Ethiopian Occupation of the Border Region of Eritrea Case Study Summary

Study conducted by William M. Arkin for the Legal Advisor to the Office of the President of the State of Eritrea, 2002.

Summary

The countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea — located on the Horn of Africa - fought a two-year war beginning on May 6, 1998, and ending with a peace agreement signed by Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki on December 12, 2000. The conflict is estimated to have cost tens of thousands of lives and displaced as many as 650,000 people on both sides of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border. The peace agreement set up commissions to establish the border between the two countries (a formal border had never been set following the independence of Eritrea in 1993), exchange prisoners, return displaced people and hear claims on compensation for war damages. The claims commission was set up at the Hague. Testimonials from both sides of the conflict were submitted to the claims commission.

The analysis of Ikonos high-resolution satellite imagery supported claims from State of Eritrea submitted to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague on October 15, 2002, in a report entitled "Ethiopia's Violations of International Law Arising From Its Attacks on and Occupation of the Central Zone of Eritrea."

This use of satellite data by the State of Eritrea is one of the earliest examples of using commercially-available satellite data for tracking human rights violations. This is a notable achievement and sets important precedence in using commercial (and other satellite) networks as part of a human rights observation network.

A period of intense fighting and Ethiopian advances into the disputed border region occurred in the period following June, 2000. In the aftermath, with the intention of documenting the damage that occurred during the Ethiopian advance, the State of Eritrea conducted an assessment of the damage. This included obtaining satellite imagery before and after the advance with the intention of identifying damage to structures that occurred during this period. High-resolution satellite imagery was submitted as evidence to the commission by both governments, and offered practically the only photographic documentation of events in the border region at the close of the conflict. An important aspect of the commission's work is to create greater understanding between Eritrea and Ethiopia about the causes and events that took place in the war, as both countries claim to be victims in the conflict, and promote the ability to live peacefully in the future.

The assessment was not intended to evaluate war damage or harm caused to, or perpetrated upon, individual civilians or civilian homes, or to make estimates of civilian casualties. Instead, the assessment's mission was to concentrate on major civilian objects, primarily public buildings, most of which remain in the state in which they were left following the Ethiopian occupation.

The findings of the assessment were presented by the State of Eritrea to support their claims that Ethiopian activity during the initial military offensive and later occupation violated international law: "Ethiopian forces have throughout this period abused Eritrean civilians, looted their property, and deliberately destroyed the public infrastructure." The Eritrean Central Zone consists of hundreds of towns and villages spread over a large area, so the Memorial focused on several locations, including events at the border towns of Senafe, Serha and Tserona.

Figure 1: Site Locations 

 
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Methods and Technologies

On September 24, 1999, the Space Imaging Corporation launched the IKONOS satellite which began imaging this area of Africa soon after. The IKONOS imagery used in this analysis was purchased by the State of Eritrea via experienced mapping consultants from Space Imaging Corporation, a major commercial vendor of satellite data located in Thornton, Colorado. Imagery from the IKONOS satellite has a spatial resolution of one meter. The scenes obtained include images taken near the start of the Ethiopian occupation (i.e., 24-25 May, 2000 in the case of Senafe), during the Ethiopian occupation and after the 18 June, 2000 ceasefire accord between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

A team led by William Arkin, an independent consultant to the Office of the President of the State of Eritrea, traveled to the region in October 2002 and undertook an extensive assessment of destruction in the area. Individual buildings were photographed and the locations of buildings were logged with a handheld Garmin GPS receiver. This data aided in drawing informed and legitimate conclusions from the satellite imagery analysis.

Pre-mission work included research on Eritrea and the Ethiopian-Eritrean war, review of affidavits and testimony from experts and local residents for the objective town, satellite-imagery analysis, and preparation of a geographic information system (GIS) analysis tool for Eritrea using ArcView software.

Challenges

The use of satellite imagery in identifying public structures that had been destroyed proved relatively successful. The biggest challenge presented itself in the fact that often the deliberate destruction of buildings in these Eritrean settlements involved the physical removal of structure elements such as doors and windows, two examples of features that are not discernible given the resolution of the imagery being used in the assessment. Another tactic employed by the occupiers was the deliberate destruction of structural strongholds, such as concrete base pillars. Photographic evidence depicts pillars that have clearly been subject to explosives. In some cases, a building might be destroyed from within and have a partially collapsed roof, but such damage cannot be identified in the satellite images.

Results

The use of geospatial technologies in Eritrea's assessment of damage proved a formidable supplement to accompany photographs documenting destruction and other evidence. The results from each area covered in this assessment are discussed in further detail below.

Tserona Image Analysis

The Eritrean town of Tserona, with a population of about 3,500, had been severely damaged during the 1993 war but had been rebuilt and had developed economically prior to the 1998 conflict. As a result of Ethiopian shelling of Tserona, in 1998 virtually the entire population of the town evacuated to camps for Internally Dispersed Persons (IDP) at Mai Wurai and Alba. The Ethiopian army occupied Tserona between approximately May 24, 2000 and February 2001.

Eyewitness statements describe the systematic looting and destruction of Tserona during the Ethiopian occupation:

"When I went to fetch water for my cattle at the river near Tserona, I could see Ethiopian civilians taking property in Tserona and loading it on trucks leaving Tserona. They worked on the houses by removing the doors, windows, and roofs with hammers and metal rods. They usually worked in teams. One group would remove the roofs, and another group would load the roofs onto the trucks. They also took all the livestock. When they were finished, nothing was left in Tserona (Memorial at Tserona)."

