These Satellite Images Document an Atrocity

By Robin Mejia
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Before December 2005, the Chadian village of Bir Kedouas was a tidy collection of huts in walled compounds and cultivated fields. A later satellite image shows what is left: The former homesites (marked with red circles) and fields are now a charred scar in the earth. The entire population was either killed or fled. Such images may be providing a powerful new weapon in the struggle to stop genocide.

ON THE CORNEROF JEREMY NELSON'S L-SHAPED DESK AT AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL'S WASHINGTON OFFICE SIT TWO 17-INCH MONITORS. Both have an extra-tall base, and even then they rest on phone books to get them close to eye level for the 6-foot-3 researcher. At 7 on a Thursday night in April, an exhausted but upbeat Nelson is staring at two satellite images of the same area in South Darfur, Sudan, one on each screen. One was taken in December 2004 and the other in February 2007. They show a region that was targeted by what Sudan's government called a "road-clearing offensive." Amnesty reports indicate that last November, while officials were engaged in peace talks in Nigeria, military ground and air forces and Janjaweed militias burned dozens of villages.

This is just one incident in a violent conflict that has killed between 200,000 and 450,000 people in the Darfur region since 2003. A major obstacle to international intervention has been the Sudanese government's refusal to acknowledge the level of violence and its own complicity. In late March, for example, Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir said in a TV interview that the U.S. State Department map showing 1,000 Darfurian villages as burned was a fabrication. The Sudanese government also holds that only 9,000 people have died in the bloodshed, and that local Janjaweed militias -- the same Janjaweed that gained notoriety for atrocities in Sudan's recent civil war -- are independent actors, despite the fact that they've been seen attacking with military support, raping women and girls, pillaging and sometimes burning entire villages to the ground. Amnesty had been documenting the violence, but last year, the government stopped letting Amnesty's researchers into the country. Then last month, Sudan cited lack of evidence in refusing to comply with the International Criminal Court's arrest warrants for the minister of state for humanitarian affairs and a Janjaweed militia leader.

Which is where Nelson comes in. The 31-year-old researcher is an associate with Amnesty's Crisis Prevention and Response Center. Normally, he tracks hot spots and brewing crises, handles logistics and develops graphics for postcard and poster campaigns. Now he's also learning to analyze satellite images. The catalyst is a partnership between Amnesty and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that's pioneering a new kind of human rights observation: the use of high-resolution satellite imagery -- commercially available only since 2001 -- to document atrocities in areas made inaccessible to watchdog groups. The unusual collaboration started about a year ago, with test projects looking at Zimbabwe and Lebanon. The Darfur effort is by far their biggest yet, and the most politically significant.

Since 2004, the African Union has maintained a modest force of about 7,000 peacekeepers in Darfur, but their mandate expires at the end of this month. The AAAS/Amnesty group hopes that the satellite images it is collecting will provide incontrovertible proof of burning and destruction. Ideally, Sudan then will be forced to accept the United Nations peacekeeping force that the government refused to allow in last year.

"What this satellite technology does, it makes it possible to break down those walls of secrecy. Not only to get information, but to get information in a way that's irrefutable," says Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

The images on Nelson's screen were taken by QuickBird, a satellite launched in 2001 by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, one of two U.S.-based commercial satellite companies. QuickBird's resolution is good enough to show individual houses and sometimes even cars, and it shoots in color. The other U.S. company, Dulles-based GeoEye, operates two similar satellites with slightly lower resolution. Each of the satellites orbits the planet several times a day; among the three, they reach almost any spot on Earth about once a week. It's fair to assume that government spy satellites still have the best equipment in orbit. But today, anyone with a big enough checkbook can order spy-quality images. (With some exceptions; a 1997 U.S. law prohibits the collection and release of satellite imagery of Israel with a resolution better than two meters, for example.)

Tonight, Nelson begins his work by making a copy of the shot in the right-hand screen and pasting it directly over the one on the left. Then he makes the top one nearly transparent. A river that cuts through the scene becomes a marker to help him line up the two. Now he can easily flip back and forth to look for changes.

Sudanese huts tend to follow a similar pattern: a solid base ring with a steep, thatched roof. In the earlier image, they show up as small circles, with a slight shading to the dome, depending on the direction of the sun. Nelson draws a small, green circle slightly larger than the area of the average hut and makes several dozen copies of it. Then he begins methodically placing a green circle over every hut that can be found in any of the half-dozen settlements spread across the desert landscape.

When he finishes, he moves the 2007 shot to the top and begins the analysis again. When the roof of a thatched hut burns, the base often survives, leaving a telltale ring. But parts of this region were burned so thoroughly that there's nothing left but a large black scar. If you didn't know that huts were there before, you'd have no idea they were now gone.

"Whoever did this did a good job," he says quietly. "Thorough, at least."

By 8 p.m., he has a final tally: Out of 461 structures in the "before" image, most of them homes, 339 were destroyed, five were probably destroyed and 117 were intact. He couldn't tell whether those 117 were still inhabited.

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