Dr Denis Mukwege is a world-renowned gynecologist and women’s rights campaigner who founded the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since 1999, Mukwege and his staff have cared for more than 50,000 survivors of sexual violence in the DRC’s brutal conflict.
Mukwege came to Lalish and Duhok in late June to meet Yezidi women recovering from the ordeal of sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS. He was invited to the region by Yazda, an NGO created in 2014 to help Yezidi women raped by ISIS militants recover and reintegrate. He took part in a workshop to pass on his expertise.
He also met with Khurto Hajji Ismail, the spiritual leader of the Yezidis, who broke with tradition and decreed the victims of rape must not be stigmatized.
Thousands of Yezidis were rounded up and slaughtered by ISIS when the group blitzed across northern Iraq in summer 2014. When the militants swept into Shingal, more than 6,400 Yezidi women and girls were kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery.
Although around 3,200 were later rescued or escaped, many are still missing.
Mukwege spoke to Rudaw during his visit and explained what treatment, protection, and long term support Yezidi women need. He also called on the international community to help end the use of rape as a weapon of war.
Rudaw: What did you learn from your visit? What stories did you hear? How does it compare to what you have documented elsewhere like the DRC?
Dr Denis Mukwege:
My trip was really beneficial for me and I think what I learned especially, and what I understand, is that sexual violence is equal everywhere. And what I learned from victims of sexual violence, what they are telling me, it’s just the same, using the same words as the women of Congo. And you can see that the suffering is the same. As I was just telling you, in a different war, but the suffering is just the same.
The psychological problems they have, the mental problems they have can’t be solved in a short time.
And I could also learn one more thing – their need is the same. I was in the camp and I tried to ask the women what they need most, and in talking, really, you could feel that it’s the same needs. So this June helped me to understand more and maybe in the future I will try to make my work better, because it’s happened so far from my country, but the consequences here are the same.
Firstly they really need medical treatment. Second thing, most of them who could understand the psychological problems they have, the mental problems they have can’t be solved in a short time. We need really to support them psychologically for a long time and maybe with specialist. We need psychologists, we need maybe even psychiatrists. And we discuss with them about how they can restart their life. But they need social-economical support – a livelihood is needed.
The last need is to go back. But they’re afraid because of their security. And the question was, the people who did what happened for them are still somewhere. So they are afraid that this can happen again. So you understand that we are working on four pillars. And these four pillars, women express it clear: medical support, psychological support, social-economical support, and legal support.
And I think when this kind of thing happens, normally, women should feel as though they are protected … And I think if we don’t work on these four pillars, my conclusion is, you can’t really restore the dignity of women and give them a new life.
Are women the forgotten victims of war?
Exactly. I think we are not thinking a lot about [this]. Most of the time, men are the one doing the fighting for power. But the victims are women and children. And after the war, most of the time, women and children are just forgotten. And this is terrible because it’s just to destroy not only the victims, but also the next generation. Because I think that now women are just thinking the only one solution is to leave the country. This is not a solution. Their country is Iraq and they should stay in their land where they were born, where they have their culture.
After the war, most of the time, women and children are just forgotten.
But for the lack of security, most of them were telling us the solution, we can’t go back in Sinjar because there is no security, the best thing should be to leave the country. But if all of them leave the country, they are just going to disappear. They have identity. They have to protect their identity. But how can they protect their identity if they don’t feel they are protected.
So I think this is a question that the international community should think about, because, when Yezidi are a minority, they should be protected as a minority. And especially, after you see what ISIS did, it was just a genocide ... The international community have to take responsibility and protect them, give them more security to feel they can stay in their place and be secure in their place.
Is it possible to win justice for ISIS victims – particularly for victims of rape as a weapon of war?
I think there are many ways to give them justice. … There is a commander [with] responsibility … Even if the one who did, who raped, is not known, there are commanders, and these commanders must be responsible for what happened for Yezidi women. And I think if they can get justice, they have also to get reparation for what happened. … And if this doesn’t happen, they’ll just feel discriminated and this can happen again. To prevent repetition is really to go through justice. And to do justice I think now we have many mechanisms that can help these women to feel, ok, the community understands our suffering, and they support us in our suffering.
What kind of support does your foundation offer? It is described as an holistic approach – beyond medicine.
The big problems we are facing in many countries is with religious authorities who are just excluding women because they were raped.
I think this approach really is needed. I visited Baba Sheikh and we discussed about how displaced Yezidi women should come back in the community and be reintegrated into the community. And I think this is really something he did in the community that is really wonderful because the big problems we are facing in many countries is with religious authorities who are just excluding women because they were raped. And it’s not their fault! It’s because they are not protected that this happens. So if you exclude them after, you don’t protect them. It just punishes them a second time. So I was very happy that he said, no, the women, they are human, and in our community we decided that we have to take them back and support them. This is really one good thing.
But this is not justice. It’s not justice. Beyond this they should get justice. And I think that today it’s really very important to make a focus here so the world can know what happened for these women. Can we imagine, in the 21st century – women being sold as animals? This is not acceptable. And we are responsible. All of us. We should really take our responsibility and say how this could happen in the 21st century. We have to take our responsibility and just say that this should not happen, never again. … It should be recognized internationally and Yezidi women should get reparation for what happened and for us, the international community, to apologize, because we didn’t protect them. And this is terrible.
What needs to be done? Can crimes like this be prevented, or is this simply the reality of war?
I met with Yazda, it’s a local organization that’s taking care of women who come from slavery. And in this platform we have one Yezidi women in our platform, and we discuss a lot with her, and she put us in contact with Yazda. And when you can discuss with women coming from Colombia, Bosnia, Congo, Liberia, Sudan, everywhere, you can say that now in all conflicts women are victims. So if there is conflict, we need to really think about this question – why are men using rape as a weapon of war? It’s only because rape as a weapon of war is very effective. It’s not only destroying the victims but it destroying all the community, destroying family, destroying society. So using rape as a weapon of war is very effective in conflict and this is the reason you can say everywhere they are using it in different ways but they are using rape as a weapon of war.
Can we imagine, in the 21st century – women being sold as animals? This is not acceptable. And we are responsible. All of us.
So we can’t say we can prevent it because most of the time you can see the way that rape is used is very specific of the group that is using rape as a weapon of war. And the way that it is used in Congo can be different, but the consequences and the goal is the same. So we should really start to think how we can prevent it before the war happens we have to prevent it and i think that to prevent it we must start earlier in the education of our children. It’s a relation – it’s a gender question between men and women, and we have really to prevent it.
And I think that really the way to prevent it is to get international justice to be strong enough when this happens – the commanders have to be responsible for what happens to the victims so they can understand that even if they win the war, but if they use rape as a weapon in the war, all the international community will be against them. So I think there are steps: education; the commander has to feel they have responsibility for their troops; and the international community has to be strong when this happens in the conflict.