Four months after Michael J. Sharp moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012, he joined a small delegation that for six hours climbed a mountain in South Kivu Province to meet a leader of a major armed group.
The meeting was set up specifically so that Sharp, a new Mennonite Central Committee service worker, could talk with the colonel about why refugees from the Rwandan genocide had militarized and roamed the forests of eastern Congo with their families for 20 years.
The group, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, is known for pillaging and burning villages, raping women and fighting other militias, the Congolese army and United Nations forces. By 2012, violence caused by FDLR and other armed groups displaced more than 1.5 million people in the provinces of North and South Kivu.
Sharp, whose last home in the U.S. was Albuquerque, N.M., went to eastern DRC to oversee MCC’s humanitarian response to displaced people. Yet as a peacebuilder at heart — having learned about peace at home, in the Mennonite congregations, schools and universities he attended and in master’s studies in peacekeeping and conflict resolution in Germany — Sharp was keenly interested in stopping the violence that caused the displacement.
His journey toward this goal, which continued in a later role with the U.N., ended in late March when he was kidnapped and killed while on a U.N. fact-finding mission in Kasai Province, in the center of the country.
The men who traveled with Sharp in 2012 had been working on peacebuilding in eastern Congo as staff of MCC’s partner, the Program for Peace and Reconciliation, or PPR, of the Church of Christ in Congo, or ECC. A network of Protestant denominations, ECC was able to establish contact with armed groups because pastors who served in remote areas knew militants who attended their churches or lived nearby.
‘Are they human beings?’
Serge Lungele, then a PPR program officer and now co-facilitator of MCC’s Seed program in DRC, and PPR coordinator Josué Bulambo remember the meeting. Lungele, who became close friends with Sharp in the three years they worked together, recounted how the conversation began.
“Have you ever met an FDLR before?” the colonel asked.
“No,” Sharp said. “This is the first time.”
“What do you see? Are they human beings or animals?”
“I see they are human beings, as we are.”
“This is the message I would like you to transmit to the U.S. and the international community: that FDLR, even if they are living in the bush, are still human beings, and they still need the right to live like other people.”
The colonel’s message about the value of each person fit into Sharp’s own belief system.
Sharp “had a very deep and primary commitment to the idea that if you approach other people as human beings you can work through differences and that reconciliation is possible and desirable,” said Tim Lind, who was MCC’s representative in DRC with his wife, Suzanne, during Sharp’s term of service. The Linds now live in Michigan.
Sharp’s respect for every person he encountered was evident.
“He was so compassionate about people at a level that was deeper than most of us because he didn’t protect himself; he just jumped right in there,” Suzanne Lind said.
Drawn to the children
In the Mubimbi and Shasha camps for displaced people, Sharp worked as a technical adviser with staff of ECC’s humanitarian program. They oversaw a large food distribution and agricultural development response from MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and other MCC-sponsored food projects.
As Sharp interacted with people in the camps, he was especially drawn to the children, said Fidèle Kyanza, a provincial director of ECC’s North Kivu humanitarian program.
“He used to joke and play with the children. He talked to them in French. He helped them with math,” Kyanza said.
Sharp believed in the value of MCC’s educational assistance for all the children in the camps, Kyanza said. Since 2009, MCC has paid school fees and provided school supplies for every primary student from the camps.
However, Sharp’s connection with PPR constantly pulled him.
With the Linds’ blessing, he expanded his assignment to work with PPR’s repatriation and disarmament initiatives.
PPR leaders believed a lot of violence in eastern Congo would stop if FDLR fighters would lay down their weapons and be voluntarily repatriated to their home country, Rwanda.
“The idea that you help the enemy find what is best for them and facilitate a move toward normal life was quite new, and it grabbed him,” Suzanne Lind said.
With Sharp’s experience in peacebuilding and conflict resolution, he was the team member PPR needed as it approached FDLR leaders to get agreement to this plan.
From 2008 to 2016, the program returned to Rwanda more than 1,600 combatants and 23,000 civilians and helped facilitate four public disarmaments of FDLR fighters. Sharp energized and strengthened the program when he joined it in 2012.
Bulambo said Sharp took every chance he could to advocate for the peaceful work of PPR, including with delegations from the U.S. and Europe.
“It was very important for us to have someone who could make the bridge between the West and Congo,” Bulambo said. “Michael was like that witness who was witnessing what we were facing. After he had the information from the fields, he could advocate with the U.S. and everywhere.”
Sharp believed that only God could make the work possible, Bulambo said.
“Michael was always reminding us to pray. Whenever we met with him, we always started with prayer, for our trips, the animateurs,” he said. “We were also praying that God would touch the heart of the people in the bush so they could receive our message. Whenever he went to advocate, he asked us to pray as well so his message could be understood.”
Sharp completed his MCC assignment and joined the U.N. in 2015. But he kept in contact with friends in PPR and MCC, even up until March 12 when he was kidnapped. He was found dead on March 27 along with U.N. colleague Zaida Catalan.
Sharp’s former ECC and MCC coworkers and the MCC team in Congo feel the loss deeply.
“We started a journey with him,” Lungele said. “Unfortunately, he left us before the end of the journey. . . . We pray that God will strengthen us so that we can continue this journey as a way to honor what we started with our brother.”
The Associated Press reported a Congolese military official said April 14 two suspects had been arrested in connection with the deaths of United Nations investigators Michael J. Sharp and Zaida Catalan.
Major General Joseph Ponde Isambwa said one suspect was in custody but another had esecaped. He said four police officers who held the suspects were brought in for questioning. — MWR