AAAS Contributes Satellite Image Analysis to Investigation of Purported Mass-Grave in Afghanistan


In a satellite image captured 2 July 2004 (left), soil above the purported mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili appeared to be undisturbed, said Lars Bromley, director of the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project.
A satellite image captured 5 August 2006 (right) revealed a large pit on one side of the roadway, and two large vehicles on the other side of the roadway. Based on their dimensions and appearance, the vehicles could have been a hydraulic excavator and a dump truck.
Open large versions of these two images side-by-side.
Satellite images © 2009 Digital Globe.

New satellite image analysis by AAAS suggests that a suspected mass grave in Afghanistan—reportedly created in late 2001 for the bodies of Taliban fighters—had been excavated during late summer 2006, while international peace-keeping forces were deployed in the war-torn nation.

"Soil above the purported mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili, near Sheberghan, appeared to be smooth and undisturbed as of 2 July 2004," said Lars Bromley, director of the AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project, part of the association's long-standing Science and Human Rights Program. "But a satellite image captured 5 August 2006 revealed a large pit on one side of the roadway, and two large vehicles on the other side of the roadway, which might be a hydraulic excavator and a dump truck, based on their dimensions and appearance."

According to a 1 May 2002 New York Times article and other news reports, some 2000 bodies of alleged Taliban militia members were reportedly buried eight years ago at the direction of Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, then a U.S. ally. A United Nations report suggested that Taliban prisoners of war had suffocated while being transported in containers from Kunduz. The bodies were then reportedly buried at Dasht-e-Leili, near the city of Sheberghan.

The advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights has been investigating the mass grave since 2002. In May 2009, the group asked AAAS to assess available satellite images of the Dasht-e-Leili area, located in the Jowzjan Province of northern Afghanistan.

"The goal of the AAAS participation was simply to help establish a timeline of events," Bromley explained. "In particular, our objective was to determine when holes appeared in the ground according to various satellite images, possibly indicating tampering with an area suspected to have been used to bury the victims of a massacre."

Bromley evaluated multiple commercial satellite images, dated 12 May 2000; 2 July 2004; 5 August 2006; 29 January 2007; 8 May 2007; and 24 October 2007. These images were acquired by multiple satellites, including the British TopSat satellite, the Ikonos satellite operated by GeoEye, and the QuickBird satellite operated by DigitalGlobe.

Bromley emphasized that he assessed the satellite images to identify any visible disturbances on the ground in the region of the mass grave. Physicians for Human Rights provided other types of information to the New York Times, for a page 1 story on Saturday 11 July 2009. On Sunday 12 July, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he has asked his national security staff to look into the 2001 deaths of Taliban prisoners so that the U.S. government can assess whether the U.S. contributed to possible war crimes.

Bromley received project assistance from AAAS colleagues Ashwan Reddy and Jonathan Drake.

Physicians for Human Rights is a non-profit, non-sectarian advocacy group founded in 1986 with a goal to "investigate the health consequences of human rights violations and work to stop them." The organization was a 1997 co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.