Pope Francis made repeated appeals for peace during his landmark trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo this week, but there was no let-up in fighting in the east.
Putting an end to violence was a dominant theme of the pontiff’s visit to Africa’s largest Catholic country, where he arrived on Tuesday and was to depart for South Sudan on Friday.
Dozens of armed groups have plagued eastern DRC for decades, many of which are a legacy of regional wars that flared in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Since late 2021, the M23 rebel group has also captured swathes of territory in the turbulent region and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.
In a huge open-air mass in the capital Kinshasa, which organisers said drew a million people, Francis urged the faithful not to “give in to divisions”.
The 86-year-old later met victims of the conflict, who recounted horrors of mutilation and rape. He condemned the “inhumane violence” and called for mercy from God.
“May he convert the hearts of those who carry out brutal atrocities, which bring shame upon all humanity,” Francis said.
The message was well received by worshippers, many of whom said they had hoped the pope’s visit would spur peace.
Theoneste Bahati Gakuru, 34, a human rights activist in the eastern city of Goma, said he thought the papal trip had drawn much-needed attention to the violence.
He added that the international community should now “take action to stop this disastrous situation”.
Kathungu Matumaini, a nurse in the eastern city of Beni, said: “We are innocent, we know nothing about politics”. She asked that her “tears and prayers be heard”.
Combat between the M23 and state forces continued during the pope’s visit, while attacks by other armed groups also claimed the lives of civilians in the east.
– ‘Your tears are my tears’ –
On Wednesday in Kinshasa, Pope Francis told conflict victims “your tears are my tears”.
The same day, armed men, suspected to be members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), killed seven people in a village in eastern Ituri province’s Irumu territory.
The ADF, which the Islamic State group claims as its central African affiliate, is one of the deadliest armed groups operating in Congo’s east.
It has been accused of slaughtering thousands of Congolese civilians and carrying out bomb attacks in Uganda.
Jean-Marie Ndjaza, a spokesman for the Lendu community in Ituri, said the pope’s message of rejecting tribalism and violence must be heeded.
“We need to avoid creating more victims,” he said.
Other residents of the east also took succour from the pontiff’s words.
Paulin Mulume, 30, said Francis had breathed hope into the heart of victims.
“The pontiff will be their ambassador,” said the activist in the South Kivu city of Bukavu.
Violence in the area, however, remains routine. This week, the headless body of a five-year-old boy was discovered in the province — the suspected victim of a ritual killing.