Pope consoles Congolese victims: ‘Your pain is my pain’

Pope Congo

Gregorio Borgia/AP

Pope Francis caresses a victim of violence in eastern Congo at the Apostolic Nunciature in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Wednesday, February 1, 2023. Francis is on a six-day trip in Congo and South Sudan in hopes of bringing comfort and encouragement to two countries torn by poverty, conflict and what he calls a “colonialist mentality” that has exploited Africa for centuries.

KINSHASA, Congo – Pope Francis on Wednesday urged the people of Congo to forgive those who committed “inhumane violence” against them, celebrated a mass for 1 million people and then heard firsthand about the atrocities some of them have suffered: A young girl “raped like an animal” for months; a young man who watched his father beheaded; a former sex slave who was forced into cannibalism.

Congolese from the country’s violence-stricken east traveled to the capital, Kinshasa, to tell the Pope about the horrific violence they have endured for years as rebel groups attempted to gain territory in the mineral-rich region through attacks that killed more than 5 million have forced people to flee their homes.

Francis sat in silence as one victim after another stepped forward to tell their stories. He watched them offer a symbol of their pain at the foot of a crucifix: the machete with which they had mutilated and killed, or the straw mat on which they had been raped. As they knelt before him in blessing, Francis placed his hand on their heads or on the remaining stumps of their arms.

“Your tears are my tears; your pain is my pain,” Francis told them. “To every family mourning or displaced by village burnings and other war crimes, to 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 for a pastor looking to comfort his flock and for a pope trying to turn the spotlight on what Francis called a “forgotten genocide” that has barely been committed in the news got through. Despite being home to one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations in the world, eastern Congo has descended into violence since the early 1990s as rebels and militias vie for control of mineral-rich areas.

“What a scandal and what hypocrisy when people are being raped and killed while the trade that causes that violence and death continues to thrive!” Francis said of the foreign powers and extractive industries that are exploiting eastern Congo. “Enough!”

Francis had originally planned to visit the eastern province of North Kivu, where attacks by rebel groups have intensified over the past year, when his trip was originally scheduled for July.

But after the trip was postponed, the Vatican was forced to cancel the visit to Goma due to fighting that has forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes and exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in Congo, where some 26.4 million are already said to be there People starving the world food program.

Instead, Easterners came to Francis, and their testimony was heartbreaking.

Ladislas Kambale Kombi, from the Beni region of eastern North Kivu province, told Francis he saw men in military uniforms beheading his father, putting his head in a basket and then fleeing with his mother, whom he never saw again.

“I can’t sleep at night,” he says. “It’s hard to understand such malice, such almost animal brutality.”

Bijoux Makumbi Kamala, 17, said she was kidnapped by rebels in Walikale, North Kivu province, in 2020 while she was fetching water. Through a translator, she said she was raped daily by the commander “like an animal” until she escaped 19 months later.

“It was useless to scream because no one could hear me or come to my aid,” she said, adding that she gave birth to twin girls “who will never know their father” and comfort through the services of the Catholic Church have found.

The Associated Press does not typically identify victims of sexual violence, but those who told Francis their stories publicly provided their names at the beginning of their testimony.

Emelda M’karhungulu, from a village near Bukavu in Congo’s South Kivu province, recounted through a translator that she was kept as a sex slave for three months when she was 16 years old by gunmen 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 killed mixed with animal meat and corn paste.

“That was our meal every day; whoever refused would behead them and feed them to us,” she said. M’karhungulu said she escaped while fetching water one day.

Although forced cannibalism is known not to be widespread, the United Nations and human rights groups documented how it was used as a weapon of war in parts of eastern Congo in the early 2000s.

A statement prepared months ago by Désiré Dhetsina was read out on his behalf; Dhetsina disappeared after surviving a February 1, 2022 attack on a camp for internally displaced people in Ituri province on Congo’s northeastern border with Uganda.

“I’ve seen savagery: people butchered like meat in a butcher’s shop; Women disemboweled, men decapitated,” Dhetsina reported. As Francis was read his story, two women stood in front of the Pope and raised the stumps of their mutilated arms in the air.

Francis condemned the violence and urged Congolese victims to use their pain for good to sow peace and reconciliation. It was a message he also brought to the crowd at a mass at Kinshasa’s Ndolo Airport earlier in the day, where he cited the example of Christ in forgiving those who betrayed him.

“He showed them his wounds because forgiveness is born of wounds,” Francis said. “It comes when our wounds do not leave scars of hate, but become a means by which we make way for others and accept their weaknesses. Our weakness becomes an opportunity and forgiveness becomes the path to peace.”

About half of Congo’s 105 million people are Catholic, according to the Vatican, which, citing local organizers, estimated 1 million people were in attendance for Francis’ mass.

Among the faithful was Clément Konde, who had traveled from Kisantu, a city in central Congo province more than 150 kilometers from Kinshasa. He planned to attend all of Francis’ events this week before the pope leaves for South Sudan, the second leg of his African journey.

“To my children and to the children who stayed in my city, I will take the Holy Father’s message, the message of peace and reconciliation,” Konde said.

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