Remembering Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan: UN experts murdered in the DRC

On March 28, the United Nations made a grim confirmation.

The two bodies found near Kananga, the capital city of Lulua Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, were those of American Michael Sharp and Swedish-Chilean Zaida Catalan.

The pair had been investigating suspected violations of a UN-enforced arms embargo and human rights abuses near the village of Bunkonde in the Congo’s Kasai-Central region when, on March 12, they were abducted alongside their interpreter Betu Tshintela and three drivers by anti-government insurgents.

In April, the DRC government presented the UN with a grisly video depicting their murder, intending to prove that it had played no part in their deaths.

The footage shows both Sharp and Catalan sitting on the ground in nondescript bushland, surrounded by a group of at least 7 men, some with red headbands commonly worn by the local Kamuina Nsapu militia.

Since July of last year, this group has been engaged in a violent uprising that has claimed the lives of at least 400 people.

After a brief exchange of words between the men, Michael Sharp and then Zaida Catalan are shot. Catalan is subsequently beheaded.

Zaida Catalan and Michael Sharp were acting as UN investigators in the DRC when they went missing in March. Source: HRW

Michael was kind, optimistic, and committed to peace
Michael Sharp was a man who had dedicated his life to bringing peace to a troubled part of the world often forgotten by the general public.

In 2010, he had been awarded a Masters of Arts in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution from Philipp University in Marburg, Germany. Two years later, the devout Mennonite would become an Eastern Congo Coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee.

“Places of intense conflict are also places where creative solutions are born and put to the test,” he said in 2013. “If Jesus’ example is for everyone everywhere, what does that look like in eastern Congo, where war has been the norm for 20 years?”

Gregory Warner, NPR’s East Africa correspondent, met Sharp by chance in January 2015 on a commuter boat on Lake Kivu, which separates the DRC from Rwanda.

“I was struck not only by his optimism and kindness but by his determination, increasingly rare today, to engage in dialogue with violent people who perceive the world so differently from how he did,” Warner wrote in a recent memorial piece.

“[His] particular calling was in… persuading rebels to surrender, but he believed his approach could be applied to other violent groups, from ISIS to neo-Nazis, that rely on myths to recruit members and sustain themselves.”

The 34-year-old Kansan had been assisting a peace and reconciliation program run by the Congolese Protestant Council of Churches, a program which had lost its funding when Warner met Sharp on Lake Kivu.

Michael Sharp visits a family in Mubimbi Camp, home to the many people displaced by conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Source: Jana Asenbrennerova/ Courtesy of MCC

With a mere $12,000 monthly budget, Sharp made multiple trips into Congolese jungle to negotiate with the fighters that hid there.

“With the round face and a penchant for plaid shirts, [he] would walk, unarmed, deep into rebel-held territory in the Democratic Republic of Congo, sit in the shade of banana trees with rebels and exchange stories,” Warner recounted.

“Michael’s deep understanding of how these rebels saw their country’s past, the mythical version of that past that they used to justify their own violence, allowed him to emerge from the jungle each time unscathed. And it enabled him, and his Congolese colleagues, to connect with rebels in a way few others managed to do.

“After every trip, the team of church workers would be followed, days later, by rebels who had been persuaded to surrender and give up the fight.

“By his count, Michael’s team persuaded at least 1,600 rebels to abandon the jungle and come home.”

Despite his best efforts, including a passionate attempt to secure the help of special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa Russ Feingold, Sharp was unable to secure fresh financing for the initiative.

In April 2015, he became a Coordinator and Armed Groups Expert for the UN Group of Experts on the DRC, a position which he held until his death.

Activist, politician, lawyer, UN expert: Zaida was a true “role model”
Much like Sharp, Zaida Catalan spent a long portion of her life fighting for a range of issues.

Born in Stockholm in 1980, Catalan was raised by her Swedish mother and Chilean father, a man who escaped Augusto Pinochet’s violent regime as a refugee in 1975.

By the time she attained a Masters of Law from Stockholm University in 2005, Catalan had already worked as an activist for animal rights for four years and become a spirited leader of the Young Greens of Sweden, a youth wing of the nation’s Green Party.

Zaida Catalan was a leader of the Young Greens of Sweden for over four years. Source: The Local

Green Party spokespeople Isabella Lövin and Gustav Fridolin had worked with Catalan around this time and described her as a genuine “role model”.

“She was a person who not only talked about making the world better, but put down her soul to really do it,” Ms Lövin said. 

“A very bright memory is when she came to visit a school where I worked as a teacher,” Mr Fridolin recounted.

That was before the European elections in 2009.”

“She had something special, it was as if the commitment she had appeared outside and infected all students.”

In 2010, Catalan resigned from her position as a legal adviser for the Green Party’s parliamentary group and began her career for EUPOL, a multifaceted European Union police mission operating in zones of conflict all over the world .

Over the next few years, she would work as an expert in gender, sexual violence and human rights for EUPOL in the DRC, Palestine, and Afghanistan, also acting as an election observer for the 2014 election in the latter country.

In August of last year, at the age of 35, Catalan boarded a plane from New York to Goma in the DRC to assume the role of humanitarian expert for the UN Group of Experts. It was here that she would meet Sharp.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lovfen described Catalan as a woman who had spent much of her life “working tirelessly for peace and justice”.

“[Her mission] gave hope to a country that has long been plagued by violence,” he said, before vowing Sweden would support all investigations into what transpired in the Kasai-Central region.

While her career achievements and dedication to peace and equality are clear, Catalan’s Twitter and Instagram feeds paint an even brighter picture of a young woman who loved to travel and adored nature and black coffee.

With all the tragedy of Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan’s final days, remembering who they were and what they stood for is the most fitting way to honour their lives.

Learn more about Michael Sharp by reading Gregory Warner’s moving memorial piece, this article by the Mennonite World Review and this obituary by Goshen News. Consider contributing to the Michael J Sharp Congo Peace fund.

For more about Zaida Catalan, check out this article by The Local.

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