On March 30, 2017 the news reported the finding of the bodies of two United Nations workers in eastern Congo. One was Michael Sharp from Kansas in the United States; the other was Zaida Catalán from Sweden. They were members of a U.N. “Group of Experts” who were working on conflict resolution in the long, torturously-twisted conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They had been kidnapped two weeks earlier along with their interpreter and drivers.
Sharp spent three years working with the Mennonite Central Committee in partnership with the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches, meeting with rebel groups, especially the Hutu militia groups who had participated in the Rwandan genocide and then were driven out of Rwanda into Congo. He would travel unarmed and talk with the leaders and fighters. He ate simply, the beans and rice that everyone around him ate. Through his extensive discussions he convinced as many as 1,600 of the fighters to surrender their arms and return home. The mediation effort with the Congolese Council of Churches had been funded by the Norwegian government dried up (to help Syrian refugees), ending the program Sharp was working with.
Sharp was later appointed for the U.N. project, working in the Kasia-Central province where a new rebellion was boiling up. Sharp was appointed coordinator of the group, at 34 the youngest person to be appointed to such a position. Sharp and Catalán headed into the jungle with their interpreter and motorbike drivers and disappeared. Sharp and Catalán’s bodies were found in a shallow grave, but as of this writing nothing had been learned of their Congolese staff.
Sharp believed that without the kind of quiet conversations in which he engaged the rebels, the war in Congo would never end. “He was courageous but not reckless. What happened to him is not because he didn’t follow protocol,” Rachel Sweet, a researcher in Congo, said. “He was the opposite of a war junkie.” Even when we think about people who have done terrible things, connecting with their humanity is vital if the ways to peace are to be found. Sharp gave his life in that risky venture.
John Sharp, Michael’s father, spoke of the peacemaking concern that comes from their shared Mennonite roots: “We teach that violence solves nothing, as history proves.” He believes that his son’s death should not be an excuse to disengage from Congo. “We hope that the U.N. will continue to work for peace in Congo and that the U.S. does not renege on its fees to the U.N. because the Group of Experts is one of the best shots at peace.” U.S. Ambassador Jim Swan said about Sharp, “After all the predatory foreigners who have passed through the Congo over the past few centuries, Michael was someone who genuinely cared, who wanted to understand and learn, and who sought to reach those most difficult to access — not only physically, but psychologically. It’s really sad and — for what it’s worth, unfair — that he was the one taken.”
At a candlelight vigil for Michael Sharp in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, a Congolese peacemaker said, “Michael was my boss, but he was also my brother.”
To read a Washington Post report on Sharp, click here.
To hear an NPR report about Sharp’s work in Congo from 2015, click here.