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Gallery: Satellites Document War, Destruction From Outer Space

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Gallery: Satellites Document War, Destruction From Outer Space
: Photos: Courtesy AAAS Science and Human Rights, © 2007 DigitalGlobeIf your town was bombed out of existence, would anyone care?
If you live in one of the dusty, poor corners of the world, maybe not. Carnage in developing countries often goes unnoticed in the more wired, wealthy parts of the world.
That's where the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences' Geospatial Technology and Human Rights Project comes in. It is charged with using the latest in technology, primarily high-resolution satellite photography, to detect and call attention to possible human rights violations.
"I don't consider what we look at to be war in the sense that it's two armies [or] groups of soldiers. These things are slaughters, genocides, butchery and the like," said Lars Bromley, director for the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, who was profiled in Wired 15.12. "Women and children are the primary targets. It's rare we look at anything that approaches an actual battle."
This gallery presents a variety of before and after satellite photographs spanning the globe, including the most recent photographs from Ethiopia, which helped make the case for what Human Rights Watch declared "crimes against humanity" by government soldiers in the Ogaden region of the country. When before and after pictures are shown, the before shot is above the after shot.
Left: In this before-and-after sequence, you can see the aftermath of a visit by Ethiopian troops to the town of Labigah. In the after shot at the bottom, taken six months after the attack, Bromley's team counted dozens of destroyed buildings. Bromley believes that the blue-grey color of some rubble indicates the presence of ash.
"You still have apparent ash on the ground six months after the attack took place," he said. "It was probably a pretty significant burning event."
That's backed up by the team's ability to pull out the infrared signature from the raw satellite data, and in that spectrum, Bromley said that burned material has a distinctive spectral signature.
"Really what we do is stare at these things forever and verify each structure from one image to another," Bromley said.
: Photos: Courtesy AAAS Science and Human Rights, © 2007 DigitalGlobeBurma's military junta has long been suspected of waging a campaign of repression against its political adversaries in the state of Keren, which borders Thailand. In April, Bromley got reports that the town you can see in the top left image had been attacked. During a break in the monsoon-season clouds, a satellite snapped this shot of the village's former site. All that remains of the village is burn scars.
"This place was attacked and wholesale burned to the ground, which is relatively rare for Burma," he said. "Most of the attacks are shelling and mining and shooting."
Despite presenting this evidence in the United Nations, which caused an international stir, the government in Burma, also known as Myanmar, remains in power.
"We're getting images of human misery on pretty much a daily basis and where do we go from here?" Bromley asked. "Governments are less confident that they can hide these things, but they are more confident they can get away with it."
The settlement in the image pair at left shows burn scars for about 12 to 14 structures. This corresponds with reported attacks in the area on April 22, 2007 (Lat: 18.54 N Long: 97.05 E).
The before image was taken on Dec 13, 2006. The after image is from June 24, 2007.
: Photos: Courtesy AAAS Science and Human Rights, © 2007 DigitalGlobeIn July 2006, intense fighting broke out between Israeli troops and the Hezbollah paramilitary group in Lebanon. As rockets rained down on northern Israel, the Israelis responded with a devastating aerial attack on Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut.
Referring to the neighborhood pictured here, Bromley said, "The so-called Hezbollah suburb in Beirut is the most catastrophic destruction we've ever looked at."
A strange amendment to the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act, which governs U.S. satellite image distribution, prevents the commercial distribution of high-resolution satellite images of Israel, so Bromley's team was unable to assess the damage that Hezbollah rockets did to Israeli towns. Human Rights Watch placed the death tolls of the short conflict at 1,200 Lebanese and 39 Israelis.
As an indication of scale, you can see a soccer field in the lower left-hand corner.
Pictured are close-up satellite images of part of Beirut City before (June 19, 2006) and after (August 12, 2006) attacks.
: Photos: Courtesy AAAS Science and Human Rights, © 2007 DigitalGlobeSince coming to power in 1980, Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist. These aerial photographs show the erasure of the town of Porta Farm, a settlement that had the bad luck of being in a known opposition area. Bromley wryly called it Mugabe's version of "gerrymandering."
"He destroyed all the homes, because if you don't have a home, you're not gonna vote there," he said.
While seeing the destruction can be easy once you know where to look, finding areas in distress can be difficult. And once they are found, local informants have to be very careful to avoid getting caught distributing this type of information.
"We had really good communications with the people inside, [who were] writing to us on Hotmail accounts in the middle of the night, that kind of stuff," Bromley said.
: Photos: Courtesy AAAS Science and Human Rights, © 2007 DigitalGlobeIn February 2008, the Sudanese government launched a military campaign in Western Darfur to drive out rebels fighting under the name the Justice and Equality Movement. The images show the damage from a single town in the region, Abu Suruj. The areas in red show all of the areas that burned during the conflict.
A UN report on the attacks (.pdf) noted the Sudanese offensive included "aerial bombardments by helicopter gunships and fixed-wing aircraft." In addition to showing the ashy remains of homes, the close-up picture shows what is probably a rebel stronghold in the upper-right portion of the image. Crater impacts, probably from mortar fire, are visible within the ring-like defensive perimeter.
: Photos: Courtesy AAAS Science and Human Rights, © 2007 DigitalGlobeBack in 2000, during a two-year war between Ethiopia and Eritrea over what Bromley described as "literally 10 square miles of the most desolate place on Earth," Ethiopian troops occupied a portion of Eritrea. In the process, they destroyed several Eritrean towns. One of them, Serha, is shown in these images. The seven buildings clearly visible in the top photograph from June 2000 had been destroyed when a new satellite image was taken in August. These images were used in international legal proceedings against Ethiopia that resulted in a monetary settlement for Eritrea, which was never paid. Relations between the countries remain tense.
"The Ethiopians and Eritreans are about to go at it again, hammer and tongs," Bromley said.
He did note, however, that at least in the case of actual national armies, blame can be assigned to countries and politicians. That's not always an option that his team has.
"When you get into Darfur and some of these other places where it's just five thousand kids with guns, you get a more horrific medieval situation."
: Photos: Courtesy AAAS Science and Human Rights, © 2007 DigitalGlobeFrom 2000 to 2004, the Israeli Defense Forces began the construction of a security wall around Israel. As part of that effort, they removed about 2,500 homes in the Gaza Strip. "The Israeli security forces wanted to clear a perimeter and they went in with bulldozers and cleared what they needed to clear," Bromley said.
Bromley did note, however, that the missing buildings in this case were not caused by burning or bombing but by "bulldozers surrounded by tanks."
: Photos: Courtesy AAAS Science and Human Rights, © 2007 DigitalGlobeSatellite images of North Korean prison-labor camps, like this one, helped human-rights groups show the extent of what they called the "hidden gulag" system. By showing the images to escaped prisoners, the researchers were able to estimate the layouts and capacities of the camps. Their stunning estimate that 150,000 to 200,000 people were being held focused attention on the scale and gravity of the situation.
"Governments are less confident that they can hide these things," Bromley said.
But, he noted, atrocities that have long been documented in satellite images and from on-the-ground accounts still rage on.
"We're getting images of human misery on pretty much a daily basis," Bromley said. But his organization can't stop the fighting, and neither can nongovernmental organizations or (generally speaking) the UN.
"Have we ended all human suffering? No. Does that bother me? Yes," he concluded.

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