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A Fresh Look Back at Two UN Deaths in the Congo

Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán in a UN conference room in New York City, date unknown. The two UN investigators were murdered in 2017 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and their deaths have never been fully solved. Zobel Behalal, nameplate above, was also a member of the UN experts group working in the country. A new book by an American journalist scrutinizes the fallout from the killings.

Nearly five years after the murder of two United Nations investigators in a rough and lonely patch of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, their lives and their deaths have become a metaphor for the extraordinary challenges faced by the UN and other international actors promoting peace in the world’s most forlorn and unsavory spots.

The slain investigators, an American named Michael Sharp, 34, known as MJ, and a Chilean-born Swede, Zaida Catalán, 36, were members of a UN Security Council expert panel charged with ensuring compliance with Council resolutions targeting the seemingly endless cycle of violence in Congo.

A new book looking into the fallout from the killings, which happened on March 12, 2017, finds that multiple inquiries have yet to conclude whether antigovernment rebels or government soldiers pulled the trigger. While dozens of suspects have been identified, charged and detained, others have been let go or have escaped, while others have died in jail.

A trial in a military court finally concluded on Jan. 29, handing out 49 death sentences, which amount to life imprisonment in today’s Congo, due to a 2003 moratorium on the death penalty. Additionally, one officer was sentenced to 10 years for violating orders and two were acquitted.

But despite the verdict in the trial, which began nearly five years ago, “there are still more questions than answers,” Thomas Fessy, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Congo, tweeted after the verdicts. “The investigation and ultimately this trial have failed to uncover the full truth about what happened. Congolese authorities, with UN support, should now investigate the critical role that senior officials may have played in the murders.”

The book, “Disarmed,” by an Indiana-based journalist, Marshall King, focuses on some of the key individuals and events that shaped the pair’s lives — and led to their deaths. (Footnotes: King crossed paths with MJ Sharp from time to time as the two followed paths with strong ties to the Mennonite church. And we have known the author since his start in journalism, in Washington, in the 1980s.)

While nothing like closure has been reached, a bright side to the story can be discerned, King writes, citing the views of Julie Jolles, a State Department political adviser to the US mission to the UN who knew MJ from Jolles’s own work.

After the murders, Jolles said she had “very low expectations that anyone would ever be held accountable or that we would ever know what happened, [but she] was, happily, proven wrong,” King writes.

Among the “successes” that have emerged to date, Jolles decided: MJ and Zaida’s bodies were found within weeks, and a cellphone video mysteriously surfaced that captured their deaths for the world to see. The UN created a special mechanism to examine the killings, the international community provided sustained support for the series of public and private investigations that followed and the Congolese government changed in ways in response to the events.

“MJ didn’t wear a cape or spin webs,” King concludes. “He didn’t become a millionaire as some thought he would. He didn’t bring peace to the DRC. Yet he used his amazing intellect, quick wit and passion to make the world better. He saved lives with his words and actions because he was willing to listen first.”

The book looks at the life of Sharp, a Mennonite.

The book’s strength lies in its portrayal of MJ, a complex individual who, though a devout Mennonite, loved living life in full and had little interest in evangelism even as he sought to model himself, as best he could, after Jesus. He exuded self-confidence, whether interviewing Congolese warlords or coaxing American soldiers toward pacifism, one goal of the Mennonites’ work overseas.

An avid prankster with a passion for fast cars and poker, he also tirelessly promoted nonviolence and aid to those in need. A loyal friend, he also reveled in the dating world, enjoying the fact that women were drawn to his smarts and charisma.

MJ first showed up in the Congo in August 2012 as part of a Mennonite Central Committee team, helping displaced populations and working for peace and reconciliation in war-torn central Africa. His work soon caught the eye of the Security Council’s prestigious Group of Experts for Congo, a panel of six consultants created to monitor the country’s adherence to the dictates of the Council’s various resolutions. The panel is charged with gathering information on the site and formally presenting its findings to the Council back in New York City in semiannual reports.

The panel invited MJ to join it in March 2015, asking him to focus on the Congo’s many armed groups, their financing, their weapons and their various conflicts. In recognition of his skills performing these duties, he was soon elevated to be the group’s coordinator.

Zaida Catalán, an expert on gender and human rights who had previously worked in the Congo training police officers in Goma, was asked to join the panel in 2016. She had worked in Afghanistan and Palestine, at one point learning that a man standing near her in a Kabul police station had hidden a bomb under his clothing.

The bomb detonated, killing the man and several others but leaving her uninjured. She later wrote that she felt she had been given a second chance at life and a better understanding of what people experienced in war zones. A tattoo on her left wrist, “Per aspera ad astra” (Latin for “Through adversity to the stars”), later helped UN peacekeepers identify her body.

Which takes us to March 2017. MJ and Zaida have traveled to the city of Kananga in Kasaï-Central province to organize a visit with leaders of the Kamuina Nsapu rebel group, who are dug in not far from the nearby village of Bunkonde.

The Kasaï region was experiencing a major surge in violence after government soldiers killed a traditional chief who was critical of then-President Joseph Kabila. As many as 5,000 people died in the ensuing fighting, including dozens found buried by UN peacekeepers in shallow graves. But it was unclear whether the local rebels were pushing the wave of killings or the government forces, who had been blaming the rebels.

Officials later speculated that the government might have wanted to get rid of MJ and Zaida to short-circuit UN efforts to examine the mass graves and help fix blame for the dead.

A day before setting off on their mission, on March 11, MJ and Zaida set up a meeting at their Kananga guest house with six local figures in hopes of seeking assurances they could safely visit the Kamuina Nsapu leaders. Zaida secretly recorded the meeting. But it took time for the full details of the meeting to emerge.

