Dr. Edwige Mubonzi. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Mubonzi.
“[after treatment] you see how they come back to life and how they fight to restart another life … That gives me hope. They don’t give up, so nobody should give up.”
– Dr. Edwige Mubonzi
Death threats drove Dr. Edwige Mubonzi from her home and work in the Democratic Republic of Congo about two and a half years ago. Her work – surgically repairing the physical damage of rapes – brought the death threats. Rape as a weapon of war, in the ongoing struggle for control of the country’s rich mineral resources, has made DR Congo the rape capital of the world.
“After they rape a woman,” Mubonzi explains, “most of the time they shoot or put a knife or put fire into the vagina. The goal is to destroy women, not just to have sex. Most of our patients, they carry traumatic fistula. We have to do reconstructive surgery.”
“The last mission I did,” she recalls, “we had 123 women raped in [two villages].”
Threats and violence
Mubonzi remembers growing up with a “normal childhood.” In 1998, war forced her family out of their home in Bukavu to the relative safety of Idjwi Island, in the middle of Lake Kivu. There, for the first time, the 14-year-old Mubonzi encountered children with bellies swollen by malnutrition and women for whom pregnancy was a sorrowful and life-threatening event.
“That is when I decided to become a physician,” she says. “I told my dad I wanted to go to medical school. I wanted to come back to build a hospital so pregnancy could become a joy.”
Back in Bukavu, in 2004, Mubonzi was studying in the library for her final high school exams. A brother-in-law who worked for the United Nations called the family and warned that the militia was going house to house, raping women. He sent a car to take the family to a U.N. refugee camp.
“In the camp,” she recalls, “they were bringing so many women who had been raped. … It was shocking. It was horrible.”
In 2011, Mubonzi graduated from medical school with honors, one of three women in a class of 82. She says she was lucky to have the support of both of her parents. “In our community,” she recalls, “women do not go far with education. You are expected to get married after high school. It wasn’t very easy to go to medical school.”
Mubonzi went to work at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, and also volunteered in Panzi’s mobile clinics, which travel to scattered villages to help women who have been raped. Militias use rape to drive people out of their villages and to gain control over “conflict” minerals. The country is rich in minerals, from gold to coltan, a mineral used in making many electronic and medical devices.
Mubonzi vividly remembers one patient who became pregnant after being raped. Later that woman returned to the hospital, carrying her baby. “I was afraid that she had been raped again and mutilated,” Mubonzi recalls. “She said she was not coming for her, but for her baby, and she told me that her baby was raped by three soldiers.”
That moved Mubonzi to become an advocate as well as a doctor, but advocacy proved dangerous. Dr. Denis Mukwege, the founder of Panzi Hospital, traveled to New York and addressed the United Nations in 2012, denouncing impunity for mass rape. He returned to face an assassination attempt and continuing death threats. Everyone working in the mobile clinic also was threatened. “One of the nurses I was working with was kidnapped and we found her three days after,” Mubonzi recalls. “It was awful. Everything they did to her.”
Fighting to restart life
Mubonzi didn’t want to leave the country, but death threats left her no choice. “I was the only female doctor in the mobile clinic so it wasn’t difficult for those people to find me,” she says. She decided to come to Minnesota because of the many human rights organizations here.
When she arrived, Mubonzi said, she knew only two words of English and had never experienced winter. Today, she speaks fluent English, works part time, studies six hours a day for her medical licensure exams, and has helped to found Mwendo Congo, a nonprofit organization working to bring medical care to Idjwi Island.
She hopes to practice medicine again, and to continue advocating for the women of her country. She finds hope, she says, in doctors who volunteer their time to help the women, in international recognition for Dr. Mukwege, and in the response that Americans have when she shares her story.
Most of all, her hope comes from the resilience of women she has helped. When she did surgical repairs of fistulas, the women “looked so depressed and they just wanted to die, very sad,” she says. But after treatment, “you see how they come back to life and how they fight to restart another life … That gives me hope. They don’t give up, so nobody should give up.”