The European Union on Wednesday awarded its top human rights prize to Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for his work treating victims of sexual violence in the war-torn country often described as the rape capital of the world.
More than 1,100 women, girls and children are raped each day in the DRC. Accepting the award, Mukwege described the crimes as "signs of a society that has been destroyed," urging a united effort to restore peace and justice after 15 years of ravaging conflict.
His facility, Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, offers both physical and psychological help to women who have been victims of sexual violence — which often including being gang raped by rebel forces.
The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was established in 1988 in honor of Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. Since then notable recipients have included Malala Yousafzai, Aung San Suu Kyi, Kofi Annan and the staff of the United Nations, and the Arab Spring.
Others considered for the prize this year included the Euromaidan protesters in Ukraine, one of whom was present for the ceremony. Imprisoned Azerbaijan activist Leyla Yunus was also nominated, and represented in Strasbourg by her daughter.
Mukwege has treated as many as 19,000 survivors over the 15 years since the conflict began.
Speaking before a packed chamber, he said: "In each raped woman I see my wife. In each raped mother I see my mother. And in each raped child I see my children."
He added: "In the rest of the world all of us would be taking to the streets in horror. In Congo these are seen as newspaper reports... signs of a society that has been destroyed."
Mukwege told the assembled members of parliament (MEPs) that, "like every human," he would prefer to be able to forget about these odious crimes, "but how can I fall silent when over 15 years we see something that even the eyes of a surgeon cannot get used to."
In October 2012 Mukwege survived an assassination attempt, during which his children were threatened with guns, and one of his security guards was killed. His assailants' motive is unknown, but it is believed) that the attack may have been linked to his humanitarian work.
When Mukwege finished his speech on Wednesday a group of Congolese activists who had traveled from the country to attend the ceremony burst into song. Outside the chamber, they said that they were hopeful that the world was finally taking notice.
Panzi Hospital administrator Maurice Liwoke told VICE News that he was desperate for the international community not to forget them now.
"Please back Congo people for a new future. Please speak loud for Congo people. Young people in the European Union represent civilization, and we need that."
Liwoke smiled for a photo, and then stopped himself. "I can't smile when people in my country are dying."
He added that it was important to be clear that rape is being used as a weapon, and is physically and psychologically damaging not only women, but whole communities. "The person is broken. It's like a cancer."
The Panzi Hospital offers holistic help, including psychological, social-economic, and legal aid.
Independent journalist Susan Schulman, who visited the Panzi Hospital in 2010, told VICE News that she deeply admired the work of the hospital. She said "It's a very positive constructive ambiance. The rape that these women have been subjected to is hideous beyond words, and it's as if you hear a new account every single time. But despite that, this courage and the will to live and somehow the ability to live is summoned up by these women and very much communicated in the atmosphere."
She added: "There's nobody like (Mukwege). He's single-handedly put the problems of gang rape in Eastern Congo on the map."
When introducing the doctor, European Parliament President Martin Schultz said: "We can barely begin to imagine the pain and misery that you encounter when you go about your work in the hospital. We'd like to extend our deepest respect for what you do every day."
He also said that women and girls are the most neglected victims of war, and it is imperative that de facto impunity for rapes in armed conflicts is something that is brought to an end.
Mukwege finished his speech by addressing DRC residents, rather than the international community. "It's up to us, the Congolese people to create our laws, our justice and our government in the interests of all of us, and not just in the interests of some.
"(This prize) is a symbol of freedom of thought. It's a right which has been taken away from us. A right that, with our terror and oppression, it sometimes seems that we've renounced.
"Today, in front of the entire world, Europe is here expressing its solidarity with us. ... Let's walk with them in order to ensure that peace and justice is restored in Congo."
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