AAAS Satellite Image Analysis Points to New Graves, Shelling, and Human Displacement in Sri Lanka

Beside a green lagoon on Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast, on a sandy spit of land less than 8 miles long, violence reportedly erupted 9-10 May as military soldiers clashed with rebel Tamil Tigers.Now, a detailed AAAS assessment of high-resolution satellite images seems to confirm descriptions of intense fighting within Sri Lanka’s “no-fire zone”—revealing a landscape scarred by freshly dug graves and artillery explosions.By 6 May 2009, numberous probable internally displaced persons structures are present in this image, along with a graveyard (outlined in red), containing an estimated 195 burials.

By 10 May 2009, the graveyard in this image, outlined in red, has expanded substantially, compared with the earlier, 6 May image above.

By 24 May 2009, an area across the street from the original graveyard in this image has been cleared and is also being used for burials. AAAS analysis suggested that 342 new graves were dug at this site in Sri Lanka’s “no-fire zone” following the 9-10 May episode of renewed fighting.

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At one gravesite, for example, an estimated 342 new graves appeared in satellite images after violence erupted in May, said Lars Bromley of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. Thousands of refugee shelters vanished, while dozens of permanent structures were damaged and the region was riddled by shelling, said Bromley, director of the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights project at AAAS.

“The narrow peninsula that makes up the civilian safety zone in Sri Lanka clearly has undergone very dramatic physical changes,” Bromley confirmed. “By comparing before-and-after satellite images, we were able to see a significant movement of the region’s human population, suggesting widespread displacement, based on changes to structures. We also identified many crater-like features consistent with shelling, a major gravesite expansion, and numerous suspected mortar sites.”

Shortly after the clash between the Sri Lankan military and rebels with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the New York Times filed this report: “A government doctor said at least 378 civilians—and perhaps as many as 1,000—had been killed and more than 1,100 wounded on Saturday and Sunday during intensive shelling of the combat zone on Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast.”

The Defense Ministry of Sri Lanka issued a statement contending that rebels were “bombarding their own civilians.” Other sources have accused the government of shelling the civilian-populated region, which was declared a no-fire zone on 12 February. Journalists meanwhile reported being banned or ejected from the region.

Bromley compared six images, spanning dates from 9 May 2005 through 24 May 2009, captured by multiple satellites, including DigitalGlobe’s QuickBird and WorldView satellites; and GeoEye’s Ikonos and GeoEye-1 satellites.

The AAAS analysis, requested by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International USA, was conducted as part of broader AAAS research funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

When compared with a 6 May satellite image, a 10 May image reveals “the obvious removal of thousands of likely [internally displaced persons, or IDP] structures,” the AAAS report states. “Overall, the area appears to have been swept relatively clean.”

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