Congolese from the country’s violence-wracked east traveled to the capital of Kinshasa to tell the pope of the horrific violence they suffered for years as rebel groups sought to gain territory in the mineral-rich region through attacks that have forced more than 5 million people to flee their homes.
Francis sat in silence as victim after victim came forward to tell their stories. He watched as they offered up at the foot of a crucifix a symbol of their pain: the machete used to maim and kill, or the straw bed mat on which they had been raped. When they knelt in front of him for a blessing, Francis placed his hand on their heads, or on the stumps of the arms that remained.
“Your tears are my tears; your pain is my pain,” Francis told them. “To every family that grieves or is displaced by the burning of villages and other war crimes, to the survivors of sexual violence and to every injured child and adult, I say: I am with you; I want to bring you God’s caress.”
The intimate encounter at the Vatican Embassy in Kinshasa was an extraordinary moment of a pastor seeking to console his flock, and of a pope seeking to shine a spotlight on what Francis has called a “forgotten genocide” that barely makes the news. Despite being home to one of the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation in the world, eastern Congo has been mired in violence since the early 1990s as rebels and miliitas vie for control of mineral-rich territory.
“What a scandal and what hypocrisy, as people are being raped and killed, while the commerce that causes this violence and death continues to flourish!” Francis said of the foreign powers and extraction industries that are exploiting Congo’s east. “Enough!”
Francis had originally planned to visit the eastern province of North Kivu, where rebel groups have intensified attacks in the past year, when his trip was initially scheduled for July.
But after the trip was rescheduled, the Vatican had to cancel the visit to Goma due to the fighting that has forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Congo, where already some 26.4 million people face hunger, according to the World Food Program.
Instead, residents of the east came to Francis, and their testimony was gut-wrenching.
Ladislas Kambale Kombi, from the Beni area of eastern North Kivu province, told Francis of watching as men in military uniforms decapitated his father, placed his head in a basket and then took off with his mother, whom he never saw again.
“At night, I cannot sleep,” he said. “It is hard to understand such wickedness, such near-animal-like brutality.”
Bijoux Makumbi Kamala, 17, told of being kidnapped in 2020 by rebels in Walikale, in North Kivu province as she went to fetch water. Speaking through a translator, she said she was raped daily by the commander “like an animal,” until she escaped after 19 months.
“It was useless to scream, because no one could hear me or come to my rescue,” she said, adding that she gave birth to twin girls “who will never know their father” and found consolation through services offered by the Catholic Church.
The Associated Press usually does not identify victims of sexual violence, but those who told their stories to Francis gave their names in public at the start of their testimony.
Emelda M’karhungulu, from a village near Bukavu in Congo’s South Kivu province, spoke through a translator of having been kept as a sexual slave for three months at age 16 by armed men who invaded her village in 2005. She said she was raped daily by five to 10 men who then forced their captives to eat the flesh of the men they had killed, mixed with animal meat and maize paste.
“That was our food each day; whoever refused they would behead and would feed them to us,” she said. M’karhungulu said she eventually escaped one day when fetching water.
While forced cannibalism is not known to be widespread, the United Nations and human rights groups documented how it was used as a weapon of war in the early 2000s in parts of eastern Congo.
A statement prepared months ago by Désiré Dhetsina was read aloud on his behalf; Dhetsina disappeared after surviving an attack Feb. 1, 2022, on a camp for internally displaced people in Ituri province, on Congo’s northeastern border with Uganda.
“I saw savagery: People carved up like meat in a butcher shop; women disemboweled, men decapitated,” Dhetsina reported. As his story was read to Francis, two woman stood up in front of the pope and raised into the air the stumps that remained of their mutilated arms.
Francis condemned the violence and urged the Congolese victims to use their pain for good, to sow peace and reconciliation. It was a message he also delivered earlier in the day at a Mass to the throngs at Kinshasa’s Ndolo airport, where he cited the example of Christ who forgave those who betrayed him.
“He showed them his wounds because forgiveness is born from wounds,” Francis said. “It is born when our wounds do not leave scars of hatred, but become the means by which we make room for others and accept their weaknesses. Our weakness becomes an opportunity, and forgiveness becomes the path to peace.”
Roughly half of Congo’s 105 million people are Catholic, according to the Vatican, which also estimated that 1 million people were on hand for Francis’ Mass, citing local organizers.
Among the faithful was Clément Konde, who traveled from Kisantu, a town in the province of Central Kongo, more than 150 kilometers (95 miles) from Kinshasa. He planned to participate in all of Francis’ events this week before the pontiff heads to South Sudan, the second leg of his African journey.
“To my children and to the children who stayed in my city, I will bring them the message of the Holy Father, the message of peace and reconciliation,” Konde said.
This story has been updated to correct the last name of one person quoted. It is Konde, not L’onde. ___
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.