By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

KINSHASA, Congo (CNS) — Ladislas set a machete under the crucifix. Bijoux laid a wicker mat there. And Emelda dropped military fatigues.

The three of them and other victims of violence in eastern Congo told Pope Francis horrifying stories of watching their families be slaughtered or of being kidnapped or raped repeatedly by militia members.

Pope Francis had planned to go to Goma in the violence-torn North Kivu province, but increased fighting forced him to cancel the trip to the East to protect the crowds that would gather to see him.

Instead, the pope invited about 40 victims of violence in the East to the apostolic nunciature in Kinshasa Feb. 1.

Ladislas Kambale Kombi, 16, said he watched his father being hacked to pieces with a machete and his mother being kidnapped, leaving him alone with his two little sisters. “Mom hasn’t come back. We don’t know what they did with her.”

Léonie Matumaini, an elementary school student, said she watched militia members stab her family; then, she said, they gave her the knife and dared her to bring it to the army.

Kambale Kakombi Fiston, 13, was kidnapped and held for nine months. He asked the pope to pray for children still captive in the forest.

Bijoux Mukumbi Kamala, holding one toddler and with another strapped to her back, stood in front of the pope as a friend read her testimony because she does not speak French. The 17-year-old said her “Calvary” began in 2020 when rebels kidnapped her.

“The commander chose me. He raped me like an animal. It was an atrocious suffering,” Bijoux wrote. “He raped me several times a day, whenever he wanted, for hours. This went on for 19 months — one year and seven months.”

When she and another young woman escaped, she was pregnant. “I have twin daughters who will never know their father.”

Father Guy-Robert Mandro Deholo read a testimony prepared for the meeting by Désiré Dhetsina “before she disappeared without a trace a couple months ago.”

She had survived the rebel attack Feb. 1, 2022, on the Plaine Savo displacement camp near Bule and, she wrote, she had seen “the savagery: people cut up like butcher’s meat, women disemboweled, men decapitated.”

Maiming is not uncommon, Father Mandro Deholo told the pope, holding up his left hand, which is missing a finger. As he spoke, two women in the audience raised their arms — one was missing a hand, the other was missing both. The priest accompanied the two women up to the pope, who touched their mutilated stumps and laid his hands on their heads in blessing.

On their behalf, the priest laid an axe at the foot of the crucifix placed near the pope.

Emelda M’karhungulu also had a friend read her testimony about what began on a Friday night in 2005 when she was kidnapped by armed men and “kept as a sexual slave and abused for three months.”

“They made us eat maize meal and the flesh of the men they killed,” she said. Those who refused were killed and fed to other hostages.

And, she said, “they kept us naked so we wouldn’t run away.”

“We put under the cross of Christ the clothes of the armed men who still strike fear in us because of the countless heinous and unspeakable acts of violence they continue to this day,” she said. “We want a different future. We want to leave behind this dark past and be able to build a beautiful future. We demand justice and peace.”

The testimonies, Pope Francis said, leave listeners without words. “We can only weep in silence.”

But he did use the meeting to express his closeness to all the people disappointed that he was not traveling to Goma and, especially, to “condemn the armed violence, the massacres, the rapes, the destruction and the looting” that continue to sow terror in the lives of the people of Congo.

“Put away your weapons, put an end to war. Enough,” he told those responsible.

In a country where sexual violence is a common weapon of war, Pope Francis offered special words of consolation to women and girls and strong warnings to those who would target them.

“I pray that women, every woman, may be respected, protected and esteemed,” he said. “Violence against women and mothers is violence against God himself, who from a woman, from a mother, took on our human condition.”

Later the pope welcomed to the nunciature representatives of six Catholic charitable programs working in the country, including programs run by the Focolare Movement and by the Community of Sant’Egidio.

The witness of helping others without expecting anything in return and of working with them to identify real needs and long-lasting solutions is something the nation needs, the pope said.

“Those who are prosperous, especially if they are Christians, are challenged to share what they have with those who lack the bare necessities,” the pope said. “This is not a matter of benevolence, but of justice. It is not philanthropy, but faith. For, as Scripture says, ‘faith without works is dead.'”