KINSHASA (Reuters) -Pope Francis heard harrowing accounts from victims of conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday, including rape, amputation, forced cannibalism and sexual slavery, and he condemned the atrocities as war crimes.
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 large wooden crucifix.
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 crucifix.
After speaking and putting down their objects, Kombi 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, 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.
Eastern Congo has been plagued for decades by conflict driven in part by the struggle for control of vast mineral deposits between the government, rebels and foreign invaders, and in part by the fallout from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
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.
She told how her captors mixed human flesh from the victims they killed or maimed and forced captives to eat it.
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, before the crucifix. The pope held her hands and those of her daughters as he blessed them.
Two other young women held up what was left of their upper limbs. One was missing her hands and the left arm of the other was cut off at the elbow.
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.
'MONEY STAINED WITH BLOOD'
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!"
Armed conflict has killed millions of people over the past decades, left 5.7 million people internally displaced and 26 million facing severe hunger in the coming months, according to the United Nations.
The pope spoke of "polarising struggles in which ethnic, territorial and group dynamics intertwine", acknowledging that conflicts over land and weak institutions played a part.
"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!" he said.
During his Mass at an airport in Kinshasa earlier, the pope urged the Congolese people to grant each other a "great amnesty of the heart" and called on any Christians engaged in battle to lay down their arms.
The people of Kinshasa have given the pope one of the most vibrant welcomes of his foreign trips. On his arrival on Tuesday, tens of thousands lined his motorcade route, and at his Mass on Wednesday hundreds of thousands sang and danced.
A papal stop in the eastern city of Goma, foreseen when the trip was originally scheduled for last July, was later scrapped because of a flare-up in violence in the region last year between the M23 rebel group and government troops.
Thursday will be the pope's last full day in Congo, before he departs on Friday for neighbouring South Sudan, another country grappling with conflict and hunger.
(Additional reporting by Paul Lorgerie and Sonia Rolley; Writing by Estelle Shirbon and Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Philippa Fletcher, Alexandra Hudson and Jonathan Oatis)