After Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege narrowly survived an assassination attempt, he decided it was time to leave his troubled homeland, where he is renowned for his work helping survivors of some of the worst sexual brutality on the planet. But his exile proved short lived.
He had barely arrived in Belgium with his wife and daughters when his many admirers launched a formidable campaign to get their hero back - even selling pineapples to help pay for his ticket home.
The gynaecologist, who has won numerous international awards for his work in a country dubbed the rape capital of the world, told the story at a session at this week’s global summit in London on tackling sexual violence in conflict.
Mukwege runs a hospital in his home town of Bukavu in eastern Congo which has treated more than 40,000 survivors of rape, some of whom had also been mutilated by guns and bayonets.
His fearlessness in speaking out about such violence evidently made him enemies.
Twenty months ago gunmen sneaked into his home and opened fire on him. He escaped death by diving to the ground, but a brave guard was killed as he tried to throw himself in front of the surgeon.
Mukwege told a packed room that after he went into exile, Congolese women mobilised to get him to return, writing to President Joseph Kabila and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to say they needed their doctor to come back.
“They started to collect money by selling pineapples and tomatoes and said ‘we will pay for your ticket to come back to Congo and we will ensure your protection.’ This call was irresistible,” said Mukwege, speaking in French.
He said he was inspired by the bravery of Congolese women fighting for their rights and dignity and decided he wanted to return to stand alongside them.
The heart-warming anecdote was in stark contrast to the atrocities Mukwege had described. So devastating is rape as a weapon of war that it can be compared to the use of chemical weapons in its effectiveness at destroying communities, he said.
I met Mukwege a year before he was attacked and found him a very dignified and remarkably humble man. He would never consider himself a hero. His philosophy is that if a job needs doing, then you do it, without expecting thanks or praise.
His admirers from the Congolese diaspora were out in force at the summit session and were keen to show their appreciation. The room erupted as he walked in, there was noisy applause as he spoke and he was mobbed as he left. Like it or not, he is regarded as a hero by many compatriots and others.