Our meeting took place in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 21, 2013. The witness sat with her lawyer and Forensic Architecture’s model maker . The woman—who prefers to remain anonymous—is hoping to communicate the realities of life under drones, and the experience of surviving a strike in which she also lost her brother-in-law.

Drone Strikes

DRONE STRIKES

Investigating covert operations through spatial media

Although armed drones have been used in Afghanistan from the start of the US campaign in October 2001, the first known targeted assassination by the US outside a theatre of war took place in Yemen on November 3, 2002. Since June 2004 the main focus of the drone campaign has been in the frontier regions of Pakistan. The first Israeli drone strikes in Gaza also started around the same time in 2004, while in Somalia drone strikes began in 2007. The areas most imperilled by drone warfare are generally outside of the effective control of states but are still subject to the worst of their violence.

Waziristan, part of a region of Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is also effectively under a media blackout due to a siege that forbids the entry and exit of nonresidents, including journalists, and the taking of images or bringing out of recording devices. The targeted areas of Yemen and Somalia are likewise difficult for nonresidents to enter. Consequently, few images of the damage caused by drones and even fewer eyewitness accounts and survivors’ testimonies are available outside of these regions. News reporting has also been uneven and sometimes contradictory. This has meant that some aspects of drone warfare have been more present within public discourse than others.

One of the most under-researched aspects of drone warfare has been the spatial; that is, the territorial, urban, and architectural dimensions of these campaigns. Forensic Architecture has investigated several issues relating to the spatial mapping of drone warfare; for example, the geographical patterns of strikes in relationship to the kind of settlements (towns or villages) targeted and types of buildings targeted. Our aim was to explore what potential connections there might be between these spatial patterns and the numbers of casualties, especially civilian casualties.

The investigation has, to date, primarily consisted in mapping, modelling, and visually animating the data in order to explore this question. Our research and analysis were divided between two primary scales of drone warfare respectively; that is, on the one hand, studying the spatial and temporal patterns of drone strikes on the territorial level, and, on the other, a very detailed architectural examination of a few specific strikes in Pakistan, Gaza, and Yemen.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Susan Schuppli (research & coordination)
  • Jacob Burns (research)
  • Steffen Krämer (video compositing & editing)
  • Reiner Beelitz (architectural modeling)
  • Samir Harb (architectural modeling)
  • Zahra Hussain (research assistance)
  • Francesco Sebregondi (research assistance)
  • Blake Fisher (research assistance)

SITU Research team

  • Bradley Samuels (Managing Partner)
  • Akshay Mehra (research)
  • Charles Perrault (research)
  • Xiaowei Wang (research)
  • McKenna Cole (research)

Collaborating Organizations & Individuals

  • Office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights (Ben Emmerson QC, Annie O’Reilly, Sarika Arya)
  • Foundation for Fundamental Rights (Mirza Shahzad Akbar)
  • European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (Andreas Schüller)
  • Al Mezan Center for Human Rights (Nuriya Oswald)
  • Reprieve (Jennifer Gibson)
  • Amnesty International (Mustafa Qadri)
  • One World Research (Bridget Prince, Nasser Arrabyee, Anis Mansour)
  • Bureau of Investigative Journalism (Alice Ross, Jack Serle)
  • Al Jazeera English (Ana Naomi de Sousa)
  • New York Times (Sergio Pecanha, Declan Walsh)
  • Chris Woods (freelance journalist)
  • Edmund Clark (photographer)
  • Chris Cobb-Smith (munitions expert & consultant)
  • Myra MacDonald (freelance journalist)

Case no.1: Datta Khel (full report)
Case no.3: Miranshah (full report)
Case no.2: Mir Ali (full report)
Case no.4: Gaza (full report)

Geo-Platform

The first part of our investigation focused upon the production, together with our research partners SITU Research and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), of an interactive online platform that plots information regarding the geographical and temporal distribution of drone strikes, the number of people reported killed, and the kinds of targets reported hit. The first stage of the platform, which dealt with strikes in Pakistan from 2004 onwards, was launched in early 2014. It will be expanded to include information on strikes in Yemen, Gaza, and Somalia later in the year. This work was undertaken by trawling through the TBIJ’s archive of thousands of news reports that detailed strikes in both the global and local media. By looking again at this information—it had already been examined several times by BIJ staff in order to generate a number of their own reports and statistics—we found new data, specifically spatial, that had slipped through the cracks because it was not recorded by the prevailing categories used to classify strikes.

Countries subject to drone strikes since 2002. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Countries subject to drone strikes since 2002. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.


Civilian deaths from drone strikes in North and South Waziristan. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Civilian deaths from drone strikes in North and South Waziristan. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Target types and casualty numbers from drone strikes in FATA, Pakistan, 2004–2013. Mir Ali, Miranshah and Datta Khel, the locations of strikes investigated in this report are marked on the image. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), Forensic Architecture and Situ Research mapped the geographical and temporal distribution of drone strikes, the number of people killed, and the kinds of targets hit. Trawling through thousands of news reports in both the global and local media we found spatial data, previously unaccounted for. We discovered that most drone strikes took place on houses, and consequently it is in buildings that most people died. On March 11, 2014, the map was presented in the UN Human Rights Council as a part of the report on Drone Warfare by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism.

Case Study Analyses

Forensic Architecture undertook detailed case study analyses of five specific drone strikes. These have been created from the perspectives of survivors and on-site witnesses, as well as those who visited the aftermath of the strikes. The aim was to describe, in as detailed a manner as possible, the effects of these strikes on the ground, on architecture, and on the people within them. Each of our investigations is paradigmatic of a different way of working with scarce data. In each case, we cross-referenced the different types of data available to us, including satellite imagery, local and international media reports, witness statements, and on-the-ground images when and if we could obtain them. Through these analyses we were able to demonstrate that, despite all inhibiting circumstances, investigating specific drone strikes is in fact possible. Crucially, by using a different methodology in each case study and demonstrating how these innovative ways of analysis may be carried out even when confronted with limited information and research materials, our work may help other investigators working on drone warfare.

We provided this analysis to different groups who were seeking accountability for drone strikes or involved in pursuing legal processes against states using or aiding drone warfare. The research was used in a multiplicity of forums: it was provided to Shahzad Akbar of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights in Pakistan who is litigating the Datta Khel strike on behalf of the family of one of the victims; it also constitutes part of an international investigation by Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights (UN SRCT) on drone warfare in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Palestine, and was presented as part of his interim report to the UN General Assembly in New York on October 25, 2013. Other groups with whom we worked closely in developing the research, as well as disseminating it, include B’Tselem (Israel/Palestine) and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (UK). Our work also featured in various television documentaries on drone warfare, such as Töten per Joystick, a German production, as well as on Al-Jazeera.

Case study no. 1: Datta Khel, North Waziristan, March 16–17, 2011

On the morning of March 16, 2011, a jirga was convened at Datta Khel in North Waziristan, to debate the ownership of a local chromite mine. A jirga is a traditional community gathering that meets to resolve disputes. Reportedly at issue was the method of payment of Rs8.8 million ($100,000) for the mining rights. This particular meeting took place in an open field in the vicinity of the Nomada bus station, in Datta Khel’s bazaar. The jirga lasted two days. It consisted of two large adjacent circles of men seated on the ground. These discussion circles were positioned 3.6 meters apart according to one of the witnesses. On the first day of the meeting, a US drone struck in the vicinity of Datta Khel, killing 4 to 5 people. Very little is known about this strike. At approximately 10:45am on the morning of the second day, missiles fired from a US drone struck one of the two jirga circles. Upwards of 43 civilians were immediately killed. The convening of the jirga had been authorized by the Pakistani military 10 days previously and was thus an officially sanctioned meeting. Members of the local tribal police were also present. Surely the drones loitering over the tiny area of Datta Khel for two days must have observed the jirga in action. If so, why was a large community gathering targeted on the second day?

A jirga. Source: pukhtoogle.com

A jirga. Source: pukhtoogle.com


We proceeded by identifying key structures mentioned in witness statements. These statements were cross-referenced with other information and compared with before and after satellite imagery.

We proceeded by identifying key structures mentioned in witness statements. These statements were cross-referenced with other information and compared with before and after satellite imagery.


This diagram provides a detailed understanding of the potential explosive force of the multiple Hellfire missiles that struck the jirga. As indicated, the force would have also been intensified in the areas of overlap between the two points of impact from the missiles. This would have dramatically increased their capacity for killing and maiming jirga attendees.

This diagram provides a detailed understanding of the potential explosive force of the multiple Hellfire missiles that struck the jirga. As indicated, the force would have also been intensified in the areas of overlap between the two points of impact from the missiles. This would have dramatically increased their capacity for killing and maiming jirga attendees.

Trying to pinpoint the location of the drone strike itself was particularly difficult to verify due to the lack of photographic documentation, limited access to survivors, conflicting press reports, and the fact that the strike occurred in an open area, leaving minimal impact damage that can be revealed through satellite image analysis.

Trying to pinpoint the location of the drone strike itself was particularly difficult to verify due to the lack of photographic documentation, limited access to survivors, conflicting press reports, and the fact that the strike occurred in an open area, leaving minimal impact damage that can be revealed through satellite image analysis.


A comparison of satellite images taken before (23 January 2011) and after (5 April 2011) a strike that killed 43 people on 17 March 2011. In the after image, there are two subtle surface disturbance and discoloration, which could indicate the presence of two impact craters approximately 3.6 meters (12’) apart.

