High-Resolution Satellite Imagery and Possible Mass Graves in Sheberghan, Afghanistan

Executive Summary

In May 2009, AAAS reviewed satellite imagery of the Sheberghan area of northern Afghanistan, where possible mass graves were suspected of being created in 2001. Imagery from 2006-2007 reveals two large pits, possibly comprising the graves, being excavated over a series of months in this area. An August 2006 image shows two possible vehicles present at the site of one pit. These vehicles fit the dimensions of a hydraulic excavator and a dump truck, which may have aided in the excavation of the pits. Based on these findings and the investigation of Physicians for Human Rights, which first approached AAAS with this project, the Obama administration has ordered a US government review of the incident at Dasht-e-Leili.

I. Introduction

In May of 2009 the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) undertook a review of satellite imagery acquired of the Sheberghan area in the Jowzjan Province of northern Afghanistan (Figure One). This review was done at the request of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), who asked AAAS to provide satellite imagery analysis for their investigation of possible mass graves at Dasht-e-Leili, near Sheberghan. According to PHR, the graves had reportedly been created in 2001. Then, at some point prior to July, 2008, two large pits were dug in the area and the fill taken away. Hoping to clarify the excavation date, PHR requested that AAAS research and acquire available satellite imagery of the area to determine when two of the sizeable pits possibly comprising the graves might have first appeared.

Figure One: Sheberghan, Afghanistan

II. Methods and Technologies

Since 2000, high-resolution commercial satellite operators have acquired imagery, largely for areas where customers request images. Once imagery is acquired from a satellite, it is then added to the companies’ archives and generally made available for resale. Based on the information about the location of the purported graves provided by PHR, AAAS searched these archives for available imagery, ultimately utilizing several sources.

One source was the Ikonos satellite, operated by the GeoEye company. Ikonos has a multispectral sensor with one meter panchromatic resolution and has been in operation since 1999. Ikonos provided an image of the site dated May 12, 2000. Another satellite utilized was QuickBird, operated by DigitalGlobe, which has 60 centimeter panchromatic resolution. QuickBird became operational in 2002 and provided the bulk of the images used in this project, acquired on July 2, 2004, August 5, 2006, and October 24, 2007.

Finally, two lower resolution satellites also contributed imagery to this analysis. Specifically, the British research satellite TopSat, with two meter resolution, provided an image from January 27, 2007. In addition, the French SPOT-5 satellite, operated by Spot Image, provided an image with 2.5 meter resolution, acquired on May 8, 2007. Though the SPOT and TopSat images are of lower resolution and barely indicate the presence of the pits, they did provide confirmation of their existence during this research activity and led to acquisition of further imagery.

III. Results

Using coordinates provided by PHR (36.65° latitude, 65.70° longitude), AAAS located and analyzed multiple images of the site acquired by the QuickBird, Ikonos, TopSat, and SPOT-5 satellites. A QuickBird image from 2004 indicates no pits present (Figure Two, top). Another QuickBird image from August 5, 2006 indicates one of the pits present, and two possible vehicles atop the site of what develops into the second pit (Figure Two, bottom). While it is impossible to positively identify the two vehicles, their dimensions and appearance are consistent with the dimensions of a truck and a hydraulic excavator (Figure Three). To determine this, AAAS compared the dimensions of the possible excavator with the boom length, track length and transport width of known excavators produced by companies like Caterpillar and Volvo. To determine the heights of the vehicles, AAAS used the equation:

L * tan(?) = H
 

where L is the length of the vehicle shadow, ? is the angle of the sun relative to the ground, and H is the vehicle height. L was determined via the measure tool in ESRI’s ArcMap, while ? (also known as the sun elevation angle) was provided in the metadata of the acquired satellite images. These efforts helped determine whether the vehicles were likely to be a dump truck and hydraulic excavator. Finally, a lower resolution TopSat image from January 29, 2007, indicates both pits are present, and a high-resolution image of them was acquired by QuickBird on October 24, 2007 (Figure Five). Results are summarized in Table One below:

Table One: Summary of Imagery Results
Satellite Image Date Results
QuickBird 07/02/2004 No pits visible (Figure Two)
QuickBird 08/05/2006 One pit present; possible excavation vehicles visible (Figure Three)
SPOT-5 05/08/2007 Two pits visible (lower resolution)
TopSat 01/27/2007 Two pits visible (lower resolution)
QuickBird 10/24/2007 Two pits visible (Figure Four)

A full description of all imagery analyzed in this study is provided below. Note that not all images analyzed are reproduced in this report.

Figure Two: Possible Grave Site
The top image shows the Dasht-e-Leili site on July 2, 2004, and indicates no open pits visible. The bottom image shows the Dasht-e-Leili site on August 5, 2006, and indicates one open pit visible, with two likely vehicles atop the area which would become the second pit. For a close-up of the possible vehicles, see Figure Three. Images DigitalGlobe | Analysis AAAS.
Figure Three: Vehicles at Possible Grave Site, August 5, 2006
This image show a close-up of the vehicles shown in Figure Two, unannotated on the top sample and with dimensions indicated on the bottom sample. The top-most vehicle, a possible truck, has a height estimated at 3.25 meters, based on the extent of the shadow. The bottom vehicle could be a hydraulic excavator, and a survey of hydraulic excavator dimensions indicate track lengths between 3.49 and 4.46 meters, and track widths between 2.59 and 3.19 meters. Images DigitalGlobe | Analysis AAAS.

A survey was undertaken to determine whether the shape of the suspected vehicle in the August 5, 2006 image was similar to that of a hydraulic excavator. Table Two below provides the dimensions of hydraulic excavators. The table lists the length of the tracks upon which the cabin sits, the width of each excavator, and the combined length of the boom and arm (or stick). The combined boom and arm length is only possible when the mechanism is fully extended. The August 5, 2006 image, however, is likely less than fully extended, and therefore, the estimate of 6.9 meters in Figure Four underestimates the combined boom and arm length.

Table Two: Sample Hydraulic Excavator Dimensions
Manufacturer Model Track Length (m) Transport Width (m) Boom + Arm Length (m)
Caterpillar 311D LRR 3.49 2.69 6.9
  314D CR 3.49 2.59 7.45
  315D L 3.97 2.59 7.7
  320D L 4.08 3.08 8.58
Volvo EC160C 3.98 2.59 7.5
  EC210C 4.46 3.19 8.2
  ECR325C 4.46 3.09 8.2

 

Figure Four: Suspected Grave Site, October 24, 2007
The top image shows the Dasht-e-Leili site on July 2, 2004, and indicates no open pits visible. The bottom image shows the Dasht-e-Leili site on August 5, 2006, and indicates one open pit visible, with two likely vehicles atop the area which would become the second pit. For a close-up of the possible vehicles, see Figure Three. Images DigitalGlobe | Analysis AAAS.

 

IV. Conclusion

Based on coordinates provided by Physicians for Human Rights, AAAS analyzed a series of images related to the Dasht-e Leili graves. The progression of images shows two possible gravesites being excavated in close proximity to one another. In addition, an image from August 5, 2006 may show a hydraulic excavator and dump truck. These vehicles may have facilitated the excavation of the possible gravesites. Based on these findings and the investigation of Physicians for Human Rights, which first approached AAAS with this project, the Obama administration has ordered a US government review of the incident at Dasht-e-Leili.

V. Further Information

  • Physicians for Human Rights maintains a site devoted to the Dasht-e Leili mass graves here.
  • Based on the years-long investigation by Physicians for Human Rights and imagery from this study, the Obama administration pledged to investigate the events of Dasht-e Leili.

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