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Using Science to Gauge Sudan's Humanitarian Nightmare
Seen from a satellite, the modest plot of Sudanese landscape looks nearly barren, but for an irregular pattern of squares and rectangles etched over the lunar surface. An expert's eye, however, sees something more ominous: stark evidence that dozens of homes have been destroyed, trees felled and walls that once surrounded each of the village homes reduced to rubble.
This was once the village of Shattay in Sudan's embattled Darfur region, but now much of it has been leveled. At a AAAS from on the Sudan crisis on 20 October, top experts from the U.S. State Department and the human rights community detailed how the tools of scienceincluding satellite images and formal surveysand providing some of the most powerful evidence that a genocide may be underway in Darfur.
"This is the first time satellite imagery has been so openly used as a foreign policy tool," said Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and special coordinator for international disaster assistance and special humanitarian coordinator for the Sudan.
Natsios offered his analysis at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. during a half-day forum organized by AAAS's Science and Human Rights staff. Audio recordings, background on the speakers and other conference materials may be found here.
The use of such technology and expert analysis has been crucial in shaping policy and perception related to the humanitarian crisis, Natsios told the audience.
"The reason why the geospatial tools were used in Sudan was because the [U.S.] State Department needed physical evidence to convince a skeptical international community and a skeptical media that there is a big problem occurring in Darfur, Sudan," he said. "On June 3-4, 2004, satellite imagery played a major role at the donor government meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. USAID used the presentation to put the Sudanese government on notice. The images became a diplomatic toolthey knew we were watching them from the air."
About 1.4 million people, out of an estimated population of 6.5 million in the Darfur region of Sudan, are internally displaced and more than 230,000 people have fled into neighboring Chad. An estimated 200,000 civiliansmen, woman, and children, mostly from the black, non-Arab Fur, Zaghawa and Masaalit groupshave been victims of a government-supported Arab group of militias known collectively as the "Janjaweed." For those who have fled the country, health conditions in the refugee camps have declined sharply as the international community races to provide much needed aid.
Science, technology and medicine have played a critical role in helping policymakers evaluate and respond to the situation. Satellite imagery and remote sensing have provided evidence of the destruction of villages and massive refugee flows. Anthropologists familiar with the region have provided the context for understanding the roots of the conflict. Medical professionals have provided life-saving health measures for displaced men, woman and children.
Much of that data is essential to make people believe in a crisis that scope and terror which might otherwise seem unbelievable.
"Denial is common in the most serious human rights violationsespecially those on the verge of genocide," said Juan Mendez, President of the International Center for Transitional Justice and the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.
"It's one thing to hear the statistics and listen to recounts of events. There is an emotional effect to see the evidence, the photos, of the atrocities taking place."
Before Sudan, geospatial imagery had never been used as a foreign policy tool in a humanitarian crisis.
"Satellite imagery has not been useful until very recently," said Steven Hansch, a senior associate at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. "In terms of humanitarian efforts, the images were useful for identifying the locations of landmines and patterns of deforestation around refuge camps."
The increase of information and the real-time transmittal of data finally allow the capability of immediate response from aid workers and governments, according to Hansch.
David Springer, a geospatial analyst for the Humanitarian Information Unit of the U.S. State Department, emphasized that the images allowed the U.S. government to identify villages that had been damaged or destroyed and to detect where the Darfurian refugees were located.
"Geospatial analysis is an ongoing process that depicts the refugee camps in Chad and displaced persons in Sudan," Springer said. "The pictures show how they spatially relate to one another," Springer said.
In his presentation, Springer pointed to a pair of images that conveyed the fate of Shattay village. On page 7, there's an image of the village before the militias arrived, and a second taken afterward. He explained the change in vegetation and the structural difference between spotting structures and foundations.
He also demonstrated the software, ArcGIS 9.0, to depict in real time satellite images from the Mille United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Camp in Chad.
"This panchromatic image of a refugee camp in Chad gives me a feel for how big the camp is and its layout. I use this software to digitally enhance the images, using dots to depict individual tents," Springer explained. "From this base image, someone on the ground, in the camp, can fill in the missing data like how many people are sharing each tent, what tribe those people belong to, things like that."
Such satellite date is important not only for measuring the human impact of the crisis, he added, but in helping to establish locations for food drops and new refugee camps.
Hansch, a senior associate at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, noted that science has come a long way since he started working in humanitarian aid in 1977.
"The unit of analysis is more precise today. We're calibrating evaluations in smaller increments, simultaneously talking about action and truth-finding," said Hansch. "And the cost of using the technology has decreased."
But Natsios cautioned that the images are not hard evidence until they are corroborated by testimony of witnesses on the ground. Earlier this year, under increasing pressure to provide a reliable assessment of the situation, the State Department put an atrocities documentation team in the field to survey the refugees fleeing Darfur.
Stephanie Frease of the Coalition for International Justice (CIJ) and Jonathan Howard, a research analyst with the U.S. State Department's Office of Research, traveled to Chad to document the atrocities in Darfur.
The survey sample consisted of 1,200 people, remarkable considering the ongoing nature of the conflict and the atrocities occurring on the ground. Because the Darfur region was so dangerous, the interviews were conducted over a four-week period in July and August 2004, with refugees from all open U.N. High Commission for Refugees camps and 10 informal settlements in Chad.
The interviewers were comprised of area experts, social scientists, attorneys and expert investigatorsmany of whom used their vacation time to help. The group had one week to organize the survey, which consisted of a questionnaire using open-ended questions to elicit responses.
"We used open-ended questions to preserve a narrative of each person's unique experience of what happened to them," Howard told the AAAS audience.
Howard explained that the largest obstacle was conducting the survey in a humanitarian crisis. The conditions were rough with refugees spread over a distance of 400 km.
"The group also didn't have any demographics to use to begin with," Hansch added. "One key rate of data, the crude mortality rate, doesn't account for the normal rate of death due to disease and old age."
Working with interpreters, members of the survey team were stunned by some of the findings:
- 81 percent reported that their villages had been destroyed.
- 75 percent of the respondents reported that attacks were apparently coordinated by Government of Sudan Forces, despite the government's denials.
- 61 percent reported that a family member had been killed.
- 44 percent were either shot or witnessed shooting.
- 28 percent reported knowing someone who had died as a result of displacement.
- 16 percent reported that they were raped or that they knew someone who had been raped.
Still, Hansch advised that the survey results may contain a bias. "The people being interviewed have learned our interests," he said. "They know the humanitarian aid comes from the answers they give an interviewer."
To some, that concern and other issues may raise the question of whether the crisis in Darfur qualifies as genocide. Indeed, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed a panel of experts to examine that question. The U.N.'s 1948 Genocide Convention defines genocide as an effort to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group by killing them or deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the group's physical destruction.
On 9 September, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that genocide was occurring in Darfur, basing his opinion on the witness testimony provided from the survey and the geospatial images.
Mendez, the U.N.'s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, acknowledged that Powell's announcement mobilized the United Nations. But he said that he could not certify whether Powell's assessment is accurate. His mandate is to prevent genocide, he said, and not to categorize whether genocide had already occurred in Darfur.
"The situation is dangerous," he said. "The people feel strongly that they haven't turned a corner from preventing genocide from happening in the future. The population is terrified. They don't feel secure in the refuge camps or in the villages. They don't feel adequately protected by the police."
Although Mendez is skeptical of a "prediction ability" in the social sciences, he said he is willing to risk crying wolf in order to prevent genocide. "The earlier we detect a conflict," he said, "the easier to prevent the conflict from deteriorating into a genocide."
26 October 2004