A comparison of satellite images taken before (23 January 2011) and after (5 April 2011) a strike that killed 43 people on 17 March 2011. In the after image, there are two subtle surface disturbance and discolouration, which could indicate the presence of two impact craters approximately 3.6 meters (12’) apart.


Unlike most drone strikes that had occurred up to this point, the attack on the jirga was roundly condemned by Pakistan’s President, Prime Minister and the Head of the Army. Twenty-seven days later, American drone strikes resumed with an attack in South Waziristan. The CIA continues to deny that any civilians were killed in the attack of March 17, 2011.

Protesters in Datta Khel holding pictures of the victims of the strike. Photo: Anjum Naveed/AP Photo. Unlike most drone strikes that had occurred up to this point, the attack on the jirga was roundly condemned by Pakistan’s President, Prime Minister and the Head of the Army. Twenty-seven days later, American drone strikes resumed with an attack in South Waziristan. The CIA continues to deny that any civilians were killed in the attack of March 17, 2011.

Case study no. 2: Mir Ali, North Waziristan, October 4, 2010

On October 4, 2010, a US drone struck a home in the town of Mir Ali, North Waziristan, in Pakistan, killing five people. One of the surviving witnesses to this attack is a German woman, who lived in the house at the time with her two-year-old boy and her husband. Together with Forensic Architecture, this witness built a digital model of her home, which no longer exists. During a day-long process of computer modelling, the witness slowly reconstructed every architectural element of her house. Placed virtually within the space and time of the attack, the witness was able to recollect and recount the events around the strike.

Our meeting with the witness took place in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 21, 2013. The witness sat with her lawyer and Forensic Architecture’s model maker . The woman—who prefers to remain anonymous—is hoping to communicate the realities of life under drones, and the experience of surviving a strike in which she also lost her brother-in-law.

Our meeting with the witness took place in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 21, 2013. The witness sat with her lawyer and Forensic Architecture’s model maker. The woman—who prefers to remain anonymous—is hoping to communicate the realities of life under drones, and the experience of surviving a strike in which she also lost her brother-in-law.


Our meeting took place in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 21, 2013. The witness sat with her lawyer and Forensic Architecture’s model maker . The woman—who prefers to remain anonymous—is hoping to communicate the realities of life under drones, and the experience of surviving a strike in which she also lost her brother-in-law.

Digital reconstruction of the scene of the strike in a 3D-model. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

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Digital reconstruction of the scene of the strike in a 3D-model. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

A sketch of a residential house targeted by a drone strike in Mir Ali (4 October 2010). It was prepared by a German survivor at the request of the European Center for Constitutional and Human and Forensic Architecture.

A sketch of a residential house targeted by a drone strike in Mir Ali (4 October 2010). It was prepared by a German survivor at the request of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Forensic Architecture.


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Digital reconstruction of the scene of the strike in a 3D-model. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013. Photo: Forensic Architecture.


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Digital reconstruction of the scene of the strike in a 3D-model. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

Case study no. 3: Miranshah, North Waziristan, March 30, 2012

This case analysed video testimony smuggled out of North Waziristan, in order to reconstruct the space of the strike and interrogate the event. The video was originally aired by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on June 22, 2012. This footage revealed a great deal beyond what appeared to be chaotic images of rubble and ruin. In particular, it also shed light on the conditions involved in documenting such violent events in Waziristan.


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Still from the video testimony smuggled out of North Waziristan, originally aired on the Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, June 22, 2012.

Next we undertook a detailed comparison between the satellite image and the news footage. On the left side of the building we noticed a series of beams that fanned out in a radial pattern, and found the same radiating beams at the newly identified location on the satellite image.

Next we undertook a detailed comparison between the satellite image and the news footage. On the left side of the building we noticed a series of beams that fanned out in a radial pattern, and found the same radiating beams at the newly identified location on the satellite image.

 Sketch made after looking at satellite and aerial images and video footage, representing a stage in the construction of a 3D model.

Sketch made after looking at satellite and aerial images and video footage, representing a stage in the construction of a 3D model.

Using a collage pieced together from individual frames extracted from the footage, we eventually found the building within a satellite image of Miranshah, with the morphology of the streets as a guide.

Using a collage pieced together from individual frames extracted from the footage, we eventually found the building within a satellite image of Miranshah, with the morphology of the streets as a guide.

Both images depicted a tower to the left side of the building near the bend in the road. We could also make out a higher structure on the other side of the street from the tower. These spatial indicators allowed us to identify and match the location to the destroyed buildings depicted in the news footage.

Both images depicted a tower to the left side of the building near the bend in the road. We could also make out a higher structure on the other side of the street from the tower. These spatial indicators allowed us to identify and match the location to the destroyed buildings depicted in the news footage.

Sketch made after looking at satellite and aerial images and video footage, representing a stage in the construction of a 3D model.

Sketch made after looking at satellite and aerial images and video footage, representing a stage in the construction of a 3D model.

Animating the shadows cast on different days and at different times enabled us to compare our model with the shadows visible in the satellite and video images, to corroborate its volumes as well as to determine the approximate time-3pm-that the video was shot.

Animating the shadows cast on different days and at different times enabled us to compare our model with the shadows visible in the satellite and video images, to corroborate its volumes as well as to determine the approximate time-3pm-that the video was shot.

The MSNBC video footage also depicted other locations. In particular, it also showed the destruction of a still unidentified empty room. The MSNBC video footage also depicted other locations. In particular, it also showed the destruction of a still unidentified empty room.

The MSNBC video footage also depicted other locations. In particular, it also showed the destruction of a still-unidentified empty room. 

The missile is designed to penetrate through a ceiling, and detonate when inside a room, spraying hundreds of steel fragments and killing everybody in proximity. Each fragment was studied and mapped. Where the distribution of fragments is in lower density, it is likely that something absorbed them. Although we could not be certain, it is possible that the absence of the fragments indicated the places where people died.

The missile was designed to penetrate through a ceiling, and detonate when inside a room, spraying hundreds of steel fragments and killing everybody in proximity. Each fragment was studied and mapped. Where the distribution of fragments is in lower density, it is likely that something absorbed them. Although we could not be certain, it is possible that the absence of the fragments indicated the places where people died.

Using the entry hole of the missile, and the light that streams through it as a compass, we found the orientation of the room, and calibrated the model to the time when the interior video was shot.

Using the entry hole of the missile, and the light that streams through it as a compass, we found the orientation of the room, and calibrated the model to the time when the interior video was shot.

 

Case study no. 4: Beit Lahiya, Gaza, January 9, 2009

In the early hours of January 9, 2009, an antitank missile was fired at the Salha family home in Beit Lahiya, Northern Gaza. Its hollow charge penetrated the roof, entered one of the rooms, and impacted the floor leaving a small hole. Three minutes later a bomb struck and destroyed the house. Six people were killed, all women and children. This strike exemplifies a new strategy adopted by the Israeli military referred to as “knock on the roof.” It is one of several methods used to alert residents of an imminent attack. Israel makes much of the fact that it tries to warn civilians of impending bombings. Warnings take the form of telephone calls or text messages, informing the inhabitants of the imminent destruction of their home. They can also take the form of leaflets dropped from airplanes; warning shots; or the firing of a nonexplosive missile. On August 28, 2013, Forensic Architecture interviewed two of the surviving members of the Salha family in Gaza by live satellite link from the Al Jazeera English studios in London. Fayez Salha and Noor Salha, his son, have been attempting to bring their story to public attention and obtain redress for their loss. With the family’s help, we built a detailed model of their home.


Map of Gaza, with the location of Beit Lahiya marked.

Map of Gaza, with the location of Beit Lahiya marked.

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On August 28, 2013, Forensic Architecture interviewed two of the surviving members of the Salha family in Gaza by live satellite link from the Al Jazeera English studios in London. Fayez Salha and Noor Salha, his son, have been attempting to bring their story to public attention and obtain redress for their loss. With the family’s help, we built a detailed model of their home.

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Annotations on the model of the Salha home.

View of the roof of the Salha house, as surveyed by munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith in the aftermath of the lethal strike. The hole measuring only 4cm in diameter approximatively, is likely to be the entry point of the first "knock-on-the-roof", nonexplosive missile. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International.

View of the roof of the Salha house, as surveyed by munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith in the aftermath of the lethal strike. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International.

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Still from footage of the ruins of the house hit. Source: Al-Mezan.

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Annotations on the model of the Salha home.

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View of the 3D reconstruction of the Salha home. Image: Forensic Architecture

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The hole measuring only 4cm in diameter approximatively, is likely to be the entry point of the first “knock-on-the-roof”, nonexplosive missile. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International.

Case study no. 5: Jaar and al Wade’a, Abyan Province, Yemen, 2011

July 14, 2011. In al Wade’a, Abyan province, up to fifty were killed, including up to thirty civilians, in a targeted strike on a police station, according to local officials, the Yemen Interior Ministry, CNN, and other media sources. An eyewitness told Al Jazeera that while six bodies of killed gunmen were pulled from the ruins of the police station, the death toll could “climb with ongoing rescue operations.” The New York Times claimed the strike killed eight militants, while witnesses told CNN that “at least 30 civilians” were among the dead. According to CNN, the US government denied that a US drone was involved in the attack. However, Yemeni officials told the Associated Press that the strike must have been carried out by an American plane “because Yemeni planes aren’t equipped for night-time strikes.” Journalist Nasser Arrabyee reported that “some 20 al Qaeda fighters were killed … including leaders Hadi Mohammed Ali and Abu Bilal.” (Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

Forensic Architecture commissioned One World Research Services to work with their on-the-ground investigators in Yemen to document the aftermath of two drone strikes and interview witnesses. Under the direction of local journalist Nasser Arrabyee, Anis Mansour travelled from Aden to al Wade’a district, Abyan province, via Jaar, to film and photograph the strikes which occurred on July 14, 2011, and May 15, 2012.


