26 Dec 2013

In DR Congo with Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie is a woman who seems to attract superlatives. “The most beautiful woman in the world”, “the most famous woman in the world” – you name it, someone’s googled it.

So there was something more than a little daunting about spending the best part of a week rubbing shoulders with her.

Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, speaks before a United Nations Security Council meeting on Women and Peace and Security and Sexual Violence in Conflict June 24, 2013 at UN headquarters in New York.  Jolie on Monday criticized UN Security Council powers for their lack of action over wartime rapes, invoking Syria and other conflicts in a surprise speech to the body. Ambassadors from Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain -- bitterly divided over the Syria war -- listened as Jolie said they should "show the determination" to defend the hundreds of thousands of victims of sexual attacks in conflict. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA        (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

I’d first met Ms Jolie at the foreign secretary’s country residence in Chevening, Kent, where they’d drawn up plans for a global campaign to tackle warzone rape. She’d raised the idea of me accompanying the two of them to the Congo to meet some of the millions of women raped during conflict. If I’m honest, I wasn’t sure if a Hollywood A-lister with a hectic film and family schedule would be able to find the time.

But Ms Jolie was as good as her word and a few months later I found myself touching down at Nairobi with her and the ever so slightly star-struck William Hague.

There were many who thought the trip was a kind of vanity project for the pair of them. After interviewing both the film star and the foreign secretary, and watching them at work in the Congo, I’d say their devotion to an atrocity Mr Hague has likened to slavery is heartfelt and genuine.

Ms Jolie had sheaves of paper and took copious notes of every encounter. She asked questions, offered views, and promised to feed back practical suggestions to the UN.

Converting the foreign secretary

She first resolved to campaign against sexual violence in conflict while researching her 2011 film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, which featured gruesome scenes of rape during the Bosnian conflict.

Mr Hague’s Bosnian aide Arminka Helic presented the foreign secretary with a DVD of the film. Having watched it he was immediately converted to the cause.

Hence the trip to the Congo, where both met rape survivors, women at constant risk of attack in the refugee camps, and the courageous surgeon Dr Lusi, whose hospital in Goma admits women so brutally maimed by Congolese and rebel soldiers it makes him despair of humanity.


I didn’t know at the time, as we bumped down volcanic, unmade tracks for hours on end, that Ms Jolie was recovering from a double mastectomy. In retrospect that explains why her attendance on the visit was in some doubt right up to the last minute and why, to my consternation at the time, there appeared to be a question mark over her promise to do a Channel 4 News interview, live from Rwanda. After a gruelling series of operations and back-to-back long-haul flights, she was no doubt exhausted.

But what surprised me most about Ms Jolie was her determination to follow through on her support for the campaign. Back from the Congo, she’s attended a conference with Mr Hague in Whitehall and a UN session on the issue in New York. She’s also due to fly to a global summit hosted by the foreign secretary in London next year.

And while you can be sceptical about the chances of succeeding in ending what Mr Hague has called “a monstrosity of our age”, you can’t help but be impressed by Ms Jolie’s dedication.

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For more on Angelina Jolie and the other winners, losers and influencers of 2013, visit the Channel 4 News big fat graphic of the year

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