Congratulations to BWC member Julien Oeuillet, whose non-fiction book, Panzi, has just been published. Author of three previous books in French language – two novels, Revolution Motel and Max, and one non-fiction, Ils sont fous ces belges – this latest book covers a horrific topic little discussed in the West, and two men working tirelessly to repair the victims. The book is in French, but here Julien answers a few of our questions about it in English.
The book is about the ongoing war in the Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where war rapes are endemic and used as a way to traumatise the population. This region is infested with militia of several thousand men, each led by a handful of warlords. Although they all claim to defend the interests of one ethnicity or another, or pretend to fight for some ideology, they can all be characterised as armed bands terrorising the rural population in order to enslave it and exploit clandestine mines.
The book is a collection of interviews I conducted with Dr Denis Mukwege from Congo and his Belgian associate Dr Guy-Bernard Cadière. These two men have been doing awe-inspiring work in the region, mainly in Panzi Hospital near the town of Bukavu. They repair rape victims. Not only through surgery but via a holistic approach, with psychological support and help to reintegrate victims into society as independent people.
Rape is used by armed groups as a weapon against the population. It goes beyond the violent compulsions of a sexually deviant person; the perpertrators may not even take pleasure in it: what they really want is to destroy the bodies of women. This is why every rape ends with a horrendous mutilation of the lower abdomen.
The rural population of Congo live a traditional, humble way of life. There is nothing you can steal from them because they don’t own anything; there is nothing you can do to pressure them. The only important thing for people there is fertility and the joy of having children and a family. In this way, when rapists threaten to destroy the belly of a woman, they keep the entire population under their control. Men are also tortured gruesomely and executed when they defend their women. Rape was inexistent in Congolese culture before the arrival of these militia, and the population has no idea about the proper response that should be given to victims. Instead, they tend to reject the raped woman as an abomination, and shun the men who were not able to defend her. This is how a peaceful village becomes a pack of traumatised people who end up working as slaves in mines for the profit of their agressors. By destroying women, they destroy the whole social structure.
This is also why Dr Mukwege is active in prevention and maintains a network of mobile crews: they visit villages to teach people a proper response: how to support victims, how to alert them; in short, how to maintain solidarity in front of their aggressors.
Everyone is an accomplice to some extent. We never ask where ore comes from. The tracability of minerals is nowhere near as straightforward as we think it is. Western governments have no interest in changing the situation, neighbouring African countries keep Congo down for their own profit, and Congolese elites do not always act in favour of their population. This situation has been going on for sixteen years and is poorly reported; there is no real exposure to a global audience. An estimated six million people have died there in this period, and Dr Mukwege has performed surgery on an estimated thirty thousand rape victims.
The content of your book was obviously very challenging, emotionally charged and potentially traumatising. What was it like for you to write such a book?
The hardest thing was to believe in the usefulness of the book. When I was in Panzi Hospital I started doubting the pertinence of writing about this topic instead of learning medicine, or working to help them, or, I don’t know, taking a gun and shooting the warlords until there are none left. There was a moment when I realised that the literature on this topic is actually quite abundant but remains too ‘niche’ to have a real impact. As long as the international community will tolerate it, nothing will change.
Once I was back from Africa it took me an astonishingly long time to start working on transcribing the interviews and writing the transitional texts. It was not necessarily hard work to do in terms of editorial tasks. In the long run it was not even a traumatising thing to reminisce about what I saw, because it has simply become part of my life now: I just live in a world where such things exist. Strange as it seems, I even want to go back there again someday. I definitely think the hardest thing was to constantly doubt the point of adding a book to the pile of testimonies about these crimes. No matter how many books there are, seemingly none of them have changed the situation on the ground.
The book is published under the names of the two doctors: it is their words in it, and their work. They have the entire merit of what Panzi Hospital is doing for victims in Congo. I simply did the best I could to help them introduce their stories.
One positive thing is that Dr Mukwege has achieved a very important worldwide fame. But then again, I am afraid that his fame is too confined to people who already pay interest in such affairs. As I told him in Panzi hospital: “Sadly, I think the only time people will sit up and pay attention is when your story is turned into a Hollywood movie.” He laughed when I said this and we jokingly speculated about which American actors could perform his role and Dr Cadière’s. I stick to this idea, though: it is somewhat despicable and shows how superficial our society has become, but nothing will change until Dr Mukwege is portrayed on the big screen by someone like Forrest Whitaker or Jamie Foxx for a white Western audience to enjoy…
How did you feel visiting Panzi Hospital and The Democratic Republic of the Congo?
