Visual Evidence of Human Rights Abuse on the Ground in Nigeria

After on-the-ground reports about a mass killing of civilians carried out by Boko Haram in early January, Amnesty International set out to verify the authenticity of the reports and understand the scale of the atrocities.

Limited by the isolation of the towns and the scattered testimonies of witnesses on the ground, Amnesty International worked with DigitalGlobe to analyze two towns, Baga and Doron Baga (also known as Doro Gowon), before and after the reported attacks. DigitalGlobe captured images of the areas on January 2, 2015, using the GeoEye-1 satellite and again on January 7, 2015, using the WorldView-2 satellite. With the unique view that can be safely collected from 400 miles up in space, analysts at DigitalGlobe provided visual evidence of the scale of last week’s attacks by Boko Haram militants.

In the space of four days, our analysts identified that the attacks left over 3,700 structures damaged or completely destroyed. The destruction shown in these images is consistent with the ground testimonies that Amnesty International has gathered. Interviews carried out by Amnesty with eyewitnesses as well as with local government officials and human rights activists suggest that Boko Haram militants shot hundreds of civilians during these attacks.

DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of Baga from January 7, 2015, shows over 620 structures damaged or destroyed predominantly located in the southern portion of Baga. Vehicle activity is present along the main road, including a probable armored vehicle stationed at a road block close to the center of town. The yellow dots represent damaged or destroyed structures. The red color indicates healthy vegetation.
DigitalGlobe satellite imagery of Doron Baga from January 7, 2015, shows evidence of over 3,100 burned structures. Vehicles are also present in town and along the shores of Lake Chad. The yellow dots represent damaged or destroyed structures. The red color indicates healthy vegetation.

“Up until now, the isolation of Baga combined with the fact that Boko Haram remains in control of the area has meant that it has been very difficult to verify what happened there. Residents have not been able to return to bury the dead, let alone count their number. But through these satellite images combined with graphic testimonies a picture of what is likely to be Boko Haram’s deadliest attack ever is becoming clearer,” said Daniel Eyre, Nigeria researcher for Amnesty International, in a report published by the organization.

As this recent tragedy proves, satellite imagery and analysis are invaluable tools for monitoring human right’s abuses for several reasons. In places like Baga, satellites can reduce risks to lives on the ground by providing documentation of atrocities without the need to put additional researchers in harm’s way to collect witness testimonies in areas threatened by Boko Haram.

DigitalGlobe’s Seeing a Better World Program leverages satellite imagery and analysis to provide hard-to-refute visual context of the scale of destruction, validating witness testimonies that might otherwise be brushed aside by local entities looking to minimize the damage.

“This week, Nigeria’s Director of Defence Information stated that the number of people killed in Baga including Boko Haram fighters ‘has so far not exceeded about 150’. These images, together with the stories of those who survived the attack, suggest that the final death toll could be much higher than this figure,” said Eyre.

Before (January 2, 2015) and after (January 7, 2015) satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe shows the extent of damage in Doron Baga following the Boko Haram attack. Red areas indicate healthy vegetation in both images. The January 2 image shows an example of the densely packed structures and tree cover in Doron Baga. The January 7 image shows almost all of the structures razed, with the inset demonstrating the level of destruction of most of structures in the town.