Al Wade’a/Yemen: Before (5 May 2011) and after (21 July 2011) satellite images of a strike in Al Wade’a. Source: Digital Globe. Without specific coordinates for this strike, Forensic Architecture scoured a large portion of Al Wade’a District using Google Earth, identifying several potential sites prior to acquiring before-and-after satellite images. According to munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith, whom we commissioned to interpret the after-image, which clearly indicates the building in ruin, the two lighter spots in the dusty courtyard are likely the result of an airburst bomb. These bombs detonate a few meters above the surface to maximize blast force. He noted that the level of destruction was likely due to bombs of at least 500 pounds each.

Al Wade’a/Yemen: Before (5 May 2011) and after (21 July 2011) satellite images of a strike in Al Wade’a. Source: Digital Globe.
Without specific coordinates for this strike, Forensic Architecture scoured a large portion of Al Wade’a District using Google Earth, identifying several potential sites prior to acquiring before-and-after satellite images. According to munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith, whom we commissioned to interpret the after-image, which clearly indicates the building in ruin, the two lighter spots in the dusty courtyard are likely the result of an airburst bomb. These bombs detonate a few meters above the surface to maximize blast force. He noted that the level of destruction was likely due to bombs of at least 500 pounds each.

A memorandum sent from One World Research to Forensic Architecture describing the journey and work undertaken by Anis Mansour, the researcher who had been contracted to carry out investigations into drone strikes in Jaar (15 May 2012) and Al Wade’a (14 July 2011).

A memorandum sent from One World Research to Forensic Architecture describing the journey and work undertaken by Anis Mansour, the researcher who had been contracted to carry out investigations into drone strikes in Jaar (15 May 2012) and Al Wade’a (14 July 2011).


Satellite images after a strike in Al Wade’a (July 21, 2011). Source: Digital Globe.

Satellite images after a strike in Al Wade’a (July 21, 2011). Source: Digital Globe.

By extracting stills from the footage of the strike site broadcast by Aden News Agency TV, Forensic Architecture created a panoramic image of the building hit in the strike. This helped us both to identify the location of the strike on a satellite image, and to identify with the help of Chris Cobb Smith the two lighter circles in front of the ruin which indicate the place above which the air-burst munitions detonated.

By extracting stills from the footage of the strike site broadcast by Aden News Agency TV, Forensic Architecture created a panoramic image of the building hit in the strike. This helped us both to identify the location of the strike on a satellite image, and to identify with the help of Chris Cobb Smith the two lighter circles in front of the ruin which indicate the place above which the air-burst munitions detonated.

Interviews conducted with eye witnesses of the 15 May 2012 strike on a house in Jaar, Yemen. Ansi Mansour / Forensic Architecture 

Footage broadcast by Aden News Agency TV showing the aftermath of the strike on the police station in Al Wade'a, Yemen. Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81KjC-kQDbs

 

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Guatemala: Operacion Sofia

GUATEMALA: OPERACION SOFIA

Environmental violence and genocide in the Ixil Triangle

The violence inflicted by Guatemalan state security forces — both military and military-organized civil militias — on the Ixil Maya people in the El Quiché region of West Guatemala (1978–84) amounted, according to Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) to “acts of genocide.” But genocide is not always only the killing of people, for it also includes “environmental violence”: the destruction of the natural and built environment as part of a military strategy.

This investigation attempts to read the environment not just as the location of conflict, but as the means by which it unfolds. This research formed a report produced on behalf of the prosecution in the case of genocide committed against the Ixil people. Our research was included in a series of trials taking place in Guatemala, including the retrial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in the National Court of Guatemala and in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Paulo Tavares (research & coordination)
  • Daniel Fernández-Pascual (research)
  • Hannah Meszaros Martin (research)
  • Maya Cueva Franco (research)

SITU Research team

  • Bradley Samuels (Managing Partner)
  • Akshay Mehra (research)
  • Charles Perrault (research)

Collaborating Organisations

  • CALDH – Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (Rodrigo Salvadó and Edwin Cannil)
  • ODHAG – Oficina de Derechos Huamanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala (Raul Najera and Ana Carolina)

Interactive Platform

Forensic Architecture’s research on environmental violence was designed to complement other studies of the conflict. In order to demonstrate the multifaceted nature of environmental violence, our research was presented in the form of a web-based interactive cartography produced in collaboration with SITU Research. The platform is able to establish the spatial and temporal relation between otherwise separate pieces of evidence.


The Mineral Geology of Genocide


Guatemala Investigation: The Mineral Geology of Genocide (part II). Forensic Architecture and SITU Research. Realisation by Steffen Kraemer.

Animated composite mapping


The transformation of the Ixil area between 1979 and 1986. Topographic model with a projected sequence of composite maps demonstrating how deforestation, pattern of massacres, destruction of native villages, and construction of new “model villages” transformed the area between 1979 and 1986. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.
NDVI map

Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) analysis of the Ixil territory for satellite images taken in 1979 and 1986, the years that bracket the genocide. Green indicates heavy vegetation and red signifies little vegetation. Visualisation: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Map depicting the density of massacres registered by the UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) during the thirty-six years of civil war. The zone of greatest intensity overlaps with the ancestral territory of the Ixil Maya. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Map depicting the density of massacres registered by the UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) during the thirty-six years of civil war. The zone of greatest intensity overlaps with the ancestral territory of the Ixil Maya.
Visualisation: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Taken over by wild grass, this partially cleared plot of land was formerly occupied by a wooden house. On the left side of the image an avocado tree can be identified, a signifier of the plot’s former occupants. Village of Xolcuay, Ixil territory, 2013. Photo: Paulo Tavares.

Taken over by wild grass, this partially cleared plot of land was formerly occupied by a wooden house. On the left side of the image an avocado tree can be identified, a signifier of the plot’s former occupants.
Village of Xolcuay, Ixil territory, 2013.
Photo: Paulo Tavares.

Aerial image of the model village of Acul in which survivors of the massacres were concentrated, circa 1984. Source: Magazine of the Guatemalan army, Polos de Desarrolo y Servicios, 1984.

Aerial image of the model village of Acul in which survivors of the massacres were concentrated, circa 1984.
Source: Magazine of the Guatemalan army, Polos de Desarrolo y Servicios, 1984.

Map identifying the location of unmarked graves⎯in which victims of the civil war were buried⎯uncovered by the Fundación de Atropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG) at a cemetery in the city of Escuintla, southern central Guatemala. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

Map identifying the location of unmarked graves⎯in which victims of the civil war were buried⎯uncovered by the Fundación de Atropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG) at a cemetery in the city of Escuintla, southern central Guatemala. Photo: Paulo Tavares and Eyal Weizman.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) analysis of the Ixil territory for satellite images taken in 1979 and 1986, the years that bracket the genocide. Green indicates heavy vegetation and red signifies little vegetation. Two trends are noticeable: increased deforestation in the areas surrounding the major towns (the destruction of the forest went hand in hand with the destruction of villages); and an increase in vegetation cover in the northern areas, possibly signaling abandoned fields taken over by the wilderness. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Two trends are noticeable: increased deforestation in the areas surrounding the major towns (the destruction of the forest went hand in hand with the destruction of villages); and an increase in vegetation cover in the northern areas, possibly signalling abandoned fields taken over by the wilderness.

Housing density in the “Ixil Triangle.” Mayan villages were dispersed in the arable valleys between the mountain slopes. In this image the yellow dots mark the location of individual houses in 1964, before the campaign began. The red squares mark the location of new settlements and model villages into which all dispersed households were concentrated. This territorial reorganization employed by the Guatemalan military sought to concentrate the Ixil population into urbanized zones, radically altering their way of life. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Housing density in the “Ixil Triangle.” Mayan villages were dispersed in the arable valleys between the mountain slopes. In this image the yellow dots mark the location of individual houses in 1964, before the campaign began. The red squares mark the location of new settlements and model villages into which all dispersed households were concentrated. This territorial reorganisation employed by the Guatemalan military sought to concentrate the Ixil population into urbanised zones, radically altering their way of life.
Visualisation: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Ruins at the village of Pexla Grande, Ixil territory, 2013. Photo: Paulo Tavares.

Ruins at the village of Pexla Grande, Ixil territory, 2013.
Photo: Paulo Tavares.

The DNA identification room at Laboratorio Clyde Snow, Guatemala City, November 2011. Photo: Paulo Tavares, Eyal Weizman.

The DNA identification room at Laboratorio Clyde Snow, Guatemala City, November 2011.
Photo: Paulo Tavares, Eyal Weizman.

Excavation of clandestine graves at the cemetery in Escuintla, Guatemala. Photo: Paulo Tavares and Eyal Weizman.

Excavation of clandestine graves at the cemetery in Escuintla, Guatemala.
Photo: Paulo Tavares and Eyal Weizman.

 

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Living Death Camps

LIVING DEATH CAMPS

Staro Sajmište / Omarska, former Yugoslavia

Living Death Camps describes the condition of two former concentration camps located in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia: the World War II-era camp of Staro Sajmište, and the camp of Omarska, dating from the Yugoslav war. Both are presently inhabited and used for other purposes.

