Last month Bineta Diop - named by Time magazine as one of the world's most influential women - responded to appeals from local women and visited the conflict-ravaged eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She almost didn't make it out.
While she was in the town of Goma with an eight-person delegation, it was captured by the rebel group M23 - the most recent of a string of militias and armies that have fractured the society and economy of the area for more than a decade. Five million people have died, with millions more displaced. All sides in the on-going conflict have used sexual violence as a weapon.
"DRC is called the capital of rape," Diop says. "We went in solidarity for our sisters to say, 'You are not alone'. And we went to understand how they see the issues and what we can do to help."
The concept of solidarity missions is one that Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS), the organization Diop founded, has pursued for many years. It is part of a strategy to implement the principles of United Nations Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000. The office of the UN Special Advisor on Gender says: "The resolution reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security ."
The current peace talks on eastern Congo in the Ugandan capital Kampala seem, to many, a mockery of those ideals.
Where are the women?
Bineta Diop, recounting her visit to eastern DRC in a telephone call from Geneva, said international pressure on M23 had contributed to its withdrawal from Goma two weeks ago. "It's a good thing,"" she said. "But what is next?"
An inter-regional group, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, is sponsoring the Ugandan negotiations, which began with rancorous allegations and counter charges between representatives of the DRC government and M23. The governments of Rwanda and Uganda are also at the talks.
"We should not leave the leaders talking among themselves," says Diop. "There should not be closed talks as usual. Women's groups and civil society should know what the talks are about. Women should participate in the negotiations."
In Rwanda, women hold 56 per cent of the seats in Parliament, and President Paul Kagame has been a champion of women's rights. But his government, once a favorite of international aid groups for his role in rebuilding the country after genocide, has seen some of that aid symbolically halted over charges that Rwanda is the power behind the M23.
Kagame and his government have vehemently denied charges that they support the rebel group. "We have no interest in an unstable Congo," Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's foreign minister, said in an AllAfrica interview in October. "The accusations against Rwanda are created to fit a certain narrative, a certain thinking about Rwanda and Africa." Referring to the M23, she said that "a mutinous group from the Congo army does not offer security."
Over the past two days, a number of Twitter posts from eastern Congo have said that Rwandan troops have been openly accompanying M23 convoys. Whether or not that is true, worries about Rwanda's role in the area's current trauma persist. International diplomats say evidence of Rwanda's support for the rebellion is strong. Women's organizations are worried.
"We gave Kagame an award," says Diop, to recognize his support for women. "But," she says, "he should not just take care of the women of Rwanda. He should take care of the women of DRC as well."
A humanitarian disaster
FAS is working to bring attention to the concerns of Congolese women, one of which, Diop says, "is the issue of impunity. People who rape are not held accountable. They are promoted. They may become chief of police."
While in Goma, Diop took part in a FAS seminar that was helping women plan positive actions to claim their rights. While in Goma, Diop took part in a FAS training programme, funded by the European Union, that is helping women plan positive actions to claim their rights in the light of Resolution 1325. Finland and Norway are supporting a regional project that FAS is implementing in the Great Lakes region, which includes DRC, Rwanda and Burundi.
"It can be a starting point," Diop says, "for dialogue among women's groups" to amplify their voices and gain their inclusion in the peace process. Her solidarity mission was supported by the UN Fund for Population Activities and Unifem, in alliance with the women of L'Association des Femmes Solidaires pour la Paix, the project's local partner in the eastern DRC provinces of North and South Kivu.
"We want them not to see themselves as victims but to see themselves as actors - constructive actors to get their country out of this crisis," she said.
That's a tough task in the midst of a conflict, whose scope and brutality is breathtaking. Diop has been in conflict and post-conflict situations many times - in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where fighting sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Guinea. She was in Chad with refugees from Darfur alongside former Irish President Mary Robinson.
Goma now, she said, is the worst she has seen. Outside the city of a million people are camps swollen by people displaced from their homes. She saw women with babies sitting outside, with no shelter from the start of the rainy season. Many told her that they had received no food rations since August. When they go into the countryside to find wood to sell as firewood for food, they are often attacked. Frequently, the attacks are inventively horrific; medical personnel report internal injuries they have never imagined, let alone seen.
