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village near Ishma, Darfur, Sudan, on Christmas Day 2004 (left) and 10 February 2007 (right). The village was one of several that were attacked along the main road going northeast out of Nyala as the Sudanese government attempted to cut off the rebels’ supply routes. Comparison of these two images shows that it had been completely destroyed in the attack suggested that civilians were coming under fire from both government and rebel forces – but it provided a rare glimpse of what was really going on in an area from which journalists and researchers were banned.


n May 2009, as the Sri Lankan army closed in on a rebel Tamil group in the country’s northeast, reports began to come in of a ‘bloodbath’, with more than 10,000 civilians killed. A UN spokesman accused the government of being responsible, but with outsiders banned from entering the area, it seemed unlikely that it would ever be held accountable.

However, ‘someone’ had been ‘watching’: a US-owned satellite. And when geospatial experts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) were asked by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to analyse images of a civilian safety zone, the truth began to be revealed.

dark corners With more and more satellites in the sky, and the price of high-resolution satellite images dropping, remotely gathered imagery is increasingly being used by the UN and NGOs to investigate allegations of human rights and environmental abuse. ‘It’s like a light shining into the dark corners of the world,’ says Mark Brender, chief executive of the GeoEye Foundation, which provides free imagery to NGOs from satellites that belong to GeoEye, a commercial organisation that sells satellite and aerial imagery to everyone from governments to Google.

The refuge area was located on a sandy spit, and as the analysts began comparing images taken a few days before the clash with those taken afterwards, they not only saw destroyed buildings and freshly dug graves, they also noted a series of craters dotted across the sand. ‘They were shell holes,’ says Susan Wolfinbarger, a geographer who has recently taken over as head of the AAAS’s Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project. This meant that someone had been firing into the civilian safety zone. But who?

Satellite imagery means that we can find out what’s happening in these areas without risking people’s lives

Apportioning blame in such situations is understandably difficult, but in this case, the shells had fallen into soft sand, producing tell-tale ‘ejector’ patterns. A closer inspection of this spewed-out sand indicated the direction from which the shells had been fired. And when those trajectories were traced back, they led directly to areas where the Sri Lankan government forces were thought to have been present.

It wasn’t the whole story – eyewitness and UN reports

The commercial availability of high-resolution satellite imagery is a relatively recent phenomenon, only really taking off since the turn of the millennium, but it has already facilitated the investigation of a range of events and issues, including the destruction of homes in Sudan and Zimbabwe, and the environmental effects of the notorious Rio Tinto gold and copper mine in Papua. ‘Gathering information in these places is often incredibly dangerous,’ says Dr Chris Lavers, a remote-imaging expert based at the University of Plymouth who has been helping organisations such as Amnesty and tribal-rights NGO Survival. ‘Journalists have been killed trying to approach the Rio Tinto mine, and aid workers can be


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32 january 2011

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