'Anti-genocide paparazzi' monitor Sudanese conflict

Harvard-based Satellite Sentinel Project offers cutting-edge support to humanitarian initiatives. Jon Marcus reports

June 7, 2012

To liven up the sterile conference room in their nondescript building on a narrow side street off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, members of the Satellite Sentinel Project have added a few souvenirs of their travels.

They include a 7.62mm shell typically used in military rifles, packages of Chinese duck gizzard and an odd ceramic chicken.

The souvenirs are distractions from the grim realities reflected on maps propped against the windows and adorning the walls of the room. There, this small group, assisted by Harvard University students and faculty, use satellite images from 300 miles above the Earth to watch for evidence of military abuses and other war crimes in the border area between Sudan and its newly independent neighbour, South Sudan.

This novel research project has a dose of celebrity and a pinch of prestige. The Satellite Sentinel Project is part of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which aims to “promote evidence-based approaches to humanitarian assistance”.

The project’s annual $2 million (£1.3 million) cost is underwritten by a foundation co-founded by actors including Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and George Clooney. The tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of satellite time it uses is donated by imaging firm DigitalGlobe.

Mr Clooney, who has made helping civilians in South Sudan a personal crusade, came up with the idea while on a visit to the country, and calls the team working on the project a sort of “anti-genocide paparazzi”.

Where to look?

Staff and students spend their time labouring over laptops around a conference table stacked with illustrated guides to military aircraft.

Morning meetings break into robust debates about where to aim the satellite cameras each day to photograph the precious 3,000 sq km of the vast desert territory that can be captured on each pass of a satellite.

Since South Sudan split from Sudan last year and an undeclared border war began, the Satellite Sentinel Project has spotted troop build-ups, work to strengthen roads to handle heavy artillery and airstrips to accommodate cargo and bomber planes: any of these insights could help predict attacks.

In September, after the project reported that Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) troops were assembling near the village of Kurmuk, some 1,500 civilians escaped to Ethiopia. It also provided evidence of mass graves in the Sudanese border town of Kadugli to the International Criminal Court.

Mr Clooney testified before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations using photos the project took of Sudanese bombers as evidence that Sudan had bombed South Sudanese civilians.

Nathaniel Raymond, the project’s operations director, said SAF troops have started acting as if they know they are being watched from above, hiding tanks under tarpaulins and waiting for cloud cover to attack.

Copies of the project’s warnings have been found in South Sudan, said Benjamin Davies, the project’s deputy director of operations.

“There’s clear evidence that we’ve complicated the decision chain,” Mr Raymond said.

Reports and images are made available every night at midnight to African radio and television - and anyone else who is interested and has internet access.

“We don’t directly warn anyone. We put out reports in near-real time,” said Mr Davies. “If this were a different type of conflict and there was free reporting allowed on the ground, we would be redundant.”

The model could be used to monitor other conflicts, too. Mr Davies said its staff had also been trained in analysing satellite photos of urban settings, for instance.

A surprising emphasis of the project - and the reason its leaders say it is housed at Harvard instead of at a non-governmental organisation, as was briefly considered - is its mission as a training ground for humanitarian workers.

“Our interest is in the narrower sense, yes, definitely helping people, but also in doing research that helps a far larger number over the long term,” said Vincenzo Bollettino, executive director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

“The satellites and the use of technology can in many ways distort or obscure the real innovation, which is that sitting around the table here you have students learning humanitarian response in a way they can learn nowhere else,” Mr Raymond added.

“There’s a huge and deadly gap between the amount of data that’s available, the complexity of the data, and the ability to use that data and conduct research.

“We’re at the cutting edge of that.”

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