While Diop was in one camp, new arrivals began streaming past. "I asked one small boy - I just chose him from a group, 'Where are your parents?' He said he didn't know. Where are you coming from?" He gestured to the surrounding hills. "Yesterday night we hear the guns."
Knowing the region is habitually unstable, Diop and her group proceeded with their planned trip by boat across Lake Kivu to the town of Bukavu on the lake's southern rim. At Panzi Hospital, where Dr. Denis Mukwege barely escaped assassination in October, they found a determined but demoralized group of staff and patients. The doctor, an outspoken critic of the culture of rape, is a skilled surgeon who for 16 years has repaired cases of fistula - a common and disabling complication of sexual violence. They pleaded with the FAS group to insist that adequate security be provided by the international community so the doctor can return to his post.
" He is the one saving our lives," the group was told. "The bodies of these women need to be repaired. We need him back."
Race to the border
Distressed by all the challenges facing the region's people, the FAS group headed back across the lake. There was worse to come.
After a stormy three-hour crossing that left them sick, their escort, provided by the UN peacekeeping group Monusco, was nowhere to be found. They found their hotel emptied, and local staff told them to leave the area as rapidly as possible. M23 fighters had arrived in town. Soon, the group was caught in the conflict. Residents were fleeing in confusion in all directions, displaced, Diop says, yet again.
"I called Monusco," Diop says. They told her they couldn't give the group an escort any longer. "We are all here in the compound, we can't leave the compound," Diop was told. The failure of 20,000 peacekeepers to keep a small band of rebels out of town was an echo of the chosen impotence of UN forces during the Rwanda genocide. Now, the confinement of UN peacekeepers to base in Goma and the decision not to protect the town are under scrutiny by UN investigators.
"I asked, 'Why don't you evacuate us?'", Diop says. "They said they didn't want to give the signal that Goma was being evacuated. The airport was closed. They suggested that we get ourselves to the Rwanda border."
The eight-person delegation, including a Congolese videographer from the capital Kinshasa, grabbed what luggage they could and set off through the chaos. But when they finally reached the border, their way was blocked by DRC border guards. They had no visas for Rwanda.
After an increasingly tense stand-off, Diop - with Senegalese diplomatic documents - was allowed across to negotiate with Rwandan officials. Eventually she was allowed to telephone Pro Femme, an umbrella women's group in Kigali, the capital, which had been working with FAS on implementation of Resolution 1325. The group had already been in touch with FAS's Geneva office, which was already trying to locate Diop and the group.
After lengthy consultations among international organizations and Rwandan border security guards, the group of eight were all allowed into Rwanda, where Pro-Femmes organized transport to Kigali and had hotel rooms ready while the delegations waited for flights. For one of the group, however, the problem was not over. The Congolese camera operator had left his passport at home - not having planned to flee the country. He had to wait in Kigali until his wife sent his passport, so that he could fly to Nairobi, Kenya and then back to DRC.
'An ocean of need'
In a statement to the UN Security Council, Diop reported on her trip and urged the international community to act on the most pressing needs of civilians caught in the fighting. "There needs to be security sector reform," she told the council. "The level of security is so bad," she says, "that you don't know where to start." But she cites the example of Liberia, at war for two decades, where rape also reached crisis proportions.
Training women as police officers, and deploying them to neighborhoods, was an enormous improvement in safety for women, she says, and having a contingent of Indian women in the peacekeeping force for Liberia has also helped.
In DRC, "Humanitarian aid should come to camps for the displaced. There needs to be trauma counseling for the women."
Barbara Shenstone, UN emergency relief coordinator for the region, told the Irin news agency that DRC lacks the attention given to other conflicts, even though the numbers of people affected in eastern Congo are much larger. She says an appeal for humanitarian assistance has fallen far short of needs.
"Today we are about 60 percent funded in the appeal. The humanitarian community asked for US$791 million this year. This is a huge country - an ocean of need - and it is seen somewhat as a lost or forgotten emergency. It doesn't have the same weight as other violent conflagrations, such as Syria or Afghanistan, or the same strategic interest for many countries."
What haunts Bineta Diop is that she and her group could leave, while others could not. "The people we were with for a week, they are there. The women's organizations are there. They don't have the choice to leave." And, she added, they don't have the support they deserve.
"It's a very dramatic situation. The international community should find solutions. This has gone on long enough."