Counting Nigeria’s Dead From 480 Miles Up
Human rights groups are using satellite imagery to force Nigeria to accept the true scope of Boko Haram’s latest atrocities.
When unconfirmed reports circulated last week about the mass killing of potentially up to 2,000 Nigerians by terrorists from Boko Haram, human rights organizations used a high-tech tool — stunningly vivid imagery from satellites hovering hundreds of miles above the killing zone — to find evidence backing eyewitness reports of entire villages being burned to the ground.
Satellites weren’t only used to document the extent of the destruction and estimate the number of civilians killed in the massacres. In addition, the rights groups have further used the information to rebut any Nigerian government attempts to minimize the scope of the attack and claim that only 150 died. The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan has faced mounting international criticism over its inability to contain or defeat Boko Haram, which has killed thousands as part of a bloody campaign to impose Islamic law in swaths of Nigeria. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly warned that Boko Haram could pose a threat to regional stability.
On Thursday, Jonathan, who has remained relatively silent on the recent attacks, made a surprise visit to Maiduguri, in the country’s north, where he visited with troops at a military base.
“What you’re doing is not easy,” he told them. “We’re working day and night, trying to curtail this madness.”
In recent years, human rights groups have increasingly turned to satellites to document atrocities in areas too dangerous or difficult to visit on the ground. Using satellites, Human Rights Watch has documented building demolition in Syria, barrel bombs in Aleppo, and destruction of world heritage sites in various conflict zones.
Josh Lyons, a satellite imagery analyst at HRW, told Foreign Policy that in some cases, companies will send commercial satellites to monitor high-profile areas and then sell the photos for around $500. Other times, groups like HRW will try to commission satellite companies to take photos of areas where they suspect destruction to have taken place.
Different aerial shots collected by HRW and Amnesty International helped experts find what the latter organization called “indisputable and shocking evidence” of the details of massive destruction that took place in Baga and the surrounding area the first week of January. Amnesty’s photos, taken by American satellite company DigitalGlobe on Jan. 2 and Jan. 7, show the before-and-after effect of arson, which the organization claims damaged or destroyed 3,700 structures in and around Baga.
Amnesty labeled it the most destructive attack it has documented since Boko Haram launched its violent offensive against the Nigerian government in 2009. The human rights watchdog said 620 structures were destroyed in Baga and another 3,100 in Doron Baga. The Baga area housed a multinational military base that reportedly fell to Boko Haram on Jan. 3.
Amnesty’s report said the satellite images, which show these structures intact in photos from Jan. 2 but completely wiped away on Jan. 7, are consistent with witness testimonies that Boko Haram carried out a “deliberate attack on civilians whose homes, clinics, and schools are now burnt out ruins.”
What the satellites haven’t been able to do is calculate the death count, which is still in dispute between witnesses and government officials. The Associated Press reported that witnesses described bodies, “too many to count,” strewn in the streets. Many of the victims were reportedly women and children who could not escape fast enough to survive.
Lyons said that while the images are high-quality enough to assess structural damage, it would be difficult to get an accurate count of bodies on the ground, especially if they had already been swept into a mass grave.
Stefan Simanowitz, a spokesman for Amnesty, told FP that the organization’s confidence in the extent of damage was confirmed by the satellites, which gave researchers “a sense of what really could be going on on the ground.”
“You see these structures before and after, and each one of those is someone’s house or school or mosque or medical clinic,” he said. “It defies imagination in some ways.”
Although groups such as Amnesty and HRW depend on researchers on the ground to piece together testimonies from various witnesses, these tasks are hugely complicated in places like Baga, where researchers would be in constant danger of being harassed, abducted, or killed by the militants.
But when a satellite can provide the missing pieces, it helps validate witness testimonies that could otherwise be denied by Nigerian government officials hoping to cover up the level of destruction that actually took place, as a way of deflecting criticism over their failures against Boko Haram, which has now begun mounting strikes into neighboring Cameroon. In December, the Cameroonian government was forced to respond with airstrikes when the group attacked a military base on the border of Nigeria. On Monday, another Cameroonian base was attacked, and the Cameroonian government claimed that its military killed 143 militants.
