Many of the group's men filled the ranks of a key faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) -- headed by Zaghawa rebel leader Minni Minawi -- which took up arms against the government in 2003. Soon, they emerged as the dominant power in Shangal Tobay, a community with as many as 30 ethnic groups. A 2006 peace accord with the government solidified their control over the area. Under their rule, the Zaghwawa thrived while other tribes "suffered abuses (including taxations, arrests, and murders) at the hands of the rebels," according to the report.
But the peace accord collapsed in 2010, driving the SLA fighters into hiding, abandoning Shangal Tobay, and exposing the region's Zaghawa community to reprisals. Sudanese government forces, meanwhile, recruited a group of non-Arab militias that had bridled under the Zaghawa's rule and used them to carry out a series of systematic attacks against the Zaghawa between December 2010 and June 2011. The U.N. mission, which was stationed in Shangal Tobay, was unable to provide protection for thousands of Zaghawa civilians that had sought protection, forcing them to flee the town.
"This cycle of violence provoked one of the most significant displacements that Darfur has experienced since the height of the conflict between 2003 and 2005, with the reported registration of around 70,000 IDPs," according to the report. "Members of the panel believe that the cycle of violence in eastern Darfur in the first half of 2011 was characterized by ethnic cleansing targeting one particular group."
"Members of the panel also found that violent incidents against Zaghawa civilians were on occasion not passed up the UNAMID reporting chain in the same way as violence committed by Zaghawa rebels and militia," the report said. "Members of the panel also found that events they themselves witnessed alongside UNAMID personnel were not fully reported in UNAMID Patrol Reports or Situation reports."
The panel accompanied a UNAMID patrol on May 22, 2011, as they came upon the small Zaghawa village of Nyortik in flames. The panel members believed the village was burnt to the ground by a pro-government militia in retaliation for the killing of a truck driver that was linked to the militia. But they said the UNAMID officials simply took the militia leaders' word that the Zaghawa had burnt their own town to the ground -- and then failed to even report the incident in a "team site patrol report" shared with a wider circle of mission staff.
The panel's experts argue that UNAMID's handling of the event was consistent with a pattern of bias in its reporting, which tended to ignore government abuses while highlighting those carried out by the rebels. It also undercut the ability of U.N. and African Union policymakers to gain a clear picture of what was happening on the ground. In the end, the truck driver's killing ultimately sparked one of the worst outbreaks of violence in Darfur in years.
In a possible reprisal attack, pro-government militias attacked the Zaghawa stronghold of Abu Zerega on May 31, 2011, looting the tribe's livestock, before calling in Sudanese government reinforcements. By the end, the government and pro-government militia had executed some 18 Zaghawa civilians. On June 17, Zaghawa rebels carried out a reprisal raid on Shangal Tobay, advancing by car and camel, killing 19 people, including 6 Sudanese soldiers and militia members.
But the United Nations responded slowly, waiting 12 days to conducting an investigation into the massacre at Abu Zerega, which was only a few kilometers from a U.N. outpost. The delay allowed the perpetrators an opportunity to hide or bury the bodies. In the end, UNAMID concluded simply that the 18 victims had been "allegedly killed/disappeared" while the government's own investigation concluded that a "total of 18 Zaghawa cviliians had been summarily executed."
"Members of the panel believe that in under-reporting or deliberately omitting to report some incidents in the area of Shangal Tobay, UNAMID prevents itself [from having a] clear understanding of the chain of violence."
Whatever the reason, the ramifications are severe. The U.N. mission gave the Security Council little reason to suspect a government role in the massacre of the Zaghawa last May. Indeed, in July 2011, the U.N. secretary general's report to the Security Council -- the main vehicle for reporting on developments in Darfur -- said nothing about the role of Sudanese soldiers or pro-government militias in the massacre of the Zaghawa in Abu Zerega.
But it did link the Zaghawa rebels to the reprisal attack.
The U.N. stance, according to the panel members, "risks exacerbating existing perceptions of UNAMID as insufficiently neutral: perceptions which may post a threat both to UNAMID's own security and to the eastern Darfur area's peace and security." Even worse, it has served to erase Darfur from the map of global trouble spots competing for the world's attention.