Living Death Camps names a collaborative project that seeks to investigate the complex material and political issues currently unfolding around these two sites, and to understand the politics of commemoration in which each of them is embroiled.

Each of these sites has a complex and singular history, which we have undertaken to expose in our research. It is by addressing the specificity of each site that we sought to understand and intervene in the respective transformation of each place into a post-conflict site of commemoration. Starting from the acknowledgment that these two former death camps are presently inhabited and used, that they are places upon which the lives of many depend, we argued that it is a necessity for each of these sites to develop a project of commemoration that would remain responsive to the demands of ongoing life.

In an attempt to engage with this need and the difficult questions surrounding it, our research turned to some of the methods of contemporary archaeology. Our forensics have surveyed and explored the multiplicity of events registered in the materiality of each site, without an a priori focus on the historical layer that the death camp has left behind. The material entanglement of historical layers in each site forms the ground upon which a call for a simultaneous attention to its present and pasts can be made.

An inverted symmetry emerges from the research we have conducted in each of the two sites. In both cases our research culminated in the assembly of a public forum, however in Staro Sajmište we opposed plans for commemoration that involved the eviction of its current residents, while in Omarska we demanded that the local community be granted the right to commemorate the tragic events that took place on the site, which is today occupied by a commercial mine in operation.

Forensic Architecture Team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Susan Schuppli (research and coordination – Omarska)
  • Francesco Sebregondi (research and coordination – Staro Sajmište)
  • Steffen Krämer (videography & video editing)
  • Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss (research – Staro Sajmište)

In Partnership With

  • Grupa Spomenik
  • Working Group Four Faces of Omarska
  • Caroline Sturdy Colls, Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University
  • ScanLAB Projects

Press

“Burden of Proof” by Tom Holert, Artforum March 2013

“A memorial in exile in London’s Olympics: orbits of responsibility,” Susan Schuppli, openDemocracy July 2012



Staro Sajmište: The Inverted Horizon

Staro Sajmište, or the Old Fairground, was built in 1938 on the outskirts of Belgrade to host international exhibitions and to present the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as a modern, industrialised, and technologically advanced nation. During World War II, following the German invasion of 1941, the fairground was transformed by the occupying Nazis into a death camp, where Jews, Roma, and political opponents were detained and killed. After the war, the remaining structures of the Sajmište complex became the residence of several generations of people—particularly those from the most vulnerable sections of society—and included artists’ studios, workshops, small industries, and homes for a Roma community. Due to the urban expansion of Belgrade over the past sixty years, Staro Sajmište is now at the centre of the city.

Recently, another transformation of the site was announced. In light of the City of Belgrade’s project to establish a Holocaust memorial in Staro Sajmište, which would necessitate the eviction of some or all the current residents (the first evictions of residents began in the summer 2013), we attempted to highlight what we saw as an unacceptable contradiction: a Holocaust memorial cannot be built on a forcefully cleared ground without immediately compromising its purpose. In order for such a claim to be articulated and heard, it needed to be made on a material basis.

Forensic archaeologist Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls has, in recent years, developed a methodology of investigation that she refers to as “non-invasive.” This involves using a range of complementary techniques, but it largely relies upon the sensing technology of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). This device transmits radar pulses into the ground to a depth of up to fifteen meters, and detects minute differences in the densities of the subsurface by recording the reflected signal. In the fuzzy three-dimensional model of the subsoil it produces, one can identify buried objects, voids and cracks, and other disturbances in the soil structure. Sturdy Colls uses this method to map and digitally explore the subterranean strata of historic sites, in particular those shaped by a history of violence. We approached her in the spring of 2012 to work on an extensive survey of Staro Sajmište, putting her in collaboration with ScanLAB Projects, a London-based practice that specialises in large-scale 3D data capture. A singular image of the site at Staro Sajmište, above and below ground, has emerged from this collaboration.

Our survey has resulted in a report titled An Archaeological Assessment of the Area of the Former Judenlager and Anhaltlager at Staro Sajmište, Belgrade, Serbia, which analyses the different structures, additions, and alterations that have accumulated on the site’s thick ground. The report sought to unpack the history of the site as a process of ongoing transformation; it searched for historical and material continuities as well as ruptures. In this approach, all layers of the site, including and in particular those composed of its recent and present daily use, are regarded as archaeologically significant. Above all, the report demonstrates that Staro Sajmište’s multiple historical layers are inextricably entangled and mutually dependent.

On October 5, 2013, we convened a public forum inside one of Staro Sajmište’s most infamous structures—the former German pavilion, which had served as accommodation for the camp’s inmates during World War II. There we publicly presented our archaeological report, which served to provoke an open discussion about the future of the site.

The report confirms a counterintuitive fact: Staro Sajmište stands today thanks to its ongoing inhabitation, which has sustained it for the past sixty years. As Sturdy Colls put it in her presentation of the report: “The role of the people who have been living here since the war should be duly acknowledged. Because in actual fact, the people who have lived in these buildings have played a role in preserving them. Many of these buildings wouldn’t be here if people hadn’t lived in them.”

Not only did the residents of the site prevent its structures from degenerating into rubble—as happens after the long-term inoccupation of a building—but their number and distribution over the entire site has successfully hindered the realisation of several redevelopment plans during the post-World War II period—which could have meant the destruction of the historical buildings to make room for a denser or more profitable urban quarter. Based on these findings, our claim—which we publicly put forward on the occasion of the public forum—was the following: rather than evict the people living and working in Staro Sajmište, the City of Belgrade has a duty towards them and surely must include them as an active party in any future plan for commemoration.

The first transformation of Staro Sajmište from an exhibition ground into a concentration camp demonstrates a strange continuity between the two very different functions of the same compound—both made use of the same geometry of vision of pavilions around a central tower. The second transformation from a camp into a living neighbourhood illustrates a concept that philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes as “profanation”— “restoring into common use” of those things that have been excluded, separated, bounded, put out of access and touch. Today’s plans for returning the site to its original function—thereby completing a circuit that leads from a fairground through a concentration camp to a museum—would imply the re-sanctification of the site in the meaning of its exclusion from daily life. “Everything today can become a Museum,” Agamben writes, “because this term simply designates the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing.”

An appropriate commemorative project for Staro Sajmište would include a plan to rehabilitate its homes and modernise its collective infrastructure, in order to support its potential as a common space. The concept of a living death camp would demand that any commemoration plan should see to the improvement of the living conditions of the communities that have turned this place into a neighbourhood, and that have kept its material history alive.

Aerial image of the newly built fairground with Belgrade in the background, 1937. The panoptic structure of the camp is clearly identifiable. Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

Aerial image of the newly built fairground with Belgrade in the background, 1937. The panoptic structure of the camp is clearly identifiable.
Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

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Semlin camp, circa 1941. Originally constructed as ticket booths for the fairground, the buildings in the foreground later became the gatehouses of the camp, photo circa 1941. Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

German Pavilion in the fairground, 1937. Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

German Pavilion in the fairground, 1937.
Image: courtesy of the Jewish Historical Museum, Belgrade.

Aerial photograph of the Semlin camp in 1944, showing the bomb craters of the Allied raids over Belgrade. Image: courtesy of Jovan Byford.

Aerial photograph of the Semlin camp in 1944, showing the bomb craters of the Allied raids over Belgrade.
Image: courtesy of Jovan Byford.

The Central Tower in its current state (2012). Image: Forensic Architecture.

The Central Tower in its current state (2012).
Image: Forensic Architecture.

Interior of mechanical workshop occupying the former German Pavilion, 2012. 3D-Laser Scan data. Image: ScanLAB Projects / Forensic Architecture.

Interior of mechanical workshop occupying the former German Pavilion, 2012. 3D-Laser Scan data.
Image: ScanLAB Projects / Forensic Architecture.

Plan of Staro Sajmište (the former Semlin death camp) in Belgrade. The survey combined two distinct data-capture technologies: on-site features lying above the ground were recorded via 3D laser scanning, while we searched for buried features using Ground Penetrating Radar. The rectangular surfaces that appear mainly in blue are snapshots of the underground, and the colored elements within them mark disruptions to the soil structure. Image: ScanLAB Projects/Caroline Sturdy Colls/Forensic Architecture, 2013.

Plan of Staro Sajmište (the former Semlin death camp) in Belgrade. The survey combined two distinct data-capture technologies: on-site features lying above the ground were recorded via 3D laser scanning, while we searched for buried features using Ground Penetrating Radar. The rectangular surfaces that appear mainly in blue are snapshots of the underground, and the colored elements within them mark disruptions to the soil structure.
Image: ScanLAB Projects/Caroline Sturdy Colls/Forensic Architecture, 2013.


Survey Area I, 2012. Annotated depth plots of the GPR data viewed in plan. Feature A bisects the survey area from east to west and most likely represents a pipe, probably for sewage. Feature B is a modern path. Feature C is visible from 0.10 m deep and is present as an area of medium reflection until approximately 0.72 m. Strangely, it returns as a low reflection feature at approximately 1.24 m. It seems likely that this feature represents some form of back-filled ditch, but its purpose is unclear. It might also represent a remnant of a historical settlement, predating all other features. Image: Forensic Architecture / Caroline Sturdy Colls.

