Cassandra Nelson is no stranger to conflict and crisis, having worked for Mercy Corps in hot spots all over the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Pakistan and Darfur.
But as she spent November in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she was immediately struck by two things: how much violence is still raging there, and how rich the potential is if the country can move beyond it.
"It's a spectacular country," she said, "lush and mountainous and everywhere you look are flowers. One moment you see that vista, and then you turn your head the other direction and see some of the worst human suffering you've seen in your life... you just think how can this all be in one place?"
More than a decade of fighting has claimed at least 5 million lives and left more than a million people displaced, pushed into makeshift camps to seek refuge. The war has caused nearly seven times the number of deaths of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, according to the Portland-based humanitarian group. The worst violence has been in eastern Congo, near Goma, the capital of Nord-Kivu province.
Recently "there's been a real perception that things have stabilized," Nelson said, but "the moment you leave Goma, things have not changed one bit. Every night there are gunfights and people getting killed."
Women and girls in eastern Congo have paid a terrible price.
Rape has become so common "it is almost a fact of life," Nelson said. "They're terrified of it but sometimes I get the sense they think it's unavoidable. It's happened to everyone."
As women go out to collect firewood for light, heat and cooking, they risk attacks by militia in the jungles and sometimes by government soldiers, too, she said. "Out in those woods there are a lot men with guns. It's either rape or it's harassment -- people stealing their wood or beating them."
The conflict has also taken a heavy toll on the environment. A recent UN study estimated that two thirds of the Congo Basin Forest will have disappeared within 30 years if the present rate of deforestation continues. Illegal logging and charcoal production remain a lucrative industry used to finance the ongoing conflict and buy guns for rebel militia groups, Nelson said. The strain on resources is even more severe as desperate people move into new areas and set up camps.
"First they're going out one kilometer and pretty much everyone has picked those," Nelson said. "In some places women go out 14 kilometers. People are literally spending half their day collecting wood."
Mercy Corps is applying a practical solution to address both environmental destruction and women's security -- a fuel efficient stove.
The simple stoves can be made from sand, clay and brick found locally, and they consume less than half the wood of traditional cooking fires. That means women don't have to leave the relative safety of the camps as often.
About 30,000 stoves have been made through the Mercy Corps program and 10,000 distributed this year, Nelson said. Women are also learning to make briquettes from manure and other refuse, which burn more cleanly and are cheaper than charcoal. Besides saving trees, the stoves and briquettes provide a way to earn income for women who make and sell them.
So far Mercy Corps has trained 360 people to pass on the stove building knowledge to more women. "As they go home they take skills back and introduce this method to their villages," Nelson said.
The stoves have generated $160,000 worth of credits in the carbon market from the reduction in carbon emissions, she said. Mercy Corps uses the proceeds to teach women living in camps vocational skills, including animal husbandry, beekeeping and horticulture.
While the country continues to struggle with conflict and corruption, progress is measured in reducing danger and harm.
In the future, she said, "if the violence can ever be brought under control, it is a country with amazing natural resources and so much potential."