A red armband for Dr Mukwege

RNW archive

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The situation has been very tense at Panzi Hospital since the attempted murder of Doctor Denis Mukwege. He was forced to flee his home in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for Brussels. RNW correspondent Ernest Muhero recently visited the hospital in Bukavu to see how his patients and colleagues are coping. 

On the surface, everything appears normal at Panzi Hospital. A large number of visitors, mostly women, rush through the small gate of the wire fence. Some have come for an examination, while others are here to inquire about the welfare of loved ones.

But in the Panzi unit where sexually abused women receive free care, patients and colleagues are torn by feelings of sadness and indignation since Mukwege's departure.

In total, 2,019 women have so far received free care this year at the hospital. Among them, 1,095 were victims of sexual abuse and 924 were admitted for gynaecological problems, like fistula. In part, this is thanks to the European Union-supported project for victims of sexual abuse. But financing aside, none of this would have been possible without Mukwege, the hospital’s founder and medical director.

Fear and uncertainty
Mukwege’s absence has had an overwhelming effect on daily operations at Panzi. “The hospital staff are very upset and demoralised because Dr Mukwege is a hard worker with a great deal of experience”, says head physician Nfundiko Kaguku. “Monday to Friday, he helps less privileged people. With the attack on Dr Mukwege, we don’t know where it’s going to stop. We are now living in fear and uncertainty.”

Besides the fear the medical staff must contend with, the attack on the Congolese doctor has also had financial implications for the hospital. “There was a negative impact on the revenues. We can’t make the same money as we used to when Dr Mukwege was around. His medical exams, surgical interventions – and his absence – are clearly being felt.”

“His return is our only chance of recovery”
Maintaining a sense of professionalism, the medical staff try to hide their grief. But among the patients, it is very apparent. Despite efforts by social workers to create a lively atmosphere to help cheer them up, the hundreds of women are distressed. For some, the return of Mukwege is their only hope. “We are deeply saddened by what happened to the doctor, and we pray day and night for his return. His return is our only chance of recovery”, says one of the women.

According to psychologist Cécile Kamwanya, who closely monitors these patients, the attack on Mukwege was a huge shock to the already fragile women, who see in him the end of their suffering. “The doctor’s return is vital for the advancement of treatments”, she says.

Red armbands
Inside the hospital, the doctors and nurses are all wearing red armbands in protest of the assassination attempt of 25 October. “We decided to wear this red armband to show our indignation. And we will wear it until the return of Dr Mukwege”, says Kaguku.

According to the hospital communications office, the women are eager to march in the streets of Bukavu, demanding the return of Mukwege. “His patients want us to protest, threatening to march if we don’t”, says Nfundiko. “We tell them that he will be back soon, but a safe return has to be arranged. He should not return just to be cowardly murdered.”