Survey Area I, 2012. Annotated depth plots of the GPR data viewed in plan. Feature A bisects the survey area from east to west and most likely represents a pipe, probably for sewage. Feature B is a modern path. Feature C is visible from 0.10 m deep and is present as an area of medium reflection until approximately 0.72 m. Strangely, it returns as a low reflection feature at approximately 1.24 m. It seems likely that this feature represents some form of back-filled ditch, but its purpose is unclear. It might also represent a remnant of a historical settlement, predating all other features.
Image: Forensic Architecture / Caroline Sturdy Colls.

Survey Area I, 2012. Depth of GPR data as visualized in GSSI RADAN® software. The elliptical feature C is visible. This strange feature, defiantly located amongst all the other historical layers, complicates the history of the site. Image: Forensic Architecture / Caroline Sturdy Colls.

Survey Area I, 2012. Depth of GPR data as visualized in GSSI RADAN® software. The elliptical feature C is visible. This strange feature, defiantly located amongst all the other historical layers, complicates the history of the site.
Image: Forensic Architecture / Caroline Sturdy Colls.

Omarska: Memorial in Exile

In 2005 ArcelorMittal made a commitment to finance and build a memorial on the grounds of Omarska, the site of the most notorious concentration camp of the Bosnian war. Two decades later, no resolution as to how to commemorate the tragic events that took place on its grounds have been found.

In a chance meeting near the mine, Director of ArcelorMittal, Prijedor Mladen Jelača, proudly confirmed to us that the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the towering symbol of the London 2012 Olympics, was being fabricated with iron ore that came from the Omarska mine. This material link between London and Omarska—between a site where crimes against humanity were committed and another that celebrated that same universal humanity—formed the basis of our collective project. On July 2, 2012, shortly before the opening of the Olympics, we hosted a press conference in the immediate vicinity of the Olympic park. With the participation of survivors from the Omarska and Prijedor camps, we reclaimed the ArcelorMittal Orbit as the Omarska Memorial in exile.

Prijedor is in the region that is referred to, after the Dayton Peace Agreement, as Republika Srpska—an area whose demographics were dramatically affected by the war and where ethnic cleansing was the most intense and successful. Bosnian Muslims we spoke to, who had returned under the agreement, complained of daily harassment and continued discrimination. While ArcelorMittal claims it is fully aware of its responsibilities towards the local community and its employees, the mine’s postwar workforce is comprised almost exclusively of Bosnian Serbs.

ArcelorMittal insists on “not taking sides in this debate without engagement or prior agreement of the local communities and local/international stakeholders concerned.” Not taking sides in an area where persecution and injustice continue is not an act of neutrality but constitutes a political position by default. Not taking sides maintains the impasse of the present and forecloses the possibility of moving forward. Through the Memorial in Exile project, we aimed to raise public awareness of this material amnesia, and to put continued pressure on ArcelorMittal—demanding that it use its enormous influence to facilitate the entrance into public discourse of the history of the Omarska death camp.

Twenty years after it first emerged in the public sphere, the case of Omarska regained considerable public attention through our project. It may be that this contributed to bringing about a significant softening in ArcelorMittal’s policy regarding public access to the site. As a consequence, our team was granted access to the Omarska mine on October 3, 2012 to conduct a detailed photographic and 3D laser-scanning survey of the notorious White House. In 1992, this rather banal-looking one-story pitched-roof house functioned as a place for the torture and execution of inmates. Witnesses who testified in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) described an accumulating pile of bodies rising in a deadly mound beside it. The White House was also the site chosen by ArcelorMittal to build a memorial in a 2005 project that was later abandoned.

3D laser-scanning technology allowed us to capture a millimeter-perfect model of the interior, exterior, and immediate surroundings of the White House. The level of detail it provides allows one to identify features that are hardly visible to the naked eye, such as the footprint of a boot on an interior wall, but also remnants of improvised attempts at commemoration. The capture of this model constitutes a future-oriented archive. Considering the planned cessation of the ICTY’s activities at the end of 2016, the fate of the White House in the coming years is uncertain. Access to such a significant place of mourning for the relatives of the camp’s victims still remains highly restricted today. In the context of the ongoing negotiation of a commemorative project for Omarska, this singular three-dimensional archive has the potential to be mobilised in unexpected ways.

The Omarska mine and its surrounding landscape. According to recent geological assessments there are still some 347 metric tons of limonite and carbon-ore reserves in the river valleys of the Sana, Una, and Gomjenica, between the mountains of Kozara and Grmec. Limonite has been mined for more than two thousand years in this region of Bosnia.

The Omarska mine and its surrounding landscape. According to recent geological assessments there are still some 347 metric tons of limonite and carbon-ore reserves in the river valleys of the Sana, Una, and Gomjenica, between the mountains of Kozara and Grmec. Limonite has been mined for more than two thousand years in this region of Bosnia.

IT-99-36: Brdjanin. Picture of the Omarska Camp Model (0400-9592). Exhibit P1128.4. Date: 30 / 10 / 2002. Submitted by the Prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Image: ICTY Court Records.

IT-99-36: Brdjanin. Picture of the Omarska Camp Model (0400-9592). Exhibit P1128.4. Date: 30 / 10 / 2002. Submitted by the Prosecution at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Image: ICTY Court Records.

Twenty years after the war crimes committed there, still no space of public commemoration exists. Ground, buildings, and equipment once used for extermination now serve a commercial enterprise run by the world’s largest steel producer.

Twenty years after the war crimes committed there, still no space of public commemoration exists. Ground, buildings, and equipment once used for extermination now serve a commercial enterprise run by the world’s largest steel producer.

ArcelorMittal Orbit, London Olympic Stadium, 2012. Image: Courtesy of ArcelorMittal.

ArcelorMittal Orbit, London Olympic Stadium, 2012. Image: Courtesy of ArcelorMittal. Rising to the soaring height of 114.5 meters and outstripping even the Statue of liberty by two meters, the ArcelorMittal Orbit boasts an impressive compendium of statistics: 1,500 tons of steel, 35,000 bolts, 19,000 liters of paint, 770 visitors per hour and 5,000 per day, vistas stretching 20 miles into the distance, and a overall price tag of £22.7 million, £19.6 million of which was funded by ArcelorMittal.

The facts and figures of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the showpiece of london’s 2012 Olympics, are tragically intertwined with the history of war crimes that took place on the very grounds from which ArcelorMittal subsequently began to extract not only its soaring global profits, but the very iron ore that the director of ArcelorMittal Prijedor boasts has been used in the construction of the Orbit.

The facts and figures of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the showpiece of London’s 2012 Olympics, are tragically intertwined with the history of war crimes that took place on the very grounds from which ArcelorMittal subsequently began to extract not only its soaring global profits, but the very iron ore that the director of ArcelorMittal Prijedor boasts has been used in the construction of the Orbit.

Aerial view of Omarska mine. From the Four Faces of Omarska Archive, source unknown.

Aerial view of Omarska mine. From the Four Faces of Omarska Archive, source unknown.

New battle breaks out over Serb death camp, The Guardian, December 2, 2004.

New battle breaks out over Serb death camp, The Guardian, December 2, 2004.

The story that links london to Omarska forcefully came to our attention when a group of us, including survivors of the conentration camp, drove around the perimeter of the Omarska mining complex in April 2012. At a certain point we pulled off to the side of the road where a white building was barely visible in the distance. Anxiety mounted as we lingered to talk and take some pictures, the survivors fearful that this unauthorized stop might make future access to the site even more difficult.

The story that links London to Omarska forcefully came to our attention when a group of us, including survivors of the concentration camp, drove around the perimeter of the Omarska mining complex in April 2012. At a certain point we pulled off to the side of the road where a white building was barely visible in the distance. Anxiety mounted as we lingered to talk and take some pictures, the survivors fearful that this unauthorised stop might make future access to the site even more difficult.

Another series of facts: 3,400 Bosniaks and Croats from Prijedor went missing or were killed during 1992, the summer of the massacre. At least 3,334 were imprisoned in the camp at Omarska, 700 to 800 were exterminated, 37 female detainees were repeatedly raped and tortured, upwards of 150 men singled out daily for execution. One thousand men, women, and children from the Prijedor region are still missing.

Another series of facts: 3,400 Bosniaks and Croats from Prijedor went missing or were killed during 1992, the summer of the massacre. At least 3,334 were imprisoned in the camp at Omarska, 700 to 800 were exterminated, 37 female detainees were repeatedly raped and tortured, upwards of 150 men singled out daily for execution. One thousand men, women, and children from the Prijedor region are still missing.

n the absence of a promised memorial, london’s Olympic landmark, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, was reclaimed as the Omarska Memorial in exile on July 2, 2012. Anirban Gupta Nigam: An act of reclaiming made possible because of the material power of steel to forge a connection between two disparate localities, events, and times. Between two geographies where corporate power, aesthetic practice, and large-scale mining are colliding in interesting and danger- ous ways: the camp in Omarska, and the Olympic Tower in london.

In the absence of a promised memorial, London’s Olympic landmark, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, was reclaimed as the Omarska Memorial in Exile on July 2, 2012. Anirban Gupta Nigam: An act of reclaiming made possible because of the material power of steel to forge a connection between two disparate localities, events, and times. Between two geographies where corporate power, aesthetic practice, and large-scale mining are colliding in interesting and dangerous ways: the camp in Omarska, and the Olympic Tower in London.


 

For a more in-depth account of this project, see the book FORENSIS: The Architecture of Public Truth.

