top of page

Bodies of 2 U.N. Researchers Are Found in a Shallow Grave in Congo

Michael Sharp visited Elizabeth Namavu and children in Mubimbi Camp, home to displaced persons in the Democratic Republic of Congo, during his time in the country. When he was killed, he was part of a U.N. mission. (Jana Asenbrennerova/Courtesy of MCC)

UNITED NATIONS — In a village nestled in clouds in the thickly wooded hills of eastern Congo, Michael Sharp, a slight, bespectacled Mennonite from Kansas, looked perfectly at ease.

That is how I remember him from a reporting trip to a village called Kigogo on a Monday in June 2014. He had been in the Democratic Republic of Congo for two years, and he was trying to persuade militia members to put down their guns. He accompanied me into a hut to meet the commander of the notorious Rwandan militia known as the F.D.L.R., blamed for the Rwandan genocide. I suspect the only reason the commander tolerated my questions was that he trusted Mr. Sharp.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Sharp vanished, along with a colleague, Zaida Catalan, a Swede, both members of a Group of Experts, appointed by the United NationsSecurity Council, as they went to investigate a relatively new rebellion that is still poorly understood in the Kasai-Central Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On Tuesday night, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres,confirmed their deaths, promising an inquiry and nudging the Congolese authorities to “conduct a full investigation into this incident.” Mr. Guterres also urged the government “to continue the search for the four Congolese nationals who accompanied our colleagues.”

They were also reported missing on March 12, alongside the two expatriates, whose bodies were found in a shallow grave on Monday.

Mr. Sharp and Ms. Catalan were described as professionals with extensive experience in tough places.

Mr. Sharp, 34, had been in Congo for five years, with an enviable network of rebel commanders and local leaders, most of whom he had met in church. “Michael told me one time: ‘Rebels go to church. You build a relationship with them there,’” said Rachel Sweet, a researcher who knew him.

Ms. Catalan, 36, had worked in Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Kabul, Afghanistan, before taking up the post with the Group of Experts, according to her LinkedIn profile. She had been a Green Party politician in Sweden before that.

She was not shy about speaking out.

Brian Palmer, a friend who had invited her to speak to his class at Uppsala University, where he teaches, described her as an exuberant person who candidly spoke about the United Nations’ limitations.

“She was not at all shy to talk about difficult questions,” he said. “She had come to see the people that she was trying to help as her equals and her friends and had very much loyalty to them.”

The two, accompanied by an interpreter and drivers, all Congolese, had gone to a part of Kasai-Central Province in early March to investigate the fighting there, which pitted the Congolese Army against an array of rebel factions.

They traveled by motorcycle, the only way to navigate the area. Going with United Nations peacekeepers would not have been a good idea because they are not always trusted by gunmen.

“They were doing what we’ve all done,” said Jason Stearns, a former member of the Group of Experts who now runs the Congo Research Group at New York University. “Getting a couple of motorcycle guys, getting an interpreter. And they trekked out to rebel territory, which Michael has done so many times, hundreds of times probably.”

The experts are not everyone’s friends. They uncover inconvenient facts about people committing crimes, and higher-ups helping them. In their previous reports, the experts had implicated some military officials in wrongdoing. The part of Kasai-Central Province they had traveled to had lately been littered with suspected mass graves, and the Congolese Army was blamed for some of them.

There were reports of children being conscripted to fight. Ms. Catalan was responsible for investigating child soldiers, among other things. Mr. Sharp was the coordinator of the panel.

Mr. Stearns said Mr. Sharp was also a gadget nerd. His laptop was secured by an iris scan — his own. His watch tracked his exact location, but did not emit signals for others to locate him.

Mr. Sharp was known to be a stickler in his investigations. Mr. Stearns described him as “dispassionately passionate,” devoted to his work but not given to displaying his emotions.

And so, like many people who work in conflict zones — doctors who run field clinics, journalists who bounce from one heartbreaking story to another, aid workers who live abroad — Mr. Stearns said he never really asked Mr. Sharp why he did what he did, including all those years when he was working for the Mennonites, for no pay.

“He was a very hard-nosed truth seeker and would go the extra mile to nail down the evidence,” said Willet Weeks, a senior adviser on eastern Congo to the State Department. “He had tremendous empathy, even for some of the nastiest people he worked with.”

Mr. Sharp’s father, John, said in a telephone interview that his son’s work had been rooted in his faith. “From early on he caught a passion for peacemaking and peace-building in the world.”

Ms. Catalan changed her Facebook picture last November. In the photograph, she is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with a red backpack strapped to her shoulders. She is smiling at the camera, from the back of a motorcycle taxi, common throughout Congo.

On Tuesday evening, there was a candlelight vigil for the two in Goma, the town in eastern Congo where they were both based.


(c) 2017 The New York Times

Follow Genocide Watch for more updates:

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey YouTube Icon
bottom of page