In a moving encounter with Pope Francis, children from eastern Congo laid down the machetes and knives used to kill their families at the foot of Christ’s cross to symbolize their forgiveness.

“I place before the cross of Christ the Victor the same knife as the one that killed all the members of my family,” Léonie Matumaini from Mbau elementary school told the pope on Feb. 1.

The child’s heartbreaking witness on the pope’s second day in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa served as a shocking reminder of the horrors taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s conflict-ridden eastern region.

It was one of several wrenching testimonies the pope heard during his encounter with victims of the violence. He told them afterward their stories had left him “without words.”

Ladislas Kambale Kombi, a 16-year-old boy from Butembo-Beniu, became emotional as he shared with the pope how he witnessed men cut off his father’s head on the day that he became an orphan.

“Holy Father, it is horrible to see such a scene. It never leaves me. At night I can’t sleep. It’s hard to understand such wickedness, this almost animal brutality,” the young boy said.

“Following the spiritual and psychosocial accompaniment of our local Church, I and the other children who are here have forgiven our captors. That’s why I place before the cross of Christ the Victor the same machete as the one that killed my father.”

After sharing their stories, Matumaini, Kombi, and one other child — who had been kidnapped for nine months — knelt before the pope, who placed his hand on their heads and prayed. The machete and knife remained on the floor below a large crucifix.

Bijoux Mukumbi Kamala, a 17-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped for one year and seven months after being captured by rebels in Goma in 2020, brought the pope her twin girls, conceived in rape, for a blessing. 

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She placed a mat, “a symbol of my misery as a raped woman,” under the crucifix “so that Christ will forgive me for the condemnations I have made in my heart against these men.” 

“May God forgive us all and teach us respect for human life,” she said in her testimony.

“Your Holiness, with the presence of dozens of armed groups, the killings have intensified everywhere, families have been displaced several times, children have been left without parents, they have been exploited in the mines or rather in the rebel armies; the girls and women began the ordeal of sexual assaults of all kinds and nameless torture,” Kamala wrote in a testimony read aloud by another woman in French.

“Your Holiness, in all of this the Church remains the only refuge that heals our wounds and consoles our hearts through its multiple services of support and comfort: the parishes and the services of the diocesan Caritas remain our places of recourse and help. Your presence, Your Holiness, reassures us that the whole Church takes care of us. Thank you so much for coming.”

Violence in eastern DRC has created a severe humanitarian crisis with more than 5.5 million people displaced from their homes, the third-highest number of internally displaced people in the world.

More than 120 armed groups are fighting for control of the eastern Congo, a region rich with natural resources. In recent months, the M23 rebel group has experienced a resurgence. The U.N. reported that the M23 executed 131 people in November “as part of a campaign of murders, rapes, kidnappings, and looting against two villages.”

An affiliate of the Islamic State is also present in eastern Congo, known locally as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Two weeks before the pope’s trip, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing at a Protestant church service that killed 14 people.

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After listening to six testimonies, Pope Francis addressed the victims of violence gathered in the apostolic nunciature in Kinshasa.

“Thank you for these testimonies. We continue to be shocked to hear of the inhumane violence that you have seen with your eyes and personally experienced. We are left without words; we can only weep in silence,” the pope said.

“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. He gazes upon you with tenderness and compassion,” he said.

“While the violent treat you as pawns, our heavenly Father sees your dignity, and to each of you he says: ‘You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you’” (Is 43:4).

A previously scheduled visit to the city of Goma, a city in eastern Congo, was cut from the pope’s itinerary due to the ongoing violence after his trip to the DRC was postponed for six months in July.

Pope Francis said that his heart is in the eastern Congo after he listened to the stories.

The pope also strongly denounced the violent atrocities committed and urged the entire Congolese people to “demilitarize” their hearts.

“In the name of Jesus, who forgave those who pierced his hands and feet with nails, hanging him upon a cross, I ask everyone: Please disarm your heart,” he said.

The pope urged people to forgive, reminding them that “the cross was itself an instrument of torture and death, the most terrible in use at the time of Jesus, yet, transformed by his love, it has become a universal means of reconciliation, a tree of life.”

“With Jesus, hope is born and constantly reborn: for those who have endured evil, and even those who perpetrated it,” Francis said.

“May Jesus, our brother, the God of reconciliation who planted the tree of life of the cross in the heart of the darkness of sin and suffering, the God of hope who believes in you, in your country and in your future, bless you and comfort you. May he pour out his peace into your hearts, your families, and upon the entire Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he said.

At the end of the emotional meeting, those in attendance committed to forgive, praying together: “Today we place the instruments of our suffering under the cross of your Son.”