Congo’s Government Backtracks on Banning Explosive Documentary About Rape
A documentary about rape was banned last month in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After international scrutiny, the Congolese reversed that ban this week.
Last month, shortly before a documentary about a Congolese gynecologist who has operated on thousands of rape victims was set to premiere in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government banned it, claiming the film had “a clear intent to harm and sully the image” of the national army.
But on Monday, after more than a month of pressure from the United Nations and leading international human rights groups, the DRC’s government backed down, according to Naama Haviv, executive director of the Panzi Foundation, who works with Dr. Denis Mukwege, the famed gynecologist, at Panzi Hospital in the eastern city of Bukavu. On Monday, the government even broadcast the documentary on national television.
The nearly two-hour film — which is at times so graphic that Monday’s audience shielded their eyes over and over again — is a shattering visualization of a community traumatized by decades of rape, with near-total impunity for the perpetrators. Directed by Belgian filmmaker Thierry Michel, The Man Who Mends Women tells the story of Mukwege’s decades-long career repairing the broken bodies of women and children sexually brutalized by rebel militias, Congolese soldiers, and others in the country’s war-torn east.
Mukwege, who studied pediatric medicine in Paris in the 1980s, returned to practice in Congo but realized that what was needed most was not just a pediatrician, but a surgical gynecologist. He flew back to Paris, began his studies in obstetrics and gynecology, and returned to Congo in 1989.
At one point in the film, Mukwege, a tall, gentle man who for years practically lived at the hospital where he worked and walked 30 kilometers to visit his family’s home twice a month, recalls operating on an eight-year-old girl, the victim of an extremely violent rape. He realized during surgery that he had helped deliver the child, herself the product of a rape on her mother. “I don’t want to find myself treating their grandchildren,” he says.
That blunt depiction of the multi-generational suffering of women and children in Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces is the film’s most obvious success: it does not shy away from painful interviews with victims, or footage of post-rape surgeries during which Mukwege realizes a child of no more than six years will never in her life be capable of consensual sex.
But the movie also manages to capture the more subtle realities of life for those who have been lucky enough to survive decades of civil war and militia uprisings that have killed more than 5 million in Congo’s east.
Ravaged by violence since the mid-1990s, Congo was coined “the rape capital of the world” after an epidemic of rape began when Hutu militiamen — perpetrators of a genocide that killed 800,000 Rwandans — fled over the border into Eastern Congo and launched a war there in 1996. Their bloody campaign against Congolese civilians included indiscriminate rape, ranging from children to the elderly and disabled. The film’s interviews with dozens of Congolese victims illustrate how the rebels taught such brutality to young Congolese men, who have since adopted rape as a weapon of war in their own quest for power in the country’s disenfranchised east.
The film features survivors who recall watching Congolese and Rwandan rebels rape their friends and family members, before sometimes hacking them to death with machetes or burying them alive. Others remember being raped by rebels who then forced their husbands and sons to rape them in front of the rest of their families. If they refused, they were killed on the spot. One woman recalls being asked how many rebels she thinks raped her. “All of them had their way with us,” she says.
Another middle-aged woman who was repeatedly beaten and raped by five soldiers she said were supposed to be guarding her explained how that experience scarred her from interacting with other men in uniform, a group of people particularly hard to avoid in Congo, where in addition to the national army there are more than 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers. “I can’t bear to look at soldiers anymore,” she says. “They are so brutal.”
But despite the many devastating anecdotes shared in the film, Michel also manages to capture the empowerment and hope Mukwege engrains in the patients he treats. Many of his victims do not just leave his hospital healed from their many physical wounds, but prepared to defend themselves and their children from suffering the same fate.
One of the film’s most touching scenes shows Mukwege in a classroom, speaking to a large group of young rape victims whose faces are never shown. As the girls introduce themselves, they break down in tears describing why they are in a rehabilitation program. Many have been abandoned by their families and communities, who blame them for being raped, for losing their virginity, and in some cases getting pregnant. Mukwege, who believes firmly that rape comes from a place of hatred, does not deny to the girls that some people may hate them. But he also insists they will one day regain what they have lost.
“If you want to speak, speak. If you want to shout, shout,” he says. “At some point you will feel unburdened.”
Mukwege, who has long spoken publicly about the government’s lack of interest in prosecuting the men responsible for these rapes, survived an assassination attempt in 2012. The attack came shortly after he was scheduled to speak at the United Nations General Assembly, but was warned by his country’s own health minister, who met him at a hotel in New York, that it was in both his interest and that of his family that he not make the speech. Fearing for his children and wife back home, Mukwege canceled the speech, and returned to Congo only to nearly be killed himself. The women he treated raised funds for his eventual return from exile in Europe, where he fled after the murder attempt. Tens of thousands of them, who affectionately refer to him as “Papa,” paraded in the streets when he flew home.
But despite the film’s flickers of optimism, Michel could not honestly end on a positive note. Although M23 rebels, a group of militants backed by Rwanda who between 2012 and 2013 terrorized Eastern Congo during a campaign against the government, surrendered two years ago, the culture of rape has leached far beyond the active war zone.
In the town of Kavumu, in Eastern Congo’s South Kivu province, young girls have again and again been snatched from their beds and brutally raped by men who are never prosecuted. The girls’ bodies are often washed of DNA evidence before they arrive in Mukwegu’s care, complicating any investigation. And the legal system is so corrupt that any accused know they can bribe their way to impunity. Michel captures one of Mukwege’s most intense moments of rage, when in the middle of operating on a small child raped in the dead of night, he throws up his hands and asks how any human could be capable of such an atrocity.
He and colleagues from the hospital, infuriated by the growing number of young patients, helped organize community hearings, where locals confronted the prosecutor, nicknamed “Mr. 100 Dollars” because of his reputation for taking cash to dismiss cases of rape. They have notched some small victories, chiseling away at soldiers’ impunity. But there is still no solution to the mystery of Kavumu’s raped children; one of Mukwege’s patients was just two months old.
Monday’s decision to lift the ban on Michel’s movie offers a glimmer of hope that the federal government, based in Kinshasa — days of road travel away from Eastern Congo — will be forced to take legal action against the perpetrators. The rapists might well wish for formal justice: exasperated locals are increasingly talking of taking justice into their own hands.
At one community meeting featured in the film, a woman grabs the microphone and begins to yell. “We will not take them to the police,” she says. “We will mutilate them ourselves.”
Photo credit: MARC JOURDIER/AFP/Getty Images