Two years have passed since the shooting murders of Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán, independent experts working for the United Nations Security Council in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in March 2017.
Sharp, a 34-year-old American, and Catalán, a 36-year-old Swedish-Chilean, had gone on a mission, without UN escorts, to find information about atrocities in Congo’s Kasaï-Central Province apparently involving government forces and the militia. Sharp specialized in armed groups and Catalán in humanitarian matters. The two were ambushed near the village of Moyo Musuila, and their translator and the three motorbike drivers with them were never found.
The deaths of the UN experts and the Congolese with them have not been fully solved despite an investigation by the UN and lagging efforts by the Congolese government, although fingers have been pointed to local members of the Kamuina Nsapu militia and recently the 2018 arrest of a Congolese army colonel. (Earlier in May, a media report described how several prisoners being tried for the UN experts’ murders escaped from detention.)
In addition, media reports that senior Congolese military and security officials may have been connected to the murders of the UN experts alleged that such information was suppressed by the UN itself. After the murders, the US and Swedish governments each said they were carrying out criminal investigations into the experts’ deaths, but cooperation from the Congolese government has not been totally forthcoming.
The Congolese government released a video allegedly showing the killing of the UN experts by the rebel militia, but it has never been clear how the government obtained the video or whether it was verified. After their deaths, Sharp’s body was flown back to the US, with his casket draped in a UN flag, as requested by his family. Catalán’s Twitter page is still up.
The group of experts that worked on the Congo portfolio with Catalán and Sharp wrote their final report to the UN Security Council in 2017, saying that the assassination of their two colleagues was an “unprecedented event” that “constitutes a deliberate attack against the Security Council and impacted the Group’s ability to fully implement its fieldwork agenda for the present report.”
In a rare interview, Col. Luis Mangini from Montevideo, Uruguay, recently described for PassBlue how his country’s troops in the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo, called Monusco, led the ground search for the missing experts two years ago, under his command. In his office at the Uruguay mission to the UN in New York, Colonel Mangini detailed the difficult few weeks that he and his troops spent with other UN officials searching for Sharp and Catalán in the rough terrain of Kasaï-Central Province, always presuming that they were still alive.
Colonel Mangini left Monusco in May 2017, having worked there for 13 months. Before that, he was a military observer in South Kivu Province in Congo from 2009-2010.
The interview, in Colonel Mangini’s words, has been condensed and edited.
Colonel Mangini: Monusco got a call on March 12, a Sunday, about the disappearance of the two UN experts, Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán, from a woman in an NGO [nongovernmental organization] who had worked with Michael years before. She said she was worried about them. I was located in Goma [eastern Congo], when around midnight I received the notice from Monusco headquarters that the two experts had disappeared. The Uruguay company was closest to where the two UN experts had been last seen, in Kananga [capital of Kasaï-Central Province]. The Uruguayans had been based in Kasaï province since January 2017, totaling about 240 troops, so they knew the terrain there.
The next day, March 13, Monday, the Uruguay company, located in Kananga plus others located in Tshimbulu village, about 60 kilometers east of Kananga, started reconnaissance around the area by air and by road, to get to know the place and the people better. The rest of my personnel in Kasaï remained doing other assigned tasks. They learned that Michael and Zaida had been planning to meet with people in the area. The Uruguay company did air reconnaissance using one helicopter and road recon with cars and six APCs [armored personnel carriers].
The same day, I received a call from New York from someone who was supposed to know Zaida, and from the special representative of Monusco [Maman Sidikou], located in Kinshasa [Congo’s capital], both worried about the situation. No one had any idea where Michael and Zaida had been going. The next day, I received an operation order from the Monusco force commander, who decided that I would be the ground commander of the operation to investigate the disappearance of the two UN experts.
On this day, I also requested more troops — Monusco’s special forces, 70 people from Tanzania who were working in the Congo — and a helicopter under my order, from the Ukraine contingent in the mission.
They all arrived in Kasaï on Thursday, March 16, like me, while my personnel located there continued looking for Michael and Zaida and interviewing people while also doing more reconnaissance by air.
The next day, Friday, we continued planning how to start. We had no idea where the UN experts could be, we had no information — they hadn’t requested UN escorts, of course [on their mission]. The company commander from Uruguay had met them one week before, in Kananga, and asked them what they were doing, their intention, but they said nothing. The commander asked them if they needed help, if they wanted an escort, noting that Kananga is a difficult place, with the Kamuina Nsapu militia there. They use child soldiers as young as 13 years old, and it is impossible to negotiate with the militia. It is unclear how many rebels are there, though there appear to be many leaders around different places.
