Kananga, Congo(DRC) – On March 28th the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres confirmed the identities of two bodies found in a shallow grave just south of the city of Kananga, as U.N. human rights investigators Michael Sharp and Zahida Katalan who were kidnapped by an unknown group earlier that month in the Kasai Central province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Sharp and Katalan’s U.N. investigation team set out into the Kasai to link up with the Kamuina Nsapu militia, who had renewed armed conflict with Congolese forces, to attempt a peaceful resolution and to also look into local claims of DRC security forces’ atrocities reportedly perpetrated against villages in the Kasi Central region and then disappeared. Initially the Congolese government reported that those responsible for kidnapping the U.N. team were that of drug addicts seeking a ransom, then after no ransom note was received and no militia, especially the Kamuina Nsapu, ever claimed to have kidnapped the U.N. team. Changed their official stance to that of some “unknown negative forces” have conducted the kidnapping and DRC forces are exhausting all efforts in finding the U.N. team alive and as soon possible. Which now we know, didn’t happen.
So the question remains, who killed Michael Sharp and Zahida Katalan?
Hatfield & McCoy Syndrome
The Kasia Central province saw an uptick of violence spring forth in late 2016 that went largely under reported in most main stream media that continues today. In late July 2016 a local clan leader Jean-Pierre Mpandi was appointed the hereditary clan chieftain title of Kamuina Nsapu. This hereditary appointment is issued by the Bajila Kasanga a grouping of several villages and their elders within the Kasai Central province and extends into Angola as well.
Jean-Pierre Mpandi, now aptly named Chief Kamuina Nsapu began the ‘Mouvement Kamuina Nsapu’, or the Kamuina Nsapu Movement(MKN) after the Congolese president Joesph Kabila and his government refused to recognize the new appointment of the Chieftain as well as refusing to provide aid to the region suffering heavily from economic hardships and widespread unemployment and food shortages. Chief Kamuina Nsapu also tasked his security wing to form as a militia to protect the Bajila Kasanga villages from President Kabila’s Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FADRC) security forces which the Chieftain and other village leaders accused of gross human rights atrocities and impoverishing the region.
In answer to this declaration President Kabila increased the FADRC troop count in the Kasai Central region which came to head August 8th 2016 where members of the Kamuina Nsapu militia (MKN), armed with machetes, spears, and amulets blessed with invincibility attacked regional Congolese government buildings killing nine people in what the MKN said was to “rid Kasai Central of all the [DRC] services of order.” The FADRC replied to what they called a ‘terrorist act’ and raided Chieftain Kamuina Nsapu’s home where the FADRC troops were met with armed resistance and a gun battle ensued killing up to twenty, including the MKN leader, Chieftain Kamuina Nsapu himself, as well as capturing up to 14 suspected child soldiers of the MKN with ages ranging from 5 to 12 years old. With their Chieftain dead at the hands of the Congolese government troops, the MKN traded their Machetes and spears for AK-47s and vengeance, and in early December 2016 began hitting Congolese troops in guerrilla ‘hit and run’ style warfare that swelled in scale throughout December and into the end of January 2017.
On February 11th 2017 the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) began voicing their extreme concern about the increasing conflict in the Kasai provinces where violent atrocities are being committed by the Kamuina Nsapu militia. The MKN was reportedly recruiting and using child soldiers while targeting Congolese governmental institutions. MONUSCO also expressed deep concern for the disproportionate use of force by FADRC security forces in their response to the situation. The Congolese government along with FADRC officials denied they acted disproportionately to MKN attacks stating that their forces have been acting in self-defense only.
A few days later media reports began flooding out of the Kasai Central region that the FADRC went on a five-day offensive against the MKN and villages supporting the then deceased Chieftain Kamuina Nsapu resulting in at least 101 people being killed. The only problem with this campaign was that the majority killed were unarmed villagers including 39 women and children. It’s widely suspected that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the top five African countries that perpetuate wanton human rights atrocities, a claim that the DRC vehemently denies. Until a video taken by a FADRC soldier emerged on social media depicting the murders of a group of unarmed teenage boys and girls begging for their lives.
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Reports came in that next week of a discovery of up to eight shallow graves found in and around pro-MKN villages, where suspected fighting between FADRC troops and the militia had occurred, filled with 84 bodies which the United Nations suspect are MKN militia members supposedly killed during the 5-day FADRC offensive. Congolese government spokesperson, Lambert Mende in an interview with Reuters denied any wrong-doing by the FADRC troops and posited the counter-point that the bodies in the mass graves were those of Kamuina Nsapu fighters and it was in fact that group who had buried them, not FADRC forces. “I don’t see why the soldiers would hide the fact, that after clashing with the terrorists, the terrorists died.”
However locals that had found and reported these makeshift burial grounds claim to have witnessed military trucks, which reportedly contained bodies, dump their grisly cargo into these makeshift graves between 8pm and 11pm on the night of February 12th following intense fighting between the MKN and FADRC forces. The Kamuina Nsapu militia has not confirmed nor denied any of this reporting.
These murky counter-accusations and the use of child-soldiers prompted the United Nations in sending Sharp and Katalan’s human rights investigation team as part of the U.N.’s Group of Experts on the Republic of the Congo into the Kasai Central region to not only confirm these atrocities, but to also connect with the Kamuina Nsapu militia and seek a peaceful resolution and to give up its use of child-soldiers already swelling within their ranks. The U.N. investigation team collected motorcycles and four other local guides and set out to the remote village of Bunkonde south of the provincial capital, Kananga to investigate possible human rights abuses reportedly perpetrated by the FADRC forces on March 12th, before they disappeared and were feared kidnapped.
The bodies of Sharp and Katalan were found in a hurriedly prepared shallow grave just a few miles south of the Kasai Central capital city of Kananga on March 27th. Little to no answers have been provided by the Congolese government as to what happened or if the MKN militia has claimed killing the U.N. team, the DRC simply ensured the United Nations Secretary-General that a full investigation will be conducted and the murderers will be brought to justice.
But the question still remains, who actually killed Michael and Zahida? No communication from the Kamuina Nsapu militia has been heard at all in regards to kidnapping and the subsequent killing of the U.N. investigators and moreover it seems like kidnapping is way outside the scope of operations with the MKN. Yet, if the U.N. team found that the MKN were responsible for human right violations would they kill them for that? Or kill them for attempting to take the militia’s child-soldiers away from them? The militias violence has always been pointed at DRC governmental structures and authority figures such a governmental workers, DRC police forces, and the DRC military exclusively. Yet, what about the FADRC troops, video evidence already points a damning finger at the blatant violence the FADRC has leveled upon citizens and villages loyal to the MKN Movement and even to this day are trying to cover this evidence up and counter accuse the militia of even worse crimes. The Congo has a history of genocidal violence perpetuated by government troops and security forces in that past, did Sharp’s team find something the DRC doesn’t want public? Was this a failed rescue attempt by the FADRC forces that resulted in the death of two U.N. investigators? Is there more going on in the Congo than being reported by both the DRC and media? This dark and violent story provides more question than answers as to who actually killed Sharp and Katalan, and the truth will eventually come forth and these peacemakers will be given justice.
Feature Image courtesy of United Nations