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"Enough!" to Abuse, Exploitation: Pope in DRC

FILE: Pope Francis (L) blesses a child as he meets with victims of the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the Apostolic Nunciature in Kinshasa, DRC, on February 1, 2023.
FILE: Pope Francis (L) blesses a child as he meets with victims of the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the Apostolic Nunciature in Kinshasa, DRC, on February 1, 2023.

Pope Francis heard harrowing accounts of killings and rapes told by victims of the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday and asked God to console them and to convert the hearts of those who carry out atrocities.

"Your tears are my tears. Your pain is my pain. 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," Pope Francis said.

In a poignant encounter at the Vatican's embassy in the capital Kinshasa, victim after victim told their story to the pontiff before laying down objects symbolizing their suffering, such as a machete or a dagger, before a Christian cross.

They included Ladislas Kambale Kombi, 16, from a village in North Kivu province in the east, who saw his father beheaded and dismembered and his mother kidnapped by militia men, leaving him and two younger sisters alone.

"Holy Father, it's horrible to witness such a scene. It never leaves me. At night, I can't sleep. It's hard to understand such cruelty, such quasi-animal brutality," he told the pope, before laying down a machete at the cross.

Emelda M'karhungulu was among several women who recounted their experiences of sexual violence. She said that in 2005, then aged 16, she was kidnapped by rebels who attacked her village in South Kivu province, and took her to a forest camp where she was raped every day for three months by up to 10 men.

"We want a different future. We want to leave behind us this dark past and be in a position to build a beautiful future. We demand justice and peace," she told the pope, laying down paramilitary clothing like that worn by her kidnappers.

Bijoux Makumbi Kamala, 17, recounted her abduction from her village in North Kivu in 2020 and her 19 months of detention in a rebel camp, during which she was raped every day by a commander until she escaped, pregnant with twins.

Carrying her daughters, one on her front and one on her back, she laid down a small floor mat, a symbol of her past subjugation.

The pope held her hands and those of her daughters as he blessed them.

Appealing to all parties, internal and external, who orchestrate war in Congo in order to plunder the country, he said: "Enough! Stop getting rich at the cost of the poor, stop getting rich from resources and money stained with blood!"

"Yet it is, above all, a war unleashed by an insatiable greed for raw materials and money that fuels a weaponized economy and requires instability and corruption," he said.

"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!" the pope added.

Earlier on Wednesday, the pope celebrated mass. Organizers said that over one million people were there. Some came the day before to claim a spot.

The attendees included Kinshasa residents as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo's president, Felix Tshisekedi, and leading opposition politicians.

Francis wished the crowd peace in Lingala, one of the DRC's four national languages and the everyday language of Kinshasa.

The pope delivered the rest of his homily in Italian, which was translated into the DRC's official language French, in which he urged the faithful "not to give in to divisions."

The 86-year-old pontiff had arrived in the DRC on Tuesday, on the first leg of a six-day trip to Africa that will also include troubled South Sudan.

DRC is Africa's most Catholic country. Official Vatican statistics put the proportion of Catholics in the DRC at 49 percent of the population.

During a speech to politicians and dignitaries in Kinshasa's presidential palace on Tuesday, Francis denounced the "economic colonialism" he suggested had wreaked lasting damage in the DRC.

"This country, massively plundered, has not benefited adequately from its immense resources," he said, to applause.

The Argentine pontiff, in his speech in Kinshasa on Tuesday, urged the need to address the conflict and said he supported regional peace efforts.

Francis also underlined the need for investment in education, and free-and-fair elections, among other issues.

On Friday, the pope travels to South Sudan's capital Juba.

This visit is Francis's 40th foreign trip since being elected in 2013.

This report was compiled from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.