In almost every movie or novel, there is a hero and a villain, a protagonist and an antagonist, a person who saves and a person to be saved, or a combination of any of the aforementioned. The time that I spent fighting sexual violence in conflict with Physicians for Human Rights ("PHR") is marked by this dichotomy. The good versus the bad. Those who are harmed and those who harm. Obviously, it's not so black and white and there's much gray that resides here. But in the last six months, the hero and the villain of my story of combatting sexual violence have come to the fore.
Today, my hero, Dr. Mukwege, and Nadia Murad both won the Nobel Peace Prize "for their campaigns to end the use of mass rape as a weapon of war". Apropos to the person he is, Dr. Mukwege was in the operating room at Panzi Hospital performing a surgery when he learned of this news.
I met Dr. Mukwege almost four years ago as I started my job at PHR. PHR and its Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones was in deep collaboration with Dr. Mukwege and his Panzi Hospital to create a cross-sectoral network of doctors, nurses, law enforcement and judges to more effectively prosecute crimes of sexual violence. We met in Washington DC in October 2013 as Dr. Mukwege was advocating for more resources and political support for his hospital in the Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was an uphill battle for Dr. Mukwege to get the attention of the global community for sexual violence and this small region in Eastern Congo, but very personal. As we sat down at dinner, he discussed his motivations, his experiences and his dreams for his country. Here was a man, a MAN, who understood and promoted the rights of women. He understood that women were human, that women were equal, that women were to be celebrated and that women needed to be protected. Why were his views so very different than the men that he was surrounded by? Over the course of the next few years, I visited Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, DRC and met the many survivors who were helped by Dr. Mukwege and his incredible team. I visited Dr. Mukwege in his home and met his family. He is as authentic as they come. He is real and is good.
But every hero needs a villain, every protagonist needs an antagonist. Earlier this year, I opened my email to find that one of my former interns at PHR was charged with child sex crimes. Joel Davis spent his gap year between high school and college with us in the Boston office of PHR. I had known this young man personally and went to many lunches and walks with him. I had provided much support, guidance and mentorship to this then-teenager. He would go on to found an organization called Youth to End Sexual Violence. He was granted access to well-known international organizations including the United Nations. He was the youth ambassador for the highly publicized Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in 2014. He was friends with Zainab Bangura who served as the United Nations Special Representative for Sexual Violence from 2012-2017. We had been in touch over the years. He was my friend on Facebook. We had discussed his pieces for the Columbia student newspaper over messenger.
I couldn't sleep for nights. I read the complaint. It was damning. How did this happen? What did we miss? He claimed to have been subject to sexual abuse as a child. And in this regard, perhaps demonizing him is incorrect because of the cycle of abuse. But it's hard not to do especially knowing full well that he deeply understood the consequences of his actions and the impact he would have on these children's lives. He had studied sexual violence, its impact on survivors. He had met countless victims of sexual violence (and allegedly was one), both domestically and internationally. He became a subject-matter expert on sexual violence. He founded an organization particularly for youth and ending sexual violence. Beneath the disguise of credibility and legitimacy, his actions towards these children seemed especially cruel.
So as I rejoice today about Dr. Mukwege's well-deserved accomplishment, I am reminded that there is still much work to be done to combat sexual violence. I am grateful that heroes exist in everyday life and I am fortunate to have met one of them. However, I am deeply aware that villains exist everywhere as well.