 

1C

The Left-to-Die Boat

The Left-to-Die Boat

The deadly drift of a migrants’ boat in the Central Mediterranean

The Forensic Oceanography project was launched in summer 2011 to support a coalition of NGOs demanding accountability for the deaths of migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea while that region was being tightly monitored by the NATO-led coalition intervening in Libya. The efforts were focused on what is now known as the “left-to-die boat” case, in which sixty-three migrants lost their lives while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime surveillance area.

By going “against the grain” in our use of surveillance technologies, we were able to reconstruct with precision how events unfolded and demonstrate how different actors operating in the Central Mediterranean Sea used the complex and overlapping jurisdictions at sea to evade their responsibility for rescuing people in distress. The report we produced formed the basis for a number of ongoing legal petitions filed against NATO member states.

Research Team

  • Charles Heller
  • Lorenzo Pezzani
  • SITU Research

Press


Forensic Oceanography – video report on the Left-to-Die boat (FULL-LENGTH)

Monitoring the Mediterranean

In response to the Libyan uprising, an international coalition launched a military intervention in the country. As of March 23, 2011, NATO started enforcing an arms embargo off the coast of Libya. During the period of the events of the “left-to-die boat” case, the central Mediterranean Sea was being monitored with unprecedented scrutiny, enabling NATO and participating states to become aware of any distress of migrants—and therefore be effective in assisting them. The Forensic Oceanography report turned the knowledge generated through surveillance means into evidence of responsibility for the crime of nonassistance.

Video interview with survivor Dan Haile Gebre, conducted by Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller on December 22, 2011.

In our interview with Dan Haile Gebre, one of the survivors, we tried to depart from formats of witnessing normally associated with humanitarian organizations. Rather than placing the emphasis on the subjective dimension of his experience, we used various memory aids—such as photographs of naval and aerial assets that were present in the area at the time of the events—to assist him in recollecting precise elements that could support the reconstruction of the spatiotemporal coordinates of the event and the identification of the various vessels and aircrafts encountered by the migrants while at sea.

Slide presented by Vice-Admiral Gortney at a US Department of Defense news briefing on March 24, 2011. The image shows the US & Coalition Maritime Forces Lay down a few days before the migrants left Tripoli. A total of thirty eight ships are indicated. The naval presence in the central Mediterranean Sea continued to grow in the following days.

Slide presented by Vice-Admiral Gortney at a US Department of Defense news briefing on March 24, 2011. The image shows the US & Coalition Maritime Forces Lay down a few days before the migrants left Tripoli. A total of thirty eight ships are indicated. The naval presence in the central Mediterranean Sea continued to grow in the following days.

Official NATO video shot inside the operations room of the Italian frigate Bettica as it sailed towards its patrol area, “near the border between Tunisia and Libya.” The video describes the ways in which the area north of Libya was divided into tightly controlled patrol sectors assigned to different NATO ships.
Official NATO video shot on board the Canadian ship Charlottestown. The video describes how the sensing capabilities of all naval and aerial assets were linked together in an attempt to “have a full picture of all vessels in the area.”
The NATO Maritime Surveillance Area (MSA) between March 23 and April 8, 2011 within the framework of the arms embargo off the coast of Libya.

The NATO Maritime Surveillance Area (MSA) between March 23 and April 8, 2011 within the framework of the arms embargo off the coast of Libya.

 

 

Summary of key events

1. The migrants’ vessel left the port of Tripoli between 00:00 and 02:00 GMT on March 27, 2011 with seventy-two migrants on board. At that time, as part of the military operations in Libya, NATO was enforcing an arms embargo in the central Mediterranean Sea, meaning that during that period it was the most highly surveilled section of sea in the entire world (see items 2A, B, and C).

2. At 14:55 GMT on March 27, the boat was spotted by a French aircraft that transmitted its coordinates (point A) to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC).

3. After proceeding in the direction of Lampedusa for fifteen to eighteen hours, the migrants placed a distress call by satellite phone. The vessel’s GPS location was determined at 16:52 GMT on March 27, 2011 (point B) by the satellite phone provider Thuraya. Shortly thereafter, the MRCC in Rome signaled the boat’s distress and position to all vessels in the area. It also alerted Malta MRCC and NATO HQ allied command in Naples.

4. The migrants’ vessel continued its course for approximately two hours before being flown over by a helicopter. As the satellite phone fell into the water shortly after this sighting, the last signal detected by Thuraya at 19:08 GMT on March 27 (point C) thus probably corresponds to the location of the helicopter sighting. Around the same position, the passengers approached several fishing boats but their requests for help went unheeded. They were then visited for a second time by a military helicopter that dropped just a few biscuits and water before leaving. Between 00:00 and 01:00 GMT the passengers resumed their course in a NNW direction towards Lampedusa.

Chain of events in the “left-to-die boat” case as reconstructed for the Forensic Oceanography report.

Chain of events in the “left-to-die boat” case as reconstructed for the Forensic Oceanography report.

5. At approximately 07:00 GMT on March 28, after having probably entered the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) area (see items 13A and B), the vessel ran of fuel and began to drift SSW (point D).

6. The boat drifted SSW for seven to eight days before it encountered a military ship between April 3 and 5 (point E). Despite approaching them in circles and witnessing the distress of the passengers, the ship left without assisting them.

7. The boat continued to drift until April 10 when it landed southeast of Tripoli at Zlitan. Upon landing, eleven migrants were still alive; two died shortly thereafter.


 

Alerting the Coast Guard

Information about the migrants’ distress circulated through a complex assemblage of human feeds, electromagnetic signals, and various types of hardware. The initial call for help was made by the migrants themselves via a satellite phone, fifteen to eighteen hours after they had departed from Tripoli. The passengers called Father Zerai, an Eritrean priest based in Rome, who has received hundreds of distress calls from the Mediterranean over recent years. He informed the Italian coastguard, who, after obtaining the GPS location of the boat from the satellite phone provider Thuraya, informed their Maltese counterparts and NATO’s Naples Maritime HQ, as well as sending out two distress signals to all nearby ships. As such, all vessels in the area—civilian and military—should have been informed of the position and distress of the passengers.

The Italian coastguard issued an Inmarsat-C EGC distress signal at 18:54 GMT on March 27, 2011 indicating the position of the migrants’ boat and their distressed situation.

The Italian coastguard issued an Inmarsat-C EGC distress signal at 18:54 GMT on March 27, 2011 indicating the position of the migrants’ boat and their distressed situation.

Addtional image2

The broadcast areas 52, 53, and 56 where the HYDROLANT alert was transmitted are highlighted on this map.

On March 28, 2011 at 04:06 GMT the initial warning was also circulated by the World Wide Navigational Warning Service (WWNWS) as a HYDROLANT navigational warning. It called for all vessels in the vicinity of the Straight of Sicily to keep a “sharp lookout, assist if possible.”

On March 28, 2011 at 04:06 GMT the initial warning was also circulated by the World Wide Navigational Warning Service (WWNWS) as a HYDROLANT navigational warning. It called for all vessels in the vicinity of the Straight of Sicily to keep a “sharp lookout, assist if possible.”


 

Drift

According to the survivors, in the early hours of March 28, 2011 their vessel ran of fuel and began to drift aimlessly for the remainder of its trajectory. Where exactly did the boat begin its drift, and which course did it follow? These are questions that we addressed in collaboration with oceanographer Richard Limeburner (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute), who is experienced in modelling the trajectory of objects in the open ocean. With his help, and by bringing the winds and currents to bear witness to the events, we were able to reconstruct a model of the entire trajectory of the boat during its fourteen days of deadly drift. While we conclude that the vessel briefly entered the Maltese search and rescue zone, for the majority of its trajectory it remained drifting slowly within the NATO maritime surveillance area.

Map showing the vessel’s point of drift (A), determined by combining the last known georeferenced position of the migrants’ vessel with a reconstruction of the boat’s speed and route based on detailed interviews with the survivors.

Map showing the vessel’s point of drift (A), determined by combining the last known georeferenced position of the migrants’ vessel with a reconstruction of the boat’s speed and route based on detailed interviews with the survivors.

Drift model providing hourly positions of the vessel. The drift trajectory was reconstructed by analyzing data on winds and currents collected by buoys in the Strait of Sicily. Over time, the margin of error in the drifting vessel’s track decreases linearly as it is constrained by the known position of landing.

Drift model providing hourly positions of the vessel. The drift trajectory was reconstructed by analysing data on winds and currents collected by buoys in the Strait of Sicily. Over time, the margin of error in the drifting vessel’s track decreases linearly as it is constrained by the known position of landing.


Use of satellite imagery

In the production of the Forensic Oceanography report, satellite imagery was crucial in confirming the presence of a high number of ships in close proximity to the drifting migrants’ boat. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite imagery is routinely collected over the Mediterranean Sea for various purposes, including the policing of illegalised migration. Using these media to document the crime of nonassistance of people in distress at sea thus involved a strategic repurposing of these images and the use of surveillance technologies “against the grain.” In this we exercised a “disobedient gaze,” one that refuses to disclose clandestine migration but seeks to unveil instead the violence of the border regime.

Fig. 1: Map produced by the European Commission Joint Research Centre, showing the density of Synthetic Aperture Radar images in the Mediterranean Basin.

Fig. 1: Map produced by the European Commission Joint Research Centre, showing the density of Synthetic Aperture Radar images in the Mediterranean Basin.

Fig. 2: The report included a survey of all available SAR data (providers consulted: iTerraSAR-X, PALSAR, COSMO-SkyMed, Radarsat-1, Radarsat-2, and Envisat-1) within the Straight of Sicily for the period pertaining to the “left-to-die boat” case (March 27–April 10).

