“Michael Sharp was standard deviations above the norm when it came to integrity and compassion.”
These are the words of Rachel Sweet, a researcher in the Congo who had known and worked with Michael since 2013.
Goma yesterday: In Memorian of Zaida Catalan & Michael Sharp. Their memories will live on & inspire our efforts for peace & justice in DRC. pic.twitter.com/rw3v4HctLB
— Amb. Maria Håkansson (@HakanssonMariaC) April 6, 2017
The Washington Post reports that 34-year-old Michael Sharp was killed last month in Congo. His remains were found in a shallow grave, together with those of a colleague.
To those people who knew Michael, the most crushing aspect of his death is the unfairness of it all. Michael, together with a local interpreter and a Swedish colleague, were captured then killed by unknown assailants.
According to Rachel, Michael cared deeply about everyone and saw no difference between people of different nationalities. For three years he volunteered for the Mennonite Central Committee in Congo, receiving just a small monthly stipend.
“He refused to eat anything other than beans and rice because that’s what everyone around him was being served. Michael was courageous but not reckless. What happened to him is not because he didn’t follow protocol. He was the opposite of a war junkie.”
Michael’s specialty was conflict mediation, and at the beginning of the year, a relatively new war brought him and his colleagues to the Kasai region. Since the Kamuina Nsapu’s leader was killed in August, 2016, fighting has raged between the tribal militia and government forces.
— Jared Kline (@WHSVJared) April 12, 2017
Just last month a convoy of police officers was ambushed, with 42 officers being beheaded by the militia: six people were spared because they belong to the Luba, which is the same ethnic group as the militia. Sadly, peace seems a long way off and violence continues to rise. Since August more than 400 people have died, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes.
Michael was so successful with his conflict mediation methods that he had impressed many people, especially with how he gained the trust of eastern Congo’s rebel leaders in the three years he worked with the Mennonite Central Committee. In fact, he was so successful that he was hired by the United Nations Group of Experts to investigate the violence in Kasai. At 34-years-old, Michael was the youngest person to hold the position of Coordinator of the Investigating Panel.
After their first trip to Kasai, Michael Sharp and his Swedish colleague, Zaida Catalan, had already planned to return in March to investigate massacres of unarmed civilians by government forces, to document the militia’s alleged use of child soldiers, and to seek dialog with stakeholders such as religious figures, militia leaders, and civil society groups in an attempt to promote peaceful solutions.
In the company of four Congolese, they traveled south from Kananga through the bush on motorcycles on their return trip. Then, on March 12, Michael and his team went missing in Congo; which was unique inasmuch as it was the first time that United Nations experts had been reported missing in Congo.
It was only the following Monday that Michael’s body, and that of his Swedish colleague, were discovered in a shallow grave, while the Congolese who were accompanying them are still missing.
Speaking from his home in rural Kansas, Michael’s father, John, said it was their Mennonite faith that encouraged Michael’s devotion to peacemaking.
“We teach that violence solves nothing, as history proves. 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.”
— The House of Kongo (@MvembaDizolele) April 2, 2017
Jim Swan is the former United States Ambassador to Congo, and he conveyed the following message to Michael’s parents.
“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.”
While the United Nations will conduct its own inquiry, it has also urged the Congolese government to conduct a full investigation into the tragedy.
In the meantime, Rachel Sweet and Michael’s family, friends, and colleagues attended a candlelight vigil last Tuesday in the city of Goma, where both she and Michael were based.
“I spoke with one of Michael’s Congolese colleagues yesterday and he told me, ‘Michael was my boss. But he was also my brother.'”
NPR reported that Michael Sharp risked his life over and over again to help make peace.
Michael Sharp was a man who believed in the power of persuasion. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Michael would walk unarmed deep into rebel-held territory, sit with rebels in the shade of banana trees and exchange stories.
Michael understood that the rebels had a very clear vision of their country’s past, and they used this vision to justify their own violence. It was this understanding that allowed Michael to walk out of the jungle unscathed. He was able to connect with the rebels in a way that very few people have ever done before, and after every trip, he would be followed, perhaps days later, by rebels who’d decided to give up the fight and surrender. Michael’s own estimation is that his team persuaded at least 1,600 rebels to leave the jungle and come home.
It was just three weeks ago that Michael entered rebel-held territory for the last time. At this point in time, he wasn’t working for the church group because it had lost its funding: he was working for the United Nations Security Council Group of Experts and was investigating a rebellion in the Kansai Central Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. And this time was no different: he entered the jungle together with his interpreter and their motorbike drivers.
Michael Sharp was a man of determination, but also a man of optimism and extreme kindness. He had the very rare ability of being able to engage in dialog with violent people who see the world so differently to others.
Michael approached the violent rebels by showing that he understood their worldview of the past. He believed the rebels were nostalgic for a mythical home and were trying to rewind history to a time that never actually existed in the first place.
The fantasy of the Congolese rebels was for an era that only existed in their imagination, an era when they ruled neighboring Rwanda and killed their ethnic enemies with impunity. Michael acknowledged their violent ethnic fantasy, and in fact, he completely understood the psychology behind it. In his opinion, someone who dreams so deeply of home is deeply homesick, and it was this homesickness that Michael and his colleagues were trying to capitalize on.
— BCNN1 (@bcnn1) April 2, 2017
Emmanuelle Kambale was one of Michael’s colleagues, and he explained the message Michael delivered to older rebels.
“‘You,’ he tells them, ‘you’re over 50 years old, it’s too late for you to take over Rwanda. But your children are growing up uneducated in the bush. Don’t you see that your children, who are the future of Rwanda, when they go back they’ll be the slaves of those who are there! Because they are illiterate!'”
He used the word “slave” deliberately because there can be no greater terror for those who dream of ethnic domination.
Michael wasn’t naive enough to believe that simply sharing stories under the shade of banana trees would resolve the ongoing 20-year conflict, but he did believe that the war would never end without someone instigating those very important conversations.
Well done, Michael Sharp. Rest in peace.
[Featured Image by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images]