• April 26, 2013
  • News & Analysis
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Behind the scenes: Using satellite imagery to find Kony’s camp

The report we released today ¬†used a range of sources to confirm the LRA’s movement into Sudanese-controlled territory and Sudan’s renewed support for the rebel group. However, the source likely to generate the most attention is satellite imagery analysis.

Satellite imagery and other remote sensing technologies are being increasingly adopted for human rights purposes. Efforts being undertaken by the Satellite Sentinel Project — tracking atrocities in Sudan — and Amnesty International USA’s Science and Human Rights team — such as this imagery from Aleppo, Syria— have been particularly pioneering in this regard.

Our use of satellite imagery showing the probable location of LRA leader Joseph Kony’s recent camp in Sudanese-controlled territory is likely to raise a number of questions. How did we locate the camp? Why are we confident it is actually the LRA’s camp, where Kony is thought to have resided? And how did we get the imagery?

To be credible, satellite imagery analysis usually needs to be paired with other sources of information.

In our case, a 2010 UN report documented the LRA’s first incursion into a Sudanese-controlled area known as the Kafia Kingi enclave, which took place in October 2009 and included a meeting with Sudanese military officials near their garrison near the village of Dafak. In 2012, we received new reports from LRA defectors and other sources which indicated the LRA had subsequently established a camp approximately 8-10 kilometers south of the Dafak garrison. In December of 2012, we approached experts at Amnesty International USA with this information, and they offered to purchase imagery analysis of the area from DigitalGlobe, a commercial provider of satellite imagery and analysis.

DigitalGlobe analysts had identified the likely location of the Dafak garrison in previous analysis, and it matched public reports and our own field research. Civilians displaced by the LRA’s incursion into the area had even helped my teammate Paul draw a rough map showing the Dafak garrison and LRA camps.

DigitalGlobe’s analysis of a 100 square kilometer area around the Dafak garrison, shared with us on January 10, showed that some time between 2009 and 2011, a camp with four tents was established approximately 8.7 kilometers south of the garrison. Several cultivated plots of land also emerged approximately 3.6 kilometers south of the garrison. Both had been abandoned by early 2013. Though one or both of these may have been created by the LRA, our research had indicated a much larger LRA presence than such a small camp could shelter, so we considered it inconclusive.

Then, in February and March, we received further reports with new details suggesting that as later waves of LRA members arrived in Kafia Kingi, an LRA encampment had been established further southwest of the garrison, perhaps 15-20 kilometers away, near a river likely to be the Umbelasha. We again approached Amnesty International USA, who generously underwrote further imagery analysis that DigitalGlobe conducted.

This time, we were confident we found what we were looking for.

Imagery we received on April 4th clearly showed the emergence of a camp along the banks of the Umbelasha River, 17 kilometers southwest of the Dafak garrison. No human activity was visible in the area until November 2011, when the imagery showed burned grass, a common precursor for planting crops. In the next imagery available, from March 2012, semi-permanent structures had been built and there was clear delineation of farmland with crops planted that matched LRA defector reports. The camp reached peak activity in December of 2012, before being abandoned some time between February and March 2013, again matching information from multiple sources.

As for LRA leader Joseph Kony, several LRA defectors had testified that he first moved into Kafia Kingi in late 2010. After a short time there, during which some of his deputies met again with Sudanese officials, he reportedly moved back into Central African Republic before returning again to Kafia Kingi in late 2011. This time frame corresponds with the initial signs of the encampment 17 kilometers southwest of Dafak. Our research suggested Kony likely stayed at the LRA’s encampment in Kafia Kingi for significant portions of 2012. None of our research has indicated there was more than one major LRA camp complex in the enclave, indicating that the one we identified was likely where Kony stayed.

Other knowledgeable sources have since confirmed that the camp we located in Sudanese-controlled territory has also been identified by Ugandan military officials — likely with assistance from their US partners — as likely to be Kony’s recent camp.

Is any of this bullet proof? No. Nor has every piece of information we received about LRA presence in Sudanese-controlled territory over the past three years matched up perfectly, though faulty memories and the difficulty of gaining access to these areas makes that all but inevitable. However, we received enough credible information from a range of independent sources to give us confidence in our report’s findings, including those derived from satellite imagery analysis.

Now that the report is published and the information is public, we will be turning our attention toward galvanizing international action to ensure Sudan’s support to the LRA is now definitively ended. In the meantime, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Amnesty International USA and DigitalGlobe for their support for this effort.

-Michael Poffenberger



About the Author

Michael Poffenberger
Michael Poffenberger

Michael Poffenberger is Executive Director of The Resolve.