HRW worked with two services, CNES and Astrium, to document the damage in Baga. Their satellites were able to provide photos from Jan. 10, which were consistent with Amnesty’s findings that a huge number of buildings were destroyed. Their analysis showed the difference between photos taken on Dec. 29, shortly before the attack, and those taken on Jan. 10. In Doro Gowon, HRW is estimating that 57% of the town was seriously damaged or destroyed.
Lyons told FP that the fact that the first round of satellite photos were taken not long before the attack helped substantiate witness claims that this damage had occurred during the first week of January. In other cases where satellites have been used, it has been hard to prove a timeline if the last available aerial image is from weeks or months before an alleged attack, Lyons said.
This is not the first time HRW has used satellites to document human rights abuses in Nigeria. In 2013, the group used satellites to document another attack on the Baga area, this one by Nigerian forces in response to the alleged killing of a soldier by a Boko Haram militant.
At the time, witnesses reported large-scale, purposeful destruction of civilian homes by military forces, and HRW’s satellite images confirmed that 2,275 buildings were destroyed and another 125 were badly damaged.
Lyons said that while their images from the 2013 attack did not imply that the assault was ordered by Jonathan’s administration, they could support evidence that the attack was carried out by soldiers at a low command level who got carried away.
But the Nigerian National Space Research and Development Agency issued its own report to counter HRW’s findings and to try to refute the group’s claims on the 2013 attack. Even though HRW says it found “substantial technical and analytical errors” in the Nigerian report, the government continues to try to discredit HRW’s findings.
Lyons said HRW is inclined to believe the 2013 attack could qualify as a war crime and thus be subject to humanitarian law, which means the Nigerian government has “a legal obligation domestically and internationally to investigate and prosecute.”
“This is the first time professionally that a government has ever rejected satellite-based findings with their own erroneous — in my opinion — satellite analysis,” he said.
The Nigerian government has not yet tried to issue a refute to this week’s satellite images, which Lyons said is likely because the human rights groups accuse Boko Haram, not the Nigerian military, of carrying out the destruction.
HRW has turned to satellite imagery before to document atrocities across the globe, including in Syria and Iraq.
Last year, after Islamic State militants claimed to have bombarded and slaughtered a group of Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, the pool of blood on the ground was so dense that a satellite was able to capture it from far above the earth. Lyons said that was a rare instance where bodies were piled up before being bulldozed into a mass grave, thus leaving an abnormally large blood stain on the concrete slab where they were gathered.
Although reports from groups like Amnesty and HRW don’t always lead to legal action, they are widely accepted as accurate on-the-ground testimony in court cases that later try to hold perpetrators responsible for deadly attacks, such as in The Hague for war crimes committed in the Cuska, Kosovo, massacre.*
And now, with the use of satellite imagery, these testimonies can carry more weight than ever before.
In 2012, HRW used satellite images to document a mass killing of Rohingya Muslims in town near the coast in Myanmar. While the group didn’t have a recent enough satellite image from before the attack to verify the timeline, an HRW researcher living in Myanmar verified that the village had been intact just weeks before. Confident in the researcher’s reporting and the satellite’s proof of destruction in the village, HRW released a report that led the Myanmar government to recognize the scale of the attacks.
In the case of Baga, Jonathan’s administration might stand their ground regarding an unconfirmed death toll, but when it comes to structural destruction, they’ll have a hard time refuting so much satellite proof.
“One of the traditional weaknesses of testimony-based research is that the governments are very skilled in dismissing it,” Lyons said. “But with objective images from the sky … it’s a new type of issue for governments to confront and react to this type of objective and seemingly more scientific-based evidence.”
*Correction, Jan. 16, 2015: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Human Rights Watch used one of its reports to push prosecutors at the International Criminal Court to probe a massacre in Kosovo. The group actually used the report during a hearing in The Hague, not the ICC. (Return to reading.)
Photo credit: Human Rights Watch, CNES/Astrium; Amnesty International, Digital Globe