KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis on Wednesday urged the Congolese people to forgive those who committed “inhuman violence” against them, celebrating a mass for 1 million people and then hearing firsthand the atrocities some of them endured: a teenage girl ‘raped like an animal’ for months; a young man who saw his father beheaded; a former sex slave who was forced into cannibalism.
Congolese from the violence-ridden east of the country traveled to the capital, 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 by attacks that 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 them offer at the foot of a crucifix a symbol of their pain: the machete used to mutilate and kill, or the straw mat on which they had been raped. When they knelt before him for a blessing, Francis would put his hand on their head, or on the stumps of their arms that remained.
“Your tears are my tears; your pain is my pain,” Francis told them. “To every family bereaved or displaced by the burning of villages and other war crimes, to survivors of sexual violence and to every child and adult injured, I say: I am with you; I want to bring you the caress of God.
The intimate encounter at the Vatican Embassy in Kinshasa was an extraordinary moment of a pastor seeking to console his flock, and a pope seeking to shine the spotlight on what Francis called a “forgotten genocide” that is doing hardly the news. Despite hosting one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations in the world, eastern Congo has been embroiled in violence since the early 1990s, as rebels and militias clash control of a territory rich in minerals.
“What a scandal and what hypocrisy, while people are being raped and killed, while the business that causes this violence and this death continues to thrive!” François spoke of the foreign powers and extractive industries that exploit eastern Congo. “Quite!”
Francis had originally planned to travel to the eastern province of North Kivu, where rebel groups have stepped up attacks over the past year, while his trip was originally scheduled for July.
But after the trip was postponed, the Vatican had to cancel the visit to Goma due to fighting which forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Congo, where already some 26.4 million people are going hungry, according to the World Food Programme.
Instead, people from the East came to Francis and their testimony was heartbreaking.
Ladislas Kambale Kombi, from the Beni region in eastern North Kivu province, told Francis that he saw men in military uniforms behead his father, place his head in a basket and then fly away with his mother. , whom he never saw again.
“At night I can’t sleep,” he says. “It’s hard to understand Congolese such viciousness, such animal-like brutality.”
Bijoux Makumbi Kamala, 17, says she was abducted in 2020 by rebels in Walikale, North Kivu province while she was fetching water. Speaking through a translator, she said she was raped daily by the commander “like an animal”, until she escaped after 19 months.
‘There was no need to scream because no one could hear me or come to my rescue,’ she said, adding that she had given birth to twin girls ‘who will never know their father’ and found solace thanks to the services offered by the Catholic Church.
The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual violence Congolese , 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, said through an interpreter that she was kept as a sex slave for three months when she was 16 by armed men who invaded her village in 2005. She said she was raped daily. by five to ten men who then forced their captives to eat the flesh of the men they had killed, Congolese mixed with animal meat and corn dough.
“It was our food every day; whoever refused them would decapitate them and feed them to us,” she said. M’karhungulu said she finally escaped one day while fetching water.
Although forced cannibalism is not widespread Congolese , 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 a February 1, 2022 attack on a camp for displaced people in Ituri province, on Congo’s northeastern border with Uganda.
“I saw savagery: people being cut up like meat in a butcher’s shop; women disemboweled, men beheaded,” Dhetsina said. As his story was read to Francis, two women stood up in front of the pope and held up the remaining stumps 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 during a Mass in front of the crowd at Kinshasa’s Ndolo airport, where he cited the example of Christ who forgave those who wronged him. betrayed.
“He showed them his wounds because forgiveness comes from wounds,” Francis said. “It arises when our wounds do not leave scars of hate, 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.
About half of Congo’s 105 million people are Catholic, according to the Vatican, which also estimated that one million people were present for Francis’ mass, citing local organizers.
Among the faithful was Clément Konde, who came from Kisantu, a commune in the province of Kongo Central, more than 150 kilometers (95 miles) from Kinshasa. He planned to attend all of Francis’ events this week before the pontiff travels to South Sudan, the second leg of his trip to Africa.
“To my children and to the children who remained 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 a quoted person. It’s Konde, not L’onde. ___
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