It was almost two years ago, March 13 to be precise, that news broke of the disappearance of Michael "MJ" Sharp. Sharp, a missionary who went to work for the United Nations in the Congo. Sharp disappeared with a coworker in the Congo, where he had spent several years working for the peaceful resolution of conflict.
A few days later his body, and the body of his female coworker, were found. Since then there have been investigations, arrests and a trial. There have been public accusations of a governmental coverup. The trial is ongoing, and the only Hope that John Sharp, MJ's father, has of knowing why his son was killed.
"This is our best chance, so far, to learn why. We know how it was done, we just do not know why," John Sharp said during a "Lunch and Learn" hosted by Mennonite Central Committee Jan. 30 at MCC Central States in North Newton.
His presentation Jan. 30 was received by a standing room only crowd, a crowd that hung on his every word.
MJ Sharp was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a peacebuilder. He and his team would enter the forests, meet with warlords and negotiate for the release of soldiers, families and others. According to John Sharp, his son and his teams negotiated the release of more than 1,600 people from warlord camps. Those people were resettled, given an education and new lives.
Some of the families released had been in the forests for 20 years or more.
Michael Sharp was working with those militias. First entering the region as a mission worker for Mennonite Central Committee, he helped negotiate the release of child soldiers during a three-year term with MCC. After that term, he joined the United Nations team and worked with the generals of the militias. For several years his United States home base was Hesston, where his parents live and work.
In April 2017, an arrest was announced by the Congolese military. A video of the abduction was released during a news conference called by the Congolese government, and it tells a story different than what the military was telling at that time.
"We now know that a few hours later, after they were abducted, they were shot. It was not days or weeks later," John Sharp said. "... They gave (media) a video and showed them the murders. They said 'this is proof that we were not involved. This is proof that it was a militia group. See how they are dressed.' Anyone who knew anything knew that was a cover-up. They did not look like militia, they did not have the weapons of a militia group. They were dressed in the same kind of outfits, but brand new and clean. Everyone knew it was a setup."
John Sharp said near the end of teh video the killers could be heard using a language used by military leaders — a language that militia members call a "pig language" and would not use.
In addition, a recording of a phone call to arrange for the trip the team was taking surfaced. According to John Sharp, team members asked about the safety of the route they were planning. While the message from the other end of the line was no, it was not safe, translators told the team it would be.
"The plot thickens," John Sharp said. "It is clear this was premeditated and carefully carried out."
In November of 2018, Amnesty International called for an investigation by the United Nations into what the organization called a cover-up.
“The suggestions of deliberate cover-up for political expediency must be fully investigated by the UN and any UN officials guilty of wrongdoing must be held to account. The UN must also disavow the findings of the Board of Inquiry and reopen the probe into the killings of Zaida Catalan and Michael Sharp – this time independently and impartially," said Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
According to Amnesty International, a Board of Inquiry into the murders established by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres concluded in August 2017 that the two were killed by the Kamuina Nsapu militia, and that Catalan and Sharp had breached UN safety and security protocol for field operations. However, an investigation released by Swedish television’s Mission Investigate, in collaboration with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Monde, Foreign Policy magazine and Radio France International alleges that senior Congolese military and security officials may have been connected to the murders – information that was “covered up” by the UN’s own probe, possibly to “avoid a diplomatic rupture” with the DRC.
It was the first recorded disappearance of international workers in the once-calm Kasai provinces, where at least 400 civilians have been killed since August amid a rebellion loyal to former traditional leader Kamwina Nsapu. The United Nations has said 23 mass graves have been found in the region, and at least 434,000 people have been displaced.
"This has me asking, what is justice?" John Sharp said. "What does justice look like in this case? ... We have talked about shalom justice and restorative justice. Revenge and legal justice never settle anything. It is not even logical to think that if the perpetrators are caught and tried and sentenced ... more violence will not solve the past. It makes no sense, it is not even logical."
Judicial authorities in the province have opened an investigation and are working with the U.N. mission in Congo. It is unclear where that will go.
"At first, when it started up, it was a sham. They had their victim and they wanted the world to forget about it, but no one would let them do that," John Sharp said. "The trial has become more thorough and is now supported by at least one military judge. That is helpful. He is allowing evidence to come into the court, where the first one did not. It is much more hopeful."
A 34-year-old graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, Michael Sharp entered voluntary service after college. His first service was in Germany, assisting with military counseling and support. He finished a graduate degree in International Relations and Peace Studies.
He found his passion, and the place he loved, when he went to the Congo.
"He called it paradise," John Sharp said. "He called it the most beautiful place on earth, and he gave his life for it. I believe willingly."
John Sharp said his family will make a pilgrimage to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when the time is right, to sprinkle ashes in the place MJ loved.
For now, however, recovery and remembrance take a different form. There will be a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro — something MJ Sharp did not cross off his bucket list — and there are memorials. Mennonite Central Committee now has a memorial fund to support missions in MJ's name, with $60,000 donated thus far. Eastern Mennonite University has a similar memorial, with a similar amount donated, for the training of students to aid peacemaking efforts in the Congo.
"How do we survive? We plant trees, we scatter ashes and we hold our grandchildren," John Sharp said. "Storytelling helps. Talking to you, telling my story, helps."
A profile of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Where is it?
Central Africa, northeast of Angola. Bordering nations include Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
Who lives there?
The nation has a population of 81.3 million. There are more than 200 African ethnic groups of which the majority are Bantu; the four largest tribes - Mongo, Luba, Kongo (all Bantu) and the Mangbetu-Azande (Hamitic) make up about 45 percent of the population.
When was it established?
The current nation established independence from Belgium on June 30, 1960. The legal system is primarily based on Belgian law, but also customary and tribal law.
— CIA World Factbook
Congo is home to multiple militias competing for stakes in the vast Central African nation’s rich mineral resources.