How We Identified Burned Villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Christophe Koettl in the New York Times: “In mid-February a source in the human rights community told me that villages in a remote region of the Democratic Republic of Congo were being burned amid a renewal of communal fighting. People fleeing the violence told aid workers of arson attacks.

The clashes between the Hema and Lendu communities — on the eastern side of the Ituri province, bordering Uganda — started in December and escalated in early February.

Historically, these distant conflicts have been difficult to analyze. But new technologies allow us to investigate them in close to real time.

I immediately collected active-fire data from NASA — thermal anomalies, or hot spots, that are recorded daily. It showed dozens of fires on the densely forested mountain ridge and along the shoreline of Lake Albert, one of the African Great Lakes between Congo and Uganda.

(Human rights groups also used this type of data, in combination with other evidence, to document the military’s scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya in Myanmar.)

Active-fire data does not provide the cause of a fire, so one must exercise caution in interpreting it, especially when researching violence. It is more commonly used to track wildfires and agricultural fires.

The satellites that collect this information do not provide actual images; they only record the location of active fires, and very large ones at that. So don’t get your hopes up about watching your neighbors barbecue from space — we aren’t quite there yet.

Google and other online mapping platforms often show only blurry satellite images, or have no location names for remote areas such as the small fishing villages around Lake Albert. This makes it difficult to find places where people live. To deal with this challenge, I exported residential data from the online mapping site Openstreetmap.

I then overlaid the NASA data with this new data in Google Earth to look for recorded fires that were in or near populated places. This process gave me a shortlist of 10 locations to investigate.


Location of satellite-recorded active fires (the flames) and residential area data (the white outlines) helped to identify remote locations that had possibly been burned. Credit© Google Earth/DigitalGlobe

Next, the satellite company DigitalGlobe provided me with high-resolution satellite imagery and analysis of these places. The results were disturbing: All the villages I had identified were at least partially burned, with hundreds of destroyed homes.

As this was not a comprehensive analysis of the whole area affected by violence, the actual number of burned villages is probably much higher. Aid organizations are reporting around 70 burned villages and more than 2,000 destroyed homes.

This new visual evidence provided us with a strong basis to report out the whole story. We now had details from both sides of the lake, not just at the refugee landing site in Uganda….(More)”