That Friday, we trained the Monusco special forces [from Tanzania] about the local terrain and the militia’s modus operandum.
The setting was a jungle, so we had to identify places to land helicopters; moreover, local people don’t speak French, only a dialect called Tshiluba, so we had two interpreters in our company who spoke Tshiluba.
We received a lot of help from NGOS that knew Michael but not Zaida. We also got information from Kinshasa and intel from Monusco. We started to create our map, as we had no map of the region. Day by day, we — special forces and the Uruguayan company — focused on one triangle to infiltrate the area and to engage the community, because when outside people show up, people attack you there, so we tried to talk to leaders there. We focused our search thinking that we would find Michael and Zaida alive, paying close attending to whether anybody had seen them walking around. Nobody was saying they were dead. For this reason, I named the operation “Rescue.”
We identified the towns and villages in the area, which was difficult, given the terrain. One village, for example, had only four houses, poor houses. The terrain was savannah, forest and jungle, very hot and humid, more than 35 degrees Celsius [about 95 degrees Fahrenheit].
We went from village to village; we asked everybody what happened. We got information from one person. He said he was a witness to the ambush, which took place on Sunday, March 12; we tried to catch this person, but he ran away immediately because he was afraid.
We continued walking in the villages. Around four days after we began, we identified the house of a leader named Bula-Bula, a suspect in the ambush, located in the village of Moyo Musuila, but the house was empty. We stayed in the village, in the house, using it as a base, continuing our investigation from there. At one point I requested cooperation from the Congolese army and the local police, but I never received help. In fact, they tried to block our movements many times and take control over our patrols and searching planes.
The SRSG [Maman Sidikou] also sent a UN committee there from Monusco — people from civil affairs, security, police, intelligence, transport air, so we did meetings at the UN’s headquarters in Kananga during the search.
After we reached Moyo Musuila village, I decided to keep control of the region by taking care of security with the special forces, while the Uruguayans continued searching on the ground. My countrymen were always walking together in the jungle, digging up shallow graves or places where dirt was recently removed, as they went along with shovels. Villagers bury their dead in the jungle, not in cemeteries. We discovered many bodies, but the Africans’ bodies supposedly turn yellow with age, so we knew they were not the UN experts, who were white. The roads were very bad; the helicopter crew worked with us; the Ukraine crew was excellent.
We continued this way until March 27, two weeks after the disappearances, when a Uruguayan patrol of around 30 officers received an order to search in specific area, based on information from the helicopter crew spotting removed terrain. After the patrol dug up the spot, they discovered the bodies of Michael and Zaida, buried side by side, approximately 80 centimeters deep, together. Zaida didn’t have a head, and it was clear the two victims were white. The patrol called me, and I joined them there. I confirmed they were their bodies — I felt so sad.
The Monusco police arrived and sent the bodies by helicopter to my company in Kananga, who further identified and cleaned the bodies. The Monusco police commissioner was there and he did the work with his personnel. The bodies were sent to their respective countries, America and Sweden.
We continued looking for the head of Zaida. Nobody has found it. In Moyo Musuila, though, people had showed me and some of the UN police a section in the village where rituals were held. Normally, the villagers cut parts of bodies and do rituals with parts of body, hands and heads. I saw one place for rituals, with some seats, some fireplaces.
One month later, the video [released by the government] appeared. People from UN police discovered it and did the analysis of the video, which I saw: it showed very clearly that maybe the same day, Sunday, March 12, an ambush happened. Michael and Zaida were supposed to rent three motorbikes and have one interpreter with them. [The Congolese with them have not been found.]
That morning, March 12, they left Kananga to go northeast to interact with a leader, though that information has never been confirmed, but they were ambushed close to the house of the leader Bula-Bula; both UN experts were seen walking in the village with more than 10 people, who were wearing red bandannas, signifying Kamuina and carrying weapons. Both Michael and Zaida were walking without shoes, according to the video.
The video showed that they were ordered to sit down. Michael was shot first, in his front. Zaida tried to run, but they shot her from behind.
My troops’ work was incredible because they did it in very difficult terrain and extreme weather conditions. They walked many days into the small rivers, sometimes during the night looking with shovels to find shallow graves. During our investigation, we deployed medical clinicians to help them, doctors, to help our troops cope.
This article was updated to include news about prisoners in Congo being tried for the two murders recently escaped prison.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she 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 near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York 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.