowner was: Dr. Denis Mukwege. Not a rapacious mineral-magnate, a violent war-lord, or guerrilla commander. Far from it. Mukwege has devoted his life to treating the raped and wounded in the long running war. He's the founder of the Panzi Hospital, in Bukavu, near the shores of Lake Kivu in Eastern Congo. Since its founding, 13 years ago, he's treated more than 15,000 women who've been brutalized in a conflict where rape is a common weapon and women's vaginas are part of the field of battle.
Above my PC as I type this, I've got a nearly life size portrait of Denis, smiling broadly in his white doctor's coat. A pin on his pocket from Jewish World Watch says "Do Not Stand Idly By." This, from the son of a Pentecostal minister, a quietly devout man who said he wanted to do with his hands, what he felt that his father had done with his words: Make the world a better place.
He's inspiring, of course. But I have that picture -- so big and viscerally cheerful -- for a more selfish reason. It keeps me from fretting about comparatively trivial things -- my disappointing 401k, middle-aged laugh lines, the 60-year-old pink tile in my kitchen, the national debt, my new 'wild child' rescue dog...whatever. Denis' gentle smile says: Really? You're concerned about what? Get over yourself. Please. If I can, you can... Really... You can.
I first met Denis nearly four years ago when he was in the states with Eve Ensler. The Fistula Foundation was just expanding our mission to help treat obstetric fistula globally. I wanted to know, do you need help? Do you have women with fistula, who aren't getting treatment because you don't have money? Turns out that the answer was yes, to both questions. This was early in 2009 and the economic tsunami had just hit the global financial system. A key donor had unexpectedly pulled their funding from Panzi, and he'd had to cut his staff, practically overnight. We're a small organization, but we're also nimble -- like a speed boat with an ATM on the back. We asked for a proposal, audited financials, references -- all came within a few days, from a team at his hospital in a war zone. We sent funds, doctors were hired back, more women got treated.
But here's what I remember most about that first meeting, with Mukwege, me, and one of our senior board members, Dr. Larry William (who by the way took that smiling photo of Denis on a visit to Panzi for the Foundation). While he was reassured that our funds could potentially help him rehire staff, a more unguarded Denis emerged at the end of the conversation when he asked if I had any urethral plugs. (What are those, you might ask. Well -- they are a plug, to help a woman whose urethra has been destroyed keep from leaking urine. She literally will pull it out to empty her bladder. I know, yuck. But, think of what it would be like to have no urethra -- that little muscle that lets us control urine, destroyed by rape or childbirth. I know, I never think of mine either, any more than I think about my pancreas or my aorta, but can't live without them.)
Anyway, Denis said he'd gotten one, a sample, but that the product is life-changing. I said, sure, no problem. We've got a good relationship with the supplier; we can get you a shipment before you return to Congo. His face lit up like the skyline on a Fourth of July evening. He said, "That's fabulous. I'm so happy. You see, for women that I've tried to help, but who remain incontinent, these things are the difference between wet and dry."
The exuberant words were almost unnecessary, his bright smile and sparkling eyes said it all. He's the "real deal" I thought to myself. A year later in New York where he talked to Foundation supporters, I met him like a drug runner, a cheap suitcase completely filled with more urethral plugs for him to take back to Congo.
So, as I sit typing this and gazing at his picture, the smiling face doesn't calm me down as it usually does. You see this news of his near miss assassination has me very worried. If the mad henchmen come for the healers and murder someone like Mukwege, what tiny grain of hope is left for the Godforsaken place that Eastern Congo has become? Where is the U.S.? Where is the UK? Where is God?
That meeting nearly four years ago, led to a long-term partnership; our Foundation still funds work done by Denis and his team to treat women with fistula -- a hole, in this case between bladder and vagina and bladder and rectum that untreated leaves women incontinent. But, his hospital does far more than that. It is an indispensable island of peace and love -- what Human Rights champion Stephen Lewis calls the "epicenter of resistance." Where will the victims be if the hospital is swamped in a rising tide of murderous chaos?
Maybe, just maybe, the close call with the unimaginable will prompt what Mukwege has been pleading for -- international action to help stop the carnage. As his button says "Do Not Stand Idly By." Let's hope that world leaders finally heed that call to action.
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