The hospital is a much more joyful place than one would think. Every morning, Dr Mukwege starts the day with a sort of mass for the patients and personnel alike. It happens in a courtyard in the hospital, with the scent of beautiful tropical plants under the sun. There are women wearing splendid dresses who play drums and sing, men are dancing; it is fascinating. The people of Congo are very optimistic. Bukavu is full of signs bearing motivational mottos. In the quarter of Panzi Hospital reserved for rape victims, there are sometimes musicians who come to perform for them and invite them to sing and dance with them. Children born from rape or whose mother has been mutilated are dancing all the time. People dance and sing so much, and they are in the middle of the most horrible drama of our times. There is nothing that can be worse than a place where armed bands rape and mutilate women and torture their men to death to force them into mines. What can be any worse than that? And still, they dance and sing. Dr Cadière said something interesting: “In Congo they have fun with nothing and in the West we are bored with everything.”
It was my first experience of Africa and there are many things I could say about it that anyone who has been there could say as well; it is difficult to find something original to say. Something in particular struck me, though: in Bukavu, I never saw anyone wearing clothing that was neglected. Men dress sharply and formally, their shirts tucked into their trousers, their shoes clean. Women wear dresses with vivid colours, tailor-made to their size. People in this region may not even have running water but they are always elegant. Dr Mukwege is like that too: there was not a moment throughout his extremely demanding everyday routine when I saw any sign of neglect in his appearance. He was clean, perfectly groomed, and dignified from sunrise to sunset; this in the midst of curing horrific wounds in a hospital in the heart of Africa. This may seem like a detail but for some reason I think it says a lot about the people there: there is no such thing as ‘Gansta style’ in Congo; you don’t get street cred by dressing in rags. You show respect for yourself and for the people you meet by always keeping clean. You may only own one pair of trousers but you take good care of them. This seems to me to be in sharp contrast with what I see in the streets in the West, where we can spend hundreds to look neglected, pretending that we have it hard and we are badass. People in Congo can’t afford to look neglected. They live each day in a situation that none of us could handle for more than 48 hours; they don’t need to look badass.
What was it like meeting Dr Mukwege?
Dr Mukwege is the single most impressive person I have ever met. He was even granted a physique that goes with his personality: he is very tall and square shouldered. He is exceptionally nice and kind, even peaceful in a way. I guess you have to develop such traits if you want to survive such a situation. There have been assassination attempts on him, so he lives in a secured compound inside the hospital itself. You cannot fathom the idea of people trying to kill him. Everyone in Panzi Hospital loves him, practitioners and patients alike. He is very warm with all of them.
He is extremely humble. There are people who believe he should enter politics and change Congo from inside the system. He seems reluctant to do this, not out of fear for himself, but out of mistrust of the world he would enter.
Dr Mukwege is animated by an invincible faith in what he is doing. From what I saw, I think I can say without mistake that this man will never give up. He will never give up on his duty, and never give up believing in humanity, even when every day he walks into the worst thing humanity has to offer. His actions speak for him: he has repaired the bodies of more than thirty thousand women and all he got for it was the sound of bullets whistling past his head. This speaks more to him than the dozen prizes he has received. Every day, he is a humble man with dignity who shakes hands or hugs patients and practitioners in the place where he accomplishes the work that he thinks is right. He loves all these people, he loves all the women he has repaired. His love for people has done more than any slogan or treatise; he simply loves and acts.
One last thing: the book also praises his incredible skills as a surgeon. The surgery he performs is far from easy. The wounds of the mutilated rape victims have no comparison anywhere else in the world or in history, so he had to create a medical answer from a blank page. He had to find surgical solutions that were adapted to the very specific cases he encountered. Professionals have praised not only the humanitarian in him but also the extremely skilled surgeon.
What was it like working with Dr Cadière?
Dr Cadière is a Belgian surgeon with a lifelong passion for Africa. He and Dr Mukwege became friends and professional partners a few years ago. Dr Cadière flies from Brussels, where he works, to Panzi Hospital several times a year to help Dr Mukwege with the most challenging surgeries. Dr Cadière is a pioneer of a modern surgical technique called laparoscopy. Dr Mukwege said that the introduction of laparoscopic surgery to Panzi Hospital made a huge difference for rape victims, easing their treatment greatly.
Dr Cadière is an adventurer. His life is an adventure. He has lived it to the full. This man has been everywhere in the world, performing surgery in several war theatres. At some point, he was even a successful musician, touring as a saxophonist. He survived leukemia. He fought to develop laparoscopy at a time when the medical authorities were reluctant to change. No surprises he befriended a man like Dr Mukwege.
Dr Cadière is an extremely enthusiastic person. Like Dr Mukwege, he has witnessed a lot of suffering and monstrosity, yet he still smiles most of the time and never gives up on anything. His trips to Panzi do not bring him any money or personal gratification: he does it because he knows he can help people.