Fig. 2: The report included a survey of all available SAR data (providers consulted: iTerraSAR-X, PALSAR, COSMO-SkyMed, Radarsat-1, Radarsat-2, and Envisat-1) within the Straight of Sicily for the period pertaining to the “left-to-die boat” case (March 27–April 10).


Sensing technologies

Optical and SAR satellites are only two among a vast array of sensing technologies—thermal cameras, sea-, air- and land-borne radars, vessel-tracking technologies, etc.—that scan and analyse the surface of the sea, turning certain physical conditions into digital data according to specific sets of protocols and determining the conditions of visibility of certain events, objects, or people. The constant emission and capture of different electromagnetic waves operated by these technologies confers a new material meaning on Fernand Braudel’s metaphor of the Mediterranean as an “electromagnetic field” in terms of its relation to the wider world. These technologies do not simply create a new representation of the sea, but rather constitute a new sea altogether, one that is simultaneously composed of matter and media.

Envisat-1 data, March 28, 2011. While the image reveals characteristics present on the surface of the sea—different degrees of sea roughness and currents, returns (bright pixels) indicating the presence of ships—it also shows a long band formed by regular stripes. The latter is not produced by the reflection of radar emissions from the surface of the Earth, but is a sensor-related error linked to the data transmission or to the sensor response. This distortion of the image importantly reveals the electromagnetic waves that supplement the sea’s flowing currents of water today.

Envisat-1 data, March 28, 2011. While the image reveals characteristics present on the surface of the sea—different degrees of sea roughness and currents, returns (bright pixels) indicating the presence of ships—it also shows a long band formed by regular stripes. The latter is not produced by the reflection of radar emissions from the surface of the Earth, but is a sensor-related error linked to the data transmission or to the sensor response. This distortion of the image importantly reveals the electromagnetic waves that supplement the sea’s flowing currents of water today.

Detailed analysis of Envisat-1 image taken on March 29, 2011.

Detailed analysis of Envisat-1 image taken on March 29, 2011.

While optical satellite imagery forms images of the Earth’s surface by detecting the solar radiation reflected from targets on the ground, SAR imaging uses an antenna to transmit microwave pulses towards the Earth’s surface. The microwave energy scattered back to the spacecraft is measured and an image is formed by utilising the time delay of the backscattered signals. Calm sea surfaces appear dark in SAR images, whereas ships reflect most of the radar energy back to the sensor, appearing as bright pixels against a uniform background.

Detailed analysis of Envisat-1 image taken on March 29, 2011.

Detailed analysis of Envisat-1 image taken on March 29, 2011.

Detailed analysis of Envisat-1 image taken on March 29, 2011.

Detailed analysis of Envisat-1 image taken on March 29, 2011.

 


 

Analysing Signals

AIS (Automatic Identification System) is a ship-borne transponder system that sends out a signal to coastal or satellite receivers, providing live information regarding the position of all registered vessels. While mandatory for large commercial ships, the carriage of AIS is not required for certain categories of ships such as warships. Forensic Oceanography analysed AIS data in conjunction with SAR imagery in the attempt to identify “negatively” the military ships in the vicinity of the “left-to-die boat”—by determining which large vessels were not accounted for by the AIS data. The inconsistency of AIS data for that period and area (probably due to an absence of recorded data along the Libyan coast) did not allow AIS data to be matched with satellite imagery targets but nevertheless provided an impressive snapshot of commercial maritime traffic though the Straight of Sicily.

Envisat-1 data vessel detection for March 29, 2011 with a corresponding table of returns documenting the estimated length of vessel and degree of confidence that the data is correct. Analysis by Lawrence Fox III, Humboldt State University emeritus professor of remote sensing, for the Forensic Oceanography report.

Envisat-1 data vessel detection for March 29, 2011 with a corresponding table of returns documenting the estimated length of vessel and degree of confidence that the data is correct. Analysis by Lawrence Fox III, Humboldt State University emeritus professor of remote sensing, for the Forensic Oceanography report.

Satellite image with vessel detection for March 28, 2011 (white numbered dots) with AIS data overlaid (purple dots).

Satellite image with vessel detection for March 28, 2011 (white numbered dots) with AIS data overlaid (purple dots).

Radarsat-1 data, April 4, 2011. The white spots indicate returns identified as vessels. The dotted area on the eastern side indicates an area presenting too much scattering and background noise to detect possible targets. Analysis by Rossana Padeletti, GIS and remote sensing specialist and consultant.

Radarsat-1 data, April 4, 2011. The white spots indicate returns identified as vessels. The dotted area on the eastern side indicates an area presenting too much scattering and background noise to detect possible targets. Analysis by Rossana Padeletti, GIS and remote sensing specialist and consultant.

AIS data analysis for March 28, 2011 provided by Donald Ferguson, geospatial analyst and GIS Corps volunteer.

AIS data analysis for March 28, 2011 provided by Donald Ferguson, geospatial analyst and GIS Corps volunteer.

 


 

 

Search and Rescue conventions

The 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) has divided the world’s oceans into different search and rescue areas, for each of which the countries concerned are responsible for assisting people in distress at sea. However, the elastic nature of international law has often been strategically mobilized by coastal states to avoid engaging in rescue missions. In the central Mediterranean Sea, in particular, the delimitation of SAR zones has a long and conflict-ridden history. Tunisia and Libya have refrained from defining the boundaries of their SAR zones, while Italy and Malta have overlapping SAR zones and are signatories to different versions of the SAR convention, a situation which has led to repeated standoffs and tragedies and certainly contributed to the events of the “left-to-die boat” case.

Global map of Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) areas produced by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Global map of Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) areas produced by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Map of the SAR zones in the Mediterranean indicating overlapping and yet-to-be-declared SAR areas.

Map of the SAR zones in the Mediterranean indicating overlapping and yet-to-be-declared SAR areas.

 


 

Legal Cases

The ultimate destination of the report on the “left-to-die boat” has been a series of legal cases regarding nonassistance to people in distress at sea led by a coalition of NGOs*. Cases have been filed in France, Italy, Belgium, and Spain, while Freedom of Information requests have been submitted in Canada, the US, and the UK. These initiatives, as well as an investigation by the Council of Europe and by several journalists, have forced states and militaries concerned to release further data on the events. The reconstruction of facts in the Forensic Oceanography report has never been contested in these responses; however, the information provided so far remains vague and incomplete and has not allowed us to determine legal responsibility for the deaths of sixty-three people on board the “left-to-die boat.”

* The list of organizations belonging to this coalition includes: The Aire Centre, Agenzia Habeshia, Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana (ARCI), Associazione per gli Studi Giuridici sull’Immigrazione (ASGI), Boats4People, Canadian Centre for International Justice, Coordination et initiatives pour réfugiés et immigrés (Ciré), Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme (FIDH), Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés (GISTI), Ligue belge des droits de l’Homme (LDH), Ligue française des droits de l’Homme (LDH), Migreurop, Progress Lawyers Network, Réseau euro-méditerranéen des droits de l’Homme (REMDH), and Unione Forense per la Tutela dei Diritti Umani (UFTDU).

Response by the Canadian government to the Freedom of Information procedure filed in relation to the case.

Response by the Canadian government to the Freedom of Information procedure filed in relation to the case.

P14 - 11Aa Frontex_reply

Letter from Gil Arias, deputy executive director of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (FRONTEX), detailing the coordinates of the “operational area” of its assets within the framework of the Joint Operation EPN Hermes Extension 2011 (the border control operation launched in the aftermath of the Arab Spring).

Letter from Richard Froh, NATO deputy assistant secretary general for operations, addressed to the Council of Europe, April 23, 2012. In this letter, Richard Froh concedes that “this tragedy appears to have been the result of an unfortunate sequence of events, in some ways caused by an apparent lack of communication between many of those involved. If there was a missed opportunity on our part, we deeply regret it.”

Letter from Richard Froh, NATO deputy assistant secretary general for operations, addressed to the Council of Europe, April 23, 2012. In this letter, Richard Froh concedes that “this tragedy appears to have been the result of an unfortunate sequence of events, in some ways caused by an apparent lack of communication between many of those involved. If there was a missed opportunity on our part, we deeply regret it.”

Map provided by the French Ministry of Defense on October 23, 2012 with the aim of demonstrating that French naval assets were not present at the time and in the area where the events occurred. Nevertheless, the map does not consider the presence of French surveillance aircrafts (like the one that took a picture of the “left-to-die boat”), nor the detection capabilities of French naval assets that might have detected the presence of the drifting boat even if not physically present in the area.

Map provided by the French Ministry of Defense on October 23, 2012 with the aim of demonstrating that French naval assets were not present at the time and in the area where the events occurred. Nevertheless, the map does not consider the presence of French surveillance aircrafts (like the one that took a picture of the “left-to-die boat”), nor the detection capabilities of French naval assets that might have detected the presence of the drifting boat even if not physically present in the area.

Map prepared by Forensic Oceanography showing the extent of the area controlled by FRONTEX within the framework of their Joint Operation EPN Hermes Extension 2011.

Map prepared by Forensic Oceanography showing the extent of the area controlled by FRONTEX within the framework of their Joint Operation EPN Hermes Extension 2011.

 


 

 

International Press

The map produced by Forensic Oceanography has been circulated widely in the international press, in activist circles, and in legal and political documents. Each time slightly modified, cropped, deformed, misspelled, and redrawn, it has allowed for the discussion around this case to occur across different arenas. In particular, it has for the first time given a specific form to the trajectory of the boat, thus allowing for the inscription of this event across the liquid surface and the contested jurisdictions of the sea.

