It was as if someone extraordinarily famous had come to town. Thousands of people craned their necks as the motorcade roared by, cellphones out to grab a snap, an air of expectation and excitement eclipsing all the street noise of clanging soft drink bottles and beeping motorcycles.
“There he is,” someone said. “Le docteur!”
In the back of a white truck — zooming past so fast it spewed clouds of dust — sat a kind-faced man staring out at the crowds: Denis Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon renowned for repairing the insides of thousands of raped women.
He returned home triumphantly on Monday after more than two months in exile after nearly being assassinated, possibly for speaking out on behalf of the countless women who have been gang-raped by armed groups that stalk the hills of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo).
DR Congo, torn by war for years and traumatized by dictators for decades, is desperate for heroes. So perhaps it is no surprise that Mukwege carries such an enormous amount of pride — and hope — on his rounded shoulders, which are most often covered by a white lab coat.
For around 15 years now, he has kept a major hospital running in one of the most turbulent parts of the country, sometimes performing as many as 10 surgeries a day, on women who have been raped so viciously that they stumble in with death trudging just a few steps behind.
Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, which provides help to Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital, said it “stands out as a center of excellence for others to emulate and replicate across his country and beyond.”
For his work, Mukwege has won many human rights awards and is often mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize.
US playwright Eve Ensler, who works closely with Mukwege, called him a “spiritual force.”
Banners with messages like “We are behind you” flew all across Bukavu on Monday.
The obvious love and support for Mukwege among the people here make it all the more difficult to discern who was behind the assassination attempt on a night in October, when four armed men slipped into his house in Bukavu and waylaid him as he drove in. When his trusted guard jumped out to confront the attackers, the gunmen shot him in the head. With bullets flying, Mukwege, 57, threw himself to the ground and the attackers fled. Less than a week later he escaped to Belgium with his wife and two daughters.
The local authorities say they do not know who tried to kill him. However, many of his supporters have their suspicions.
A month earlier, Mukwege had delivered a powerful speech at the UN in which he denounced mass rape in the DR Congo and railed against his own government — which has a record of silencing critics — for allowing it to occur with impunity, to the point that the UN has called the DR Congo “the rape capital of the world.”
He has also criticized Rwanda for fomenting chaos in the DR Congo.
Though, Bukavu is relatively safe. A sprawling, disheveled city hunched over Lake Kivu, one of the most beautiful bodies of water in Africa, it has a thin blue haze from thousands of cooking fires.
However, in just about every direction, men lurk with guns.