At a key moment in the recording, François Muamba, a Kamuina Nsapu leader speaking in Tshiluba, a local language, warns the other men at the table against giving any assurances to the pair of UN experts that they would be safe. “Do not give guarantees. They will be attacked,” he says.

But two other men present, translating Muamba’s words from Tshiluba to French, change that message. They pledge that MJ and Zaida could “go there with no problems.” Both are later identified as having secret ties to Congo’s intelligence service, the Agence Nationale de Renseignements.

One of the two men, Jose Tshibuabua, was later charged with murder, though he denied any role in the killings. He died before a trial could be concluded.

Six weeks after the pair’s murder, on April 24, 2017, a video was unveiled at a government news conference in Kinshasa, the national capital, revealing the killings’ grisly details. Congolese officials said the video had been discovered on an unidentified cellphone and proved that Kamuina Nsapu was responsible for the murders. The video quickly traveled around the world in news reports and on social media. Soon, however, some people following the case began rejecting the government’s claims, suspecting dirty tricks.

“The video became a weapon in the war on truth,” King writes. “Though it revealed some of what happened on March 12, 2017, it didn’t lead to immediate action by the DRC government to find the men in the video. The government reported arrests along the way, but for several years the investigations have moved slowly and often in puzzling directions.”

In the six-minute, 17-second video, MJ and Zaida are seen walking along a dirt path, shoeless and stripped of their belongings. They are accompanied by a group of armed men wearing the characteristic red headband of the Kamuina Nsapu and speaking broken French.

MJ asks the men where they are going and why, and the men reassure the two that they are simply headed toward a meeting with the men’s chief and there is nothing to worry about. Then, speaking in Tshiluba, one of the men urges his colleagues to speak gently to the visitors so they remain calm and don’t run away.

Speaking in French, the men urge MJ and Zaida to sit on the ground and rest for a while. Unbidden, a clearly anxious Zaida tells them she has children, though she doesn’t.

A few minutes pass before one of the men rises and steps away from the group.

“A shotgun fires. MJ crumples to the ground,” King writes. Zaida screams and tries to run away before she too is shot. “After the men killed Zaida, they cut off her head.”

UN and Congolese officials initially hoped MJ and Zaida had just gone missing for a while. But two weeks after their disappearance, a UN peacekeeping team from Uruguay searching the isolated and heavily forested area found their bodies buried side by side in a shallow grave.

Zaida’s head was never found. Also still missing are the four Congolese men — MJ and Zaida’s interpreter and three motorbike drivers — who had been hired to take them to their destination.

Michael King, the author, knew Sharp from the Mennonite community.

Autopsies, conducted in Congo and then in Uganda in the presence of UN and US officials and an FBI agent, concluded that MJ had been shot in the head with a single shotgun blast while Zaida, having tried to run away, was shot in the back.

Over the years that followed, the Congo government regularly pledged to fully cooperate with the UN and the US and Swedish governments to identify the killers and bring them to justice. But it has not fully kept its promises, King writes. “The families continue to call for steps toward justice on the international level.”

When Congolese cooperation began to fall short early in the investigation, American and Swedish officials pressed the UN to conduct its own inquiry. UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed a US diplomat, Greg Starr, to lead a board of inquiry. But the board’s report, according to King, seemed to mostly blame the deaths on various procedural violations by the victims themselves, and it excluded the possibility of a government role. The findings disturbed family members, some foreign journalists working in Congo, some of the pair’s UN colleagues and rights activists who had been following the case.

MJ and Zaida had devoted much of their adult lives to working in extreme risk while promoting peace and dialogue, curbing violence, aiding those displaced by war and protecting human rights. Yet Starr’s inquiry appeared to blame their deaths on their personal carelessness, King writes.

As for the UN’s role in the saga, despite its efforts, much of Congo has remained pretty much the hot mess it has been for centuries: impoverished, unstable and dangerous. Decades of international aid and UN peace-building have been costly but, to put it kindly, have left much to be achieved. The country’s leaders don’t seem to pay a lot of attention to the organization’s advice.

Congo’s troubles, sadly, can be traced as far back as the 1480s, when Portuguese traders arrived on the scene to exploit Congo’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of slaves. Outsiders have unfairly exploited the country ever since. UN peacekeepers were first dispatched to the Congo within a month of its independence from Belgium in June 1960. While that initial force was withdrawn in 1964, a second UN mission, dispatched in 1999, remains in place today as one of the world body’s largest and costliest operations, but with a spotty record of achievement. It is now under review for a possible slow withdrawal.

Waves of internal conflicts since independence have drawn in neighboring countries and spurred the creation of numerous antigovernment militias. While natural resources, including diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, uranium, coltan and oil should have made Congo one of the world’s richest nations, its treasures have been systematically plundered by profiteering outsiders and corrupt insiders, leaving its people poor and politically powerless.

The families, friends and colleagues of MJ and Zaida around the world no doubt saw these bloody deaths in a hidden corner of Congo as a tragic and critical cry for change. But given Congo’s long, tragic history, change may be elusive for some time to come.

This book review has been updated to reflect new developments in a Congolese military court trial regarding the murders.

“Disarmed: The Radical Life and Legacy of Michael ‘MJ’ Sharp,” by Marshall V. King; ISBN: 9781513808338

Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

Deborah Baldwin is a veteran editor and writer, most recently for This Old House; previously, she was an editor for The New York Times, working on the Style section and other parts of the newspaper. She and her husband, Irwin Arieff, wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s.

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