Sat | Mar 25, 2023

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

Published:Friday | February 3, 2023 | 12:50 AM
Pope Francis caresses a victim of violence in eastern Congo, at the Apostolic Nunciature in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Wednesday.
Pope Francis caresses a victim of violence in eastern Congo, at the Apostolic Nunciature in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Wednesday.


Pope Francis on Wednesday urged Congo’s people to forgive those who committed “inhuman violence” against them, celebrating a Mass for one million people and then hearing firsthand of the atrocities some of them have endured: a teenage girl “raped like an animal” for months; a young man who watched as his father was decapitated; a former sex slave who was forced into cannibalism.

Congolese from the country’s violence-wracked east travelled 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 five 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 UN peacekeeping operation in the world, eastern Congo has been mired in violence since the early 1990s, as rebels and militias 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 Programme.

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 AP 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.