Figure Two: Tserona (Full Image)- May 31, 2000 

 
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An IKONOS satellite image of Tserona was obtained from May 31, 2000, about a week into the Ethiopian occupation. The image was used to verify that building structures were initially intact and document the extent of damage conducted during the occupation. An 'after' image could not be obtained but there was other archival data available.

The area was inspected on Oct. 4, 2002 by William Arkin, et. al. Photographs documenting the damage were taken and a Garmin commercial GPS receiver was used to log the locations of the buildings. The overall process helped to establish a time window for the damage to Tserona. This was an important evidentiary use of the satellite imagery, since no other photographic evidence was available before the destruction. During this established time window, photographic evidence shows there was widespread destruction of major public structures and facilities in the town.

Figure 3: Tserona Hotel, Marketplace & Water Tower 

 
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The image subset above includes the Tserona hotel, a newly built marketplace and a water tower a top a hill (identified by red dots clockwise from the bottom). Photographic evidence from 2002 shows that the structures have been destroyed, or partially destroyed. The Tserona Hotel showed signs of internal detonation along some of its central structural pillars, among other destruction.

Senafe Image Analysis

The larger Eritrean city of Senafe had a pre-war population of over 25,000. After a period of fighting in early 2000 the city was occupied by the Ethiopian Army for a period of ten months from June 2000 to March 2001. Unlike Tserona, Senafe does not lie in the territory over which Ethiopia claimed sovereignty in the border dispute with Eritrea. But it was subject to occupation, looting and destruction none the less. The greatest damage to the city by Ethiopian forces was the detonation of Senafe's public buildings, including the hospital, schools, police station, court house and administrative buildings.

Available IKONOS imagery was acquired from the Space Imaging Corporation for two dates: June 3, 2000 and August 19, 2000. The images were analyzed for signs of destruction and corroborated by surveying work conducted by Arkin for the State of Eritrea in October 2002. Some facilities showed clear signs of destruction in the August 2000 image. Other structures did not, but were confirmed as severely damaged from the ground surveying in 2002. In some instances structures would be detonated from the inside leaving the roof intact, or partially intact, causing the destruction to be unidentifiable in the satellite images.

Figure 4: Senafe (Full Image)- June 3, 2000 

 
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Figure 5: Senafe Administrative Headquarters

 
Before Image: 03-Jun-2000
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After Image: 19-Aug-2000
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The above image depicts a number if administrative and residential buildings. Red dots have been placed over the structures of interest. Destruction can clearly be seen in the after images, with many of the roof tops visible in the before image missing from the after. The October 2002 visit to the site confirmed this destruction; in fact, the survey found many of the buildings to be completely destroyed making it almost impossible to determine the exact cause of the damage; the imagery does help establish a temporal window in which the destruction occurred.

Figure 6: Ministry of Agriculture Storage Buildings

 
Before Image: 03-Jun-2000
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After Image: 19-Aug-2000
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The above image depicts storage buildings and warehouses owned by the Ministry of Agriculture. Red dots have been placed over the structures of interest. Destruction can clearly be seen in the after images, with the roof tops visible in the before image missing from the after. The October 2002 visit to the site confirmed this destruction.

Figure 7: Ministry of Agriculture Veterinary-Medicine Complex

 
Before Image: 03-Jun-2000
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After Image: 19-Aug-2000
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The above image depicts a veterinary medicine complex owned by the Ministry of Agriculture. Red dots have been placed over the structures of interest. Destruction can clearly be seen in the after images, with the roof tops visible in the before image missing from the after. The October 2002 visit to the site confirmed this destruction.

Serha Image Analysis

Serha is a border town located on the southern boundary of the Senafe administrative district. The town had a prewar population of approximately 2,500 people and an estimated 200 structures. The town experienced an extended period of shelling and bombing from 1998 to 2000 and was subsequently occupied by Ethiopian armed forces. Most of the town's civilians fled during the occupation, and re-population occurred post-occupation. Various levels of destruction occurred during the occupation with many homes and other structures having been dismantled (including roof removal) and some of the larger public buildings having been completely destroyed.

The Serha area was included in the images purchased for the study in Senafe, from June and August 2000. Buildings that were completely raised can clearly be observed in the later image. Ground surveying was conducted in 2002 to assess the damage and corroborate the existence of any suspected destruction sites located in the August 2000 image.

Figure 8: Serha (Full Image)- May 31, 2000 

 
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Figure 9: Serha School

 
Before Image: 03-Jun-2000
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After Image: 19-Aug-2000
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The building complex in the above image is a school of hardy construction. Construction consists of concrete-poured buildings raise don one-meter high concrete slab foundations. On the ground reporting from October 2002 identifies the school complex as having been completely destroyed. This can be observed in the August 2000 image, above left, thereby closing the potential time gap of when destruction occurred.

Figure 10: Serha Administration Building/Central Marketplace 

 
Before Image: 03-Jun-2000
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After Image: 19-Aug-2000
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Many of the buildings in the above image show signs of destruction; roofing has been removed from some structures and others look completely razed. This interpretation was corroborated by the October 2002 ground visit; photographic evidence was also taken at this time. This again helped pinpoint the time frame in which destruction occurred.