It took years for Marie Louise Wambale and her three kids to re-establish her life after fighting between M23 and the Congolese army forced her to flee with almost nothing more than a decade ago.
Like most Catholics in eastern Congo, the 42 years old woman hoped that Pope Francis could bring a message of hope at a time when the M23 rebels are posing their greatest threat here since 2012.
“For his arrival we expect a message of peace, of hope, because he has always said, no matter how difficult life is we must keep the faith and we must keep the hope,” she said seated outside her house in Goma.
The Pope’s long-awaited visit to Congo and South Sudan next week comes after he postponed an earlier trip late last year.
Francis is due to arrive in the Congolese capital Kinshasa on Jan. 31 for a three-day visit.
When it was originally scheduled for July, the trip was supposed to include a stop in Goma, the capital of North Kivu.
The Vatican scrapped that leg of the trip, amid a new wave of attacks in parts of North Kivu.
“Many people were disappointed because they wanted to welcome him to our home, for him to come here and live our suffering, to feel it with his own eyes,” said Wambale.
“There are pregnant mothers who gave birth in the camps in very bad conditions _ many women and children are suffering.”
Now Wambale has been tasked with taking this message to Kinshasa, where she will be among the Congolese faithful chosen to personally meet Pope Francis, who will meet with some residents from the east and victims of the conflict.
Violence has wracked eastern Congo for decades as more than 120 armed groups and self-defense militias fight for land and power.
Nearly 6 million people are internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands are facing extreme food insecurity, according to the United Nations.
Fighting spiked in late 2021 with the resurgence of the M23 rebel group, which had been largely dormant for nearly a decade.
The rebels have captured swaths of land and are accused by the United Nations and rights groups of committing atrocities against civilians.
“I fled the war and I found myself in a mess, I lost almost everything” Wambale, who fled from Rutshuru about 10 years ago explained “life changes completely.”
Eastern Congo is also increasingly grappling with violence linked to Islamic militants. Earlier this month, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for killing at least 14 people and injuring dozens from a bomb that detonated inside a church while people were praying.
Vatican’s ambassador to Congo, Archbishop Ettore Balestrero said, adding that with the visit of Pope Francis the church is trying to “change the narrative and to say: this is not an enduring problem, this is a moral urgency and a moral urgency that we cannot neglect….we cannot forget.”
An estimated 2 million Congolese are expected at the Mass at Kinshasa airport on February 1, which Balestrero said would make it the largest crowd event in Congo's recent history.