The sheer effort needed to reach the remote city of Bukavu, in the far east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, shows just how important the trip is to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
From the eastern city of Goma, it takes a three hour trip by boat across Lake Kivu to Bukavu, then there's the journey along a rough trail through one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world. Maas is determined to meet Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege, winner of Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Panzi Hospital.
A welcome banner greets Maas and his delegation when they arrive at the hospital, reading: “Excellency Minister Heiko Maas.”
Wearing a white medical coat, Mukwege warmly welcomes Maas. The two have a common cause: The battle against sexualized violence, genital mutilation and rape — against sex as a weapon of war.
Germany made this issue a priority when it held the UN Security Council Presidency earlier this year, and Maas has kept the topic at the top of his agenda.
Rape victims continue to get younger
Mukwege leads Maas through hospital past women sitting on benches and inpatient rooms. Some women are wearing colorful dresses; however, the silent stories of suffering hang heavily in the corridors of the 20-year-old building.
One woman, however, does not want to be silent: He name is Fatuma. The 50-year-old has only been in the hospital for a week. Since arriving, she has received medical treatment, as all patients do, but also psychological and social care. Social worker Esther guides her by the hand into a quiet room and translates her story for the German journalists present: Fatuma tells of how she was in a field tending to a cassava crop when two soldiers arrived and raped her.
Fatuma is one of about 150 women who arrive at the hospital every month. Mukwege is concerned that the victims of sexual violence in the Congo are getting younger and younger. His colleague provides a statistic showing a sharp increase in girls between the ages of 10 and 17 being raped. But there have been even younger victims admitted — a two-year-old child is now being treated in the hospital.
Cheers for Maas
Mukwege takes the minister to a large hall where it appears as though most of the hospital's 250 patients have gathered in the cafeteria. Mukwege gives an introductory speech on Maas and his work, explaining that he is championing their plight, which is met with enthusiastic applause.
Maas explains how Germany will continue to support Mukwege in his commitment to women: “We will keep campaigning at the United Nations to ensure that those who use violence against women do not go unpunished, and to better support those who have already suffered this violence.”
Maas has made financial promises, too. At the UN in New York, he pledged 400,000 Euro (441,000 US dollars) to the Mukwege Foundation. Germany also supports two nongovernmental organizations that work to end sexualized violence, the Johanniter charity and the Red Cross, which are also active in Congo.
Feeling safer with karate
While Mukwege's concept is comprehensive, one clinic cannot cope with the immense task alone. He wants more preventative and education measures, and, when crimes still take place, to help victims find a life free of fear. In his hospital, young women learn karate to feel safer. In order to raise funds, they also make fruit juice, which Mukwege offered his guests.
Following his visit to Bukavu, Maas is will to return to Goma. He had just one reason to make the long journey: to show that Germany stands behind Mukwege's work in the fight against wartime sexual violence.