[Editor’s note: The descriptions in this article are graphic]
On February 1, 2023, at the Apostolic Nunciature in Kinshasa, Pope Francis listened to the horrors suffered by the victims of violent conflicts in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Visibly touched by what he had just heard and seen, he denounced the ethnic and economic mechanisms that have plunged this region of the country into an abyss. Without directly mentioning Rwanda or any other actor in the region, he denounced “murderous, illegal exploitation of the wealth of this country, and the attempts to fragment the country in order to control it.”
The rebels chose who they wanted …
“I come from Walikale. I am 17 years old. I started the calvary of suffering in 2020. One day we were going to fetch water from the river. It was in Musenge, in one of the villages of the Territory of Walikale. On the way, we met some rebels. They took us into the forest. Each of the rebels chose who they wanted. The commander wanted me. He raped me like an animal. It was an atrocious suffering. I practically became his wife. He raped me several times a day, as he wanted, for several hours. And this lasted 19 months – 1 year and 7 months.”
Abominable. This is undoubtedly the word to define the testimony that was pronounced before Pope Francis. After telling her story, Bijoux Makumbi Kamala placed a floor mat next to a crucifix as “symbol of [her] misery as a raped woman.”
In the cloth wrapped around the young girl’s body she carried two children, twins, born from one of the rapes she suffered. “May the cross of Christ forgive me and my rapists and lead them to renounce inflicting unnecessary suffering on people,” she said.
One by one, other victims continued to stun the papal delegation gathered in Kinshasa’s Nunciature, as they recounted the barbarity committed by rebel groups in eastern DRC.
We don’t know what they did with her …
Ladislas Kambale Kombi, 16 years old, saw his father murdered before his eyes. “From my hiding place, I followed how they cut him into pieces, then his severed head was placed in a basket. Finally, they left with Mom. They kidnapped her. We were left as orphans, me and my two little sisters. Mom has never come back. We don’t know what they did with her.” Following the example of Bijoux Makumbi Kamala, the young man then placed in front of the crucifix a “machete identical to the one that killed my father.”
In addition to the appalling testimonies there were also shocking images. Two victims with severed hands simply raised their mutilated limbs in deadly silence in front of the Pope.
“We can only weep in silence, for we are left without words”
“We continue to be shocked to hear of the inhumane violence that you have seen with your eyes and personally experienced,” Pope Francis said at the beginning of his speech.
“We can only weep in silence, for we are left without words,” he added, taking care to name one by one the places that “the international media hardly ever mention.” Bunia, Beni-Butembo, Goma, Masisi, Rutshuru, Bukavu, Uvira… so many places in eastern DRC that suffer the horrors of violence and are met with indifference.
“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,” the Pope emphasized. “I am close to you. Your tears are my tears; your pain is my pain.”
He also prayed that all women, especially in the regions of Ituri and North and South Kivu, be respected and protected. “Violence against women and mothers is violence against God himself,” he exclaimed.
Insatiable greed for raw materials and money …
Pope Francis then condemned all “the armed violence, the massacres, the rapes, the destruction and occupation of villages, and the looting of fields and cattle that continue to be perpetrated […] As well as the murderous, illegal exploitation of the wealth of this country, and the attempts to fragment the country in order to control it.”
As in his speech to the country’s authorities the previous day, he did not name the forces operating in the region, saying only that they come from “outside” and “within.”
However, he described the mechanisms that led to the chaos that has forced “millions of people to leave their homes.” He cited “polarizing struggles in which ethnic, territorial and group dynamics intertwine,” “land ownership” issues, “weakness of institutions” or “hatred marked by the blasphemy of violence in the name of a false god.” These all come together to form an explosive mix.
“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. 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 deplored.
After this charge against “all the people” and “all the internal and external organizations that orchestrate war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” the Pope asked them to “ listen to the cry” of the blood of the innocent victims.
“Disarm your heart”
To the victims of these atrocities, the Pope proposed they try “two ways of saying “no” and two ways of saying “yes”.”
First, he asked them to always renounce violence. “All the more so for Christians,” he said. In order to do this you must “disarm your heart” without ceasing to be “indignant in the face of evil” or granting “immunity,” the Pontiff insisted.
Then one must say “no to resignation.” “I once more invite all those living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo not to give up but to commit themselves to building a better future,” he pleaded, urging everyone not to sink into fatalism.
For the Pontiff, it is also possible that two people from enemy ethnic groups can one day get along. “A new future will come about if we see others, whether Tutsi or Hutu, no longer as adversaries or enemies, but as brothers and sisters,” he said, citing the example of these two groups whose clashes have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The 1994 Rwandan genocide resulted in almost a million victims.
Finally, the Pope proposed two “yes” votes for peace. First, the “yes to reconciliation.” He praised the “courage” of the victims present to respond “to evil with good, to hatred with love, to division with reconciliation.”
“Dear friends, only forgiveness can open the door to the future,” the Pope stressed, before proposing the last “decisive “yes”: Yes to hope.”
In his speech, the 86-year-old Pope took the time to remember the Italian Ambassador Luca Attanasio, who was murdered with his driver and military escort in an ambush targeting a convoy of World Food Program vehicles in the North Kivu province. “They were sowers of hope and their sacrifice will not be lost,” he promised.