P14 - 12A_HRW

Press release on the Human Rights Watch website featuring a Forensic Oceanography map announcing that letters requesting information on involvement in the “left-to-die boat” case were sent on March 26, 2012 by a coalition of NGOs to NATO’s Maritime Command in Naples, Italy, as well as to the defense ministers of France, UK , Italy, Spain, the United States, and Canada.

Postcard featuring Forensic Oceanography’s map produced by the Boats4People network within the framework of the preparatory meeting of the World Social Forum in Monastir,Tunisia, July 2012. Design by Bildargumente.

Postcard featuring Forensic Oceanography’s map produced by the Boats4People network within the framework of the preparatory meeting of the World Social Forum in Monastir,Tunisia, July 2012.
Design by Bildargumente.

Forensic Oceanography map as appendix to the report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe entitled “Lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea: who is responsible?”. March 29, 2012.

Forensic Oceanography map as appendix to the report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe entitled “Lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea: who is responsible?”. March 29, 2012.

Interactive map taken from the online edition of the Guardian (redrawn from a Forensic Oceanography map), March 29, 2012.

Interactive map taken from the online edition of the Guardian (redrawn from a Forensic Oceanography map), March 29, 2012.

Map on the online edition of El Pais indicating the position of the Spanish frigate Méndez Núñez in relation to the migrants’ boat trajectory (redrawn from a Forensic Oceanography map), May 2, 2012. Map by Rodrigo Silva; article entitled “La OTAN tardó 18 horas en alertar a la fragata española de una balsa a la deriva” by Miguel González.

Map on the online edition of El Pais indicating the position of the Spanish frigate Méndez Núñez in relation to the migrants’ boat trajectory (redrawn from a Forensic Oceanography map), May 2, 2012. Map by Rodrigo Silva; article entitled “La OTAN tardó 18 horas en alertar a la fragata española de una balsa a la deriva” by Miguel González.

Map taken from the online edition of BBC News (redrawn from a Forensic Oceanography map), March 29, 2012.

Map taken from the online edition of BBC News (redrawn from a Forensic Oceanography map), March 29, 2012.

Still from the video interview with survivor Dan Haile Gebre, conducted by Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller, Milan, December 21, 2011. In this still we see an early sketch of the chain of events map being used to help Gebre recall the events.

Still from the video interview with survivor Dan Haile Gebre, conducted by Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller, Milan, December 21, 2011. In this still we see an early sketch of the chain of events map being used to help Gebre recall the events.

Postcard featuring Forensic Oceanography’s map produced by the Boats4People network within the framework of the preparatory meeting of the World Social Forum in Monastir, Tunisia, July 2012.

Still from a video of the press conference announcing the filing of the legal case against Spain. Lorenzo Pezzani points to SAR imagery returns on the map. Paris, June 18, 2013.

Rafah, Gaza Strip, January 11, 2009. Photo: Iyad El Baba/UNICEF.

White Phosphorus

WHITE PHOSPHORUS

The effects of airburst WP munitions in urban environments

During and in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Gaza of December 2008–January 2009, known as “Operation Cast Lead,” news reports have repeatedly shown images of a hitherto little known type of weapon. These images displayed airborne explosions releasing tentacles of smoking fragments onto densely inhabited parts of the Gaza strip. Alongside other images of the large-scale destruction of buildings and infrastructure, representations of these airbursts were some of the defining images of “Cast Lead.” Research by several human rights organisations, based on military expertise, witness testimonies, projectile debris found on sites, and medical reports of burn injuries, confirmed that the Israeli military were using white phosphorus munitions.

Because of its incendiary and toxic effects, the use of white phosphorus in populated areas is highly controversial. According to many international legal experts and scholars, it constitutes an illegal act as it effectively acts like a chemical weapon. Israel initially denied the use of such munitions. When confronted with indisputable evidence to the contrary, the Israeli military changed its position and confirmed the use of white phosphorus, but claimed that it only used it “in compliance with international law.”

In March 2011, as part of a concerted civil society action, the Israeli human rights group Yesh Gvul, represented by attorneys Michael Sfard and Emily Schaeffer, submitted a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice demanding the complete ban of the use of white phosphorus munitions in populated areas by the Israeli military. It was in this context that the office of Michael Sfard asked Forensic Architecture to investigate the behaviour and effects of such weapons. The outcome of our investigation was a report titled “The Use of White Phosphorus Munitions in Urban Environments: An Effects-Based Analysis.”

The report was first presented in the UN Office at Geneva, during the Annual Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (November 12–16, 2012). It was later submitted to Israel’s High Court of Justice, within the framework of Yesh Gvul’s petition. With the material in the petition generating a strong adverse public opinion, the Israeli military—prior to the final hearing of the case in the High Court—declared on April 25, 2013 that it would stop using white phosphorus munitions in populated areas.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Francesco Sebregondi (research and coordination)

SITU Research team

  • Bradley Samuels (Managing Partner)
  • Akshay Mehra (research)
  • Charles Perrault (research)

Collaborating organizations

  • Michael Sfard Law Office (Michael Sfard, Emily Schaeffer)
  • Human Rights Watch – Arms Division (Stephen Goose, Bonnie Docherty, Mary Wareham)
  • Chris Cobb-Smith (munitions expert & consultant)
White Phosphorus – video summary of the investigation

Methodology

Among the variety of white phosphorus munitions that exist in military arsenals, this study focuses on the M825 WP projectile. In recent history, in addition to being used by the Israeli military in Gaza, it was also employed by the United States mili- tary in 2004 during operations in Fallujah, Iraq—another densely populated urban environment. At a pre-calculated height above its target, a charge at the front of the M825 WP shell is activated and the projectile separates into two parts releasing its contents: 116 felt wedges soaked in white phosphorus. Once released, the wedges fall to the ground in an elliptical pattern with a long axis of up to 200 meters. Immediately upon coming into contact with oxygen, white phosphorus begins to burn and produce a dense white smoke.

There are three distinct ways in which white phosphorus can cause harm to civilians. Direct contact with the felt wedges can cause severe injury, penetrating clothing and burning directly through skin and bone. The smoke is toxic and can cause severe irritation to the lungs if directly inhaled. But by far the most dan- gerous aspect of this projectile is its incendiary effect, as wedg- es become ignition sources that can start fires throughout the areas where they are deployed.

Our investigation focused on an Effects-Based Analysis of the M825 WP projectile as it interacts with a series of typical urban environments. The effects on urban environments are the result of the specific characteristics of the projectile itself, on the one hand, and the built environment impacted on the other. The methods employed to produce this report therefore combined ballistic simulation with spatial analysis and urban reconstruction. The report analyses the relation between the projectile and the built environment at both the urban scale and the architectural scale. The reconstruction of the behaviour of the projectile was implemented both in order to determine its coverage area, and to catalog the types of damage to objects and persons in a range of contexts.

In producing the report, Forensic Architecture consulted military manuals and sought expert testimony—particularly that of weapons expert Chris Cobb-Smith. However, a crucial source of information for this research was the visual material already available in the public domain: mainstream news media footage and reporters’ photographs documenting the firing of airburst white phosphorus over Fallujah and Gaza. With the help of 3D-modeling software, spatial data was extracted from the still and moving images in an effort to reconstruct both specific events and the general characteristics of the projectile. This data was ultimately integrated into a parametric model that simulated the burst of the M825 WP projectile over typical urban environments, allowing us to analyse its effects, and the resulting civilian damage that can be expected.

Outcomes

On November 12, 2012, in the frame of an advocacy event on Incendiary Weapons organized by Human Rights Watch during the Annual Meeting of State Parties to Convention on Con- ventional Weapons (CCW), Forensic Architecture was invited to present the report to the diplomatic delegates of State Parties to the CCW in the United Nations Office at Geneva.

Notwithstanding the vivid interest manifested by several delegates after the presentation, and in spite of a week-long lobbying process led by Human Rights Watch, no agreement was reached among State Parties with regard to re-opening Protocol III. Notable opposing States were Japan, Israel, and the United States. Given the current configuration of geopolitical power relations, the persistent opposition of such influential States means that it may be long before an amendment of Proto- col III becomes a realistic possibility.

On March 5, 2013, Forensic Architecture’s report was submitted to Israel’s High Court of Justice as a supporting doc- ument for the petition demanding the ban of the use of white phosphorus munitions in urban environments by the Israeli military. Its admission as evidence encountered strong objec- tions by the Israeli military/State Attorney, who questioned the competence of a team of architects to provide expertise on the military matters at stake in the case.

On April 25, 2013, while the question of the admissibility of the report was still being debated in court, the Israeli military issued a declaration stating that it would cease to use white phosphorus shells in populated areas—thereby yielding to the demand of the petition before the Court had to rule on it. The decision was taken “in the shadow of the court”—that is, as a consequence of a legal process but without a verdict—and, arguably, as a direct consequence of the Israeli military’s estima- tion that they could not win the case.

A senior military commander explained: “As we learned during Cast Lead, [white phosphorus] doesn’t photograph well, so we are reducing the supply and we will not purchase beyond what we already have.” Subsequently, the military informed the Court that it had ordered a “significant narrowing” of the use of these shells.”

For a more in-depth account of this project, see FORENSIS: The Architecture of Public Truth.

 

 

Table of Contents_draft6.ai

Bil’in

BIL’IN

Reconstructing the death of a Palestinian demonstrator via video analysis

Each