In Panzi hospital, I saw Dr Cadière playing with the children of victims, talking with them, and mostly, working from eight to eight. When he does not perform surgery himself, he trains Congolese surgeons in laparoscopic techniques. He consciously rejects any neo-colonial behaviours: he talked about not being “The white man who comes to dictate to African men.”
Instead, he works with Congolese physicians on an equal footing: when in Panzi, he considers Dr Mukwege to be his boss, because it is his hospital.
Dr Cadière also worked on editing the book with me back in Brussels, and his contribution to the story is huge. He says that he cannot write but he actually can tell a story. His life has been such an exciting story, it would have been a pity not to share it. On many occasions, he was too humble to share personal details, but I insisted that he give me all he could. The book recounts a lot about Dr Cadière’s life before he discovered Panzi, because it shows what kind of character he is: a free man without personal ambitions, at the service of others. This is his definition of adventure. I thought such stories in the book would make it even more inspirational.
You had an experience in the hospital that called into question your worth as a human being, and your career as a journalist and writer. Could you tell us about that?
Nothing I may have felt in Panzi Hospital is comparable to what patients and victims there are going through. It is true, however, that Panzi Hospital gave me considerable exposure to suffering I had never witnessed before and which has no equivalent anywhere in the Western world. I wondered at some point if I was a weak person to be so affected by all this, but now I think the only two kinds of people who can witness what I saw in surgery rooms at Panzi without being shaken are doctors and psychopaths. I already knew I was not a doctor, and now I am absolutely certain I am not a psychopath.
The most shaking thing that happened to me is not actually something I saw. In Panzi I was allowed to wander anywhere, but if I wanted to enter a surgery room I was required to wear one of those green outfits worn by surgeons. At some point I went into the courtyard but forgot to change back into my normal clothes. Some patients then mistook me for a doctor and asked me to cure them. I had to tell them I was actually not a surgeon, but some didn’t believe it and couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t help them. The look in their eyes will stay in my memory forever. This was a moment when I really questioned the entire point of writing books at all, in comparison to the work of people like Dr Mukwege and Dr Cadière.
After all you have seen and experienced, what message would you like to impart to the world about the situation in DRC?
There is nothing worse than what is happening there. There cannot be anything worse than this. More than fifteen years of gruesome rape and torture and murder to pillage ores which are sold all around the world without anyone caring. This is what it is, in a single sentence.
Dr Cadière says that what happens in Congo is important because this is what awaits all of us, and I agree with him: if we tolerate it in Congo, then it can and will happen somewhere else. Wherever you live, you are not safe from a similar fate. In a few generations, who knows, perhaps your children will be treated the same way because we found something valuable in your country.
Everything in our world tends towards cynicism, consumerism, and egotism. The situation in Congo is the result of all this.
Do you have any advice to offer those thinking about writing about similarly disturbing topics? What worked for you, what helped you through it? Is there anything you would do differently?
You will not be saving the world with your book. It is a drop in the ocean. Do not write it to save the world because you will fail spectacularly. Our book is out now and Dr Mukwege is still working every day repairing the bodies of women: it didn’t save Congo.
Write the book only because you love the people involved and you want to honour them. This is the best you can do for them. It is likely that, sadly, the only people who will read your book are people who were already somewhat aware of the situation. But at least you gave them more information and more insights about a situation they would like to help but feel terribly powerless in front of. Your book remains available in the future, so write it only because you think you can leave a testimony of something that hasn’t been said before.
Never forget that non-fiction writing is about providing information. If you cannot inform, then you are not writing a book. The personal feelings I have talked about in this interview are nowhere in the book, if only because the book is about the two surgeons and not about me at all. In the book, I gave elements of ambiance and descriptions of the place so the reader can feel as close as possible to actually visiting Panzi, but these are not personal feelings. If you ask me in an interview how I feel about it, then I can answer, but in a book no one cares. You are here to inform. You can write about a topic which has already been written about, as long as you provide fresh information about it. I’m not talking about analyses, because we don’t need more analyses, we need information. Your analyses are only one nerve cell away from your feelings.
Do not despise your readership. People are not stupid. People crave being elevated. Even those who seem the most stupid and ignorant to you will still react positively if you make the effort to inform them. If they reject your information, then it is not because they are too stupid to hear what you have to say, it is because you are not doing your job right.
Julien has kindly agreed to give a short Q&A session about his experiences writing Panzi at the Tuesday night BWC meeting next week (July 15), from 7pm. Meeting place is our usual La Maison des Crêpes and all members are welcome!