Pope Francis has heard the terrible stories of murder and rape from the rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and asked God to comfort them and change the hearts of the perpetrators.
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 symbolising 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 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.
After speaking and putting down their objects, the teenager and the other victims then knelt in front of the pope, who put his hand on their heads and held their hands, each in turn, and blessed them quietly.
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
She said they took her to a forest camp where she was raped every day for three months by up to ten 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.
Francis, who was on the first full day of his visit to Congo and had earlier celebrated mass in front of a million people, responded to these stories with an emotional speech calling for an end to violence and resignation.
“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,” he said.