Jocelyn Kelly stood alone at the airport in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, wondering whether anyone would meet her.

It was the summer of 2007 and Kelly, a student at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), was in Rwanda en route to one of the world’s most troubled places — the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She was there for a summer internship with the International Medical Corps (IMC), a nonprofit that provides health care for refugees from the almost constant fighting that has plagued the area since 1996.

Kelly planned to travel overland to the border and then to the Congolese city of Bukavu, at the southern tip of Lake Kivu. Arrangements were rushed, though, and Kelly arrived not exactly sure whether she would be met — and not certain what she’d do if she wasn’t.

After a few moments of anxiety, Kelly saw a driver holding a sign with her name on it. Relieved, she piled into the car for the six-hour drive through Rwanda’s rolling, green hills and passed into the Congo over the wooden bridge spanning Lake Kivu’s southern outlet — a small stream that is the beginning of the Ruzizi River and the border between the two nations.

During her work that summer, Kelly was assigned to consolidate data collected by the IMC’s various field offices, but was also given the freedom to explore other issues that interested her. The plight of the region’s women drew her immediately.

“When you land in Bukavu you can’t miss the violence and that the violence is asymmetrically concentrated on women,” Kelly said. “From the moment I first set foot [there], it was the question that interested me most.”

Kelly isn’t alone. The plight of the eastern DRC’s women has grabbed headlines around the world and been discussed in the halls of power. Still, the violence — in the form of rape, mutilation, and sexual slavery — continues. It is an outgrowth of the fighting that has plagued the region since civil war broke out in 1996. Since then, two wars have been fought in the Congo and millions of lives have been lost. Though a peace treaty was signed in 2002, fighting has continued in the vast nation’s eastern border region.

Researchers say some 21 armed groups operate there now, attracted by the region’s wealth in tin, copper, diamonds, and tantalum, a mineral used to make consumer electronics, such as cell phone parts.

Throughout the unrest, the region’s women and girls have been targeted. By one estimate, 200,000 have been raped over the past 12 years. Thousands stream annually into one facility alone — Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. Making matters worse, the assaults often include mutilation and violation with foreign objects, leaving the women broken in body and spirit, and often needing surgery.

“The violence in the Congo is so far beyond the stretch of human imagination in so many ways. … It’s a problem you can’t turn your back on,” Kelly said. “I realized that the stories I’ve heard here would stay with me for the rest of my life, and since they wouldn’t leave me, I couldn’t leave them behind.”

It has been nearly two years since that 2007 trip. Today Kelly, who graduated from HSPH in 2008, has returned to the Congo four times and is the gender-based violence research coordinator for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). HHI is an inter-School program that aims to draw on the strengths of Harvard’s various faculties to better understand the problems of humanitarian relief.

Working with an HHI team, Kelly is conducting mixed-methods research in an effort to not only paint a statistical picture of the violence, but to also flesh out those numbers with the stories of women and men caught up in it.

The research so far has been multipronged, involving a retrospective records review of survivors of sexual assault, a community survey, focus groups of men and women from the region, and most recently, interviews with soldiers from the armed groups responsible for the violence.

The work has begun to reveal the characteristics of the attacks — the majority of women are gang-raped and most are attacked in their homes, at night. Further, it has highlighted the difficulty stigma poses for survivors, who report being forced to leave families and communities after the attacks.

Though working in a conflict zone can be trying, Kelly says it is amazing how many doors open when you simply ask, and how willing people — even armed soldiers — are to tell their stories when you ask how they’re doing.

“Most of us take for granted this membrane of safety that we travel in. I’ve certainly been in places where I feel how thin that membrane is,” Kelly said. “But once you make eye contact with someone and you know how their family died, they’re probably not going to hurt you. People open up their deepest, darkest hurts. It’s not what we ask for, it just happens. Once you connect on a human level, you just don’t feel that unsafe anymore.”

Those who know Kelly describe her as charming and engaging, generous with her work and willing to involve others. But she also has a keen sense of the requirements of the job linked with the persistence needed to get things done in the Congo’s frustrating environment — as well as the street smarts to stay out of trouble while working in a conflict zone.

“She’s aware when the edges of a conversation or the end of a trip may turn out to not be entirely safe,” said HHI co-director Jennifer Leaning, professor of the practice of global health at HSPH. “You never know who you’re going to encounter on the road, and you don’t want to be so far away from support networks that you get trapped.”

HHI’s other co-director, Michael VanRooyen, associate professor of medicine and of public health and director of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Division of International Health and Humanitarian Programs, said Kelly’s tenacity has allowed HHI to look into problems and areas that he didn’t believe they’d be able to reach.

“She gets done what she needs to get done,” VanRooyen said. “That’s particularly [challenging] in a conflict area, where the logistics are very difficult — driving around is difficult; getting interviews is difficult; getting meetings with U.N. officials is difficult. She’s able to get to places that I never expected we’d have gotten.”

Moving between worlds

Kelly began seeing the world outside the United States when she was young. She followed her mother, who worked in the Foreign Service, to Costa Rica, Germany, and Mexico, as well as her family’s home in Virginia.

As she grew, Kelly nurtured twin passions, one for science and a second for writing. She attended Johns Hopkins University, earning a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science and then worked as an editor and reporter for an English-language magazine in Mexico City.

It was during this time that she became frustrated by the arm’s-length nature of journalism. She decided she didn’t want just to observe, she wanted to help. She began volunteering with a doctor who worked in Mexico’s impoverished Chiapas region.

Kelly then returned to the United States, became an emergency medical technician and, after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, traveled there to work on hurricane relief. The experience stunned her.

“I was shocked that lots and lots of people with lots and lots of money and the best intentions can do terrible work — not only be ineffective, but actually do harm,” Kelly said. “It was like common sense had disappeared.”

Kelly came away from the experience feeling that a disaster’s difficult conditions become an excuse for poor work. Further, expectations that things won’t go well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The answer, she concluded, is research, which can improve operations by using past experience to guide future efforts.

“You can bring research to the most chaotic, stressful, and acute situations and do better,” Kelly said. “If you don’t, then situations that are supposed to be acute last for decades like they do [in the Congo].”

After Katrina, Kelly enrolled in a master of science program at HSPH, becoming familiar with HHI’s work through a class taught by Leaning and VanRooyen.

When Kelly returned from her first Congo experience, she had a serendipitous e-mail waiting for her. It announced the beginning of HHI’s collaboration with Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. Kelly immediately responded.

In 2007, she joined HHI’s budding research team and began the records review project at Panzi. The research team eventually expanded its work to include focus groups, surveys, and, most recently, interviews with active militia members.

When she graduated in June 2008, Kelly’s work as a volunteer researcher stopped because HHI had a job waiting for her.

“I had other job offers but stayed in Boston,” Kelly said. “It will remain my dream job. It’s exactly what I want to do.”

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