A militia from the Kasaï Central Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was “likely” responsible for the murders of the two United Nations experts who were killed in March 2017 in the province, according to a fact-finding report from an independent board assigned by the UN to investigate the deaths.
The board concluded in its summary that the militia that most likely murdered the UN experts — Michael Sharp, a 34-year-old American, and Zaida Catalán, a 36-year-old Swedish-Chilean — probably killed the Congolese translator and three motorcycle drivers traveling with the specialists as well.
The board found a “reasonable likelihood” that the murders were executed by the militia after consulting other local tribal parties.
The board also noted that further investigations and “judicial processes” were needed to fully “ascertain the identity, affiliations and motives” of the people involved in the experts’ deaths, but that the “video-recording leaves no doubt that Mr. Sharp and Ms. Catalán were murdered.”
The report, which was edited by the UN Secretariat from the board’s original version, added that support by UN police to the Congolese government “provided information that led to the identification of the individuals in the video-recording” — that is, the militias.
As to the video, the Congolese government had screened a version of the cellphone recording to media in Kinshasa, the capital, on April 24 that it said showed members of a rebel militia, Kamuina Nsapu, killing the UN experts. The board’s report, however, does not state whether that specific militia committed the murders.
The video appeared to show Sharp and Catalán walking with a group of men wearing red headbands characteristic of the militia. The pair is then seen sitting on the ground and shot. Catalan was also beheaded — an unusual step for a Congolese militia. (The Congolese with the experts have not been located.)
Yet some commentary on the experts’ murders has suggested that the traditional headbands of the Kamuina Nsapu could have been worn to give the impression that the individuals were from that group.
In April, the Congolese government said that it arrested two men linked to the murders but one apparently escaped. The country has long contended with armed militias, and the groups fighting in Kasaï are fractured, eluding firm alliances. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report in August documenting crimes perpetrated against civilians in the region, including extrajudicial and targeted killings. Since January, the UN has identified at least 80 mass graves in the area.
While most of the mass graves have been blamed on the security forces, the Kamuina Nsapu militia has also been accused of killing soldiers, police and government officials and using child soldiers in attacks. Survivors of violence in the region have indicated that Congolese security forces and local officials have sometimes fomented ethnic violence, according to the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.
From the start of the disappearance of Sharp and Catalán, on March 12 in the city of Kananga of Kasaï Central Province, to the discovery of their bodies in a grave weeks later, the murders reverberated across many parts of the world and at the UN, with some blame directed at the latter for possibly not providing enough security to the experts in their treacherous work. At the same time, such experts pride themselves on their independence, an attitude that the UN reinforces to an extent.
Besides fact-finding, the board was asked to evaluate whether UN security had failed to advise and protect the experts adequately and to address other risks that might have been overlooked in their work in the Congo. UN security protocols, for example, prohibit the use of motorcycle taxis, which the experts traveled relied on in Kananga.
The US and Swedish governments are each carrying out criminal investigations into the experts’ deaths, but they are dependent on cooperation from the Congolese government, which at least one diplomat at the UN suggested has not been fully forthcoming.
Sharp, by most accounts, was able at his work as coordinator of the UN group of experts in the Congo, having been appointed by the UN secretary-general in July 2016. The experts are tasked with investigating violations of human rights and international humanitarian law; criminal networks involved in illicit mining of gold; and recruiting child soldiers, among other responsibilities, for the UN Security Council sanctions committee on the Congo.
Sharp, who was from Kansas, was also one of the group’s two armed-group specialists, while Catalán, also appointed in July 2016, was responsible for humanitarian issues.
Their story unfolded on March 8, the report said, when the two arrived in Kananga through a UN flight from Goma, in eastern Congo. The two traveled to Kananga in January 2017, and the main purpose of their March trip was to gather information on armed groups and look into sources of violence in the region and the apparent use of child soldiers in the area’s simmering battles.
On March 11, Sharp and Catalán met with people who said they had connections with the Kamuina Nsapu militia, and it was decided that the experts would go the next day to the town of Bunkonde, in Kasaï Province, to meet the militia leaders.
On the morning of March 12, Sharp and Catalán left their hotel in Kananga to head to Bunkonde, about 56 miles southeast of the city, to further explore what they had been told by the militia. The two were accompanied by a local Congolese translator and three other locals, who drove them on motorbike taxis.
The board was told that the experts and the Congolese with them went through two Congolese military checkpoints (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo or FARDC), and two Kamuina Nsapu checkpoints later. The report says that “sources reported that a militia group gathered near the Moyo River crossing close to the village of Moyo Musuila on the route to Bunkonde and had fired a shotgun to stop the motorbikes, wounding one of the drivers.” (The report does not offer more details on the shooting.)
It goes on to say that before arriving at their destination, the experts and their entourage were accosted by people who appeared to be from a local militia, and it is this militia, the report says, that killed Sharp and Catalán, near Moyo Musuila, about nine miles from Bunkonde. The report based this information on the video of the incident recorded by a militia member (and later obtained by the Congolese authorities).
Relying on information from witnesses, 10 individuals from the video have been identified, but more precise physical or forensic evidence of their involvement in the attack is lacking, the report says.
The government arrested two men who appeared on the video and 10 men who did not appear in the video but are apparently members of the militia. The board was told that “proceedings” against the suspects were being handled in a local military court.
By nightfall on March 12, it was confirmed that Sharp and Catalán had not returned from their trip, and by the next morning, UN “crisis management procedures were activated,” the report says, with the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, called Monusco, searching for the experts in difficult terrain from March 13 to 28.
The bodies of the experts were discovered on March 27 and identified on March 29, when their tragedy surfaced in the international media.
The UN board, which began operating on May 8, was led by Gregory Starr, a former UN Department of Safety and Security chief. The group’s investigation included reviewing reports and records from the UN group of experts and traveling to the Congo for 11 days in June, including to Kinshasa, Goma and Kananga, and interviewing numerous witnesses and Congolese officials — an investigation involving dozens of moving parts requiring extra-sensitive handling and decision-making in a place where things can go wrong quickly.
As part of its mandate, the board made recommendations to address possible UN security gaps that could better ensure experts’ safety in the future, given that they work in high-risk zones. In the Congo case, the board recommended, among other actions: strengthen management of the work of experts, including training, reporting lines and support from field missions.
They also recommend “inclusion of all security aspects of the activities and personnel” of experts into the “mandatory” UN Security Management System — to enable more informed decisions on “acceptable security risks” by experts.
The report was sent to the UN Security Council on Aug. 15 as well as to the families of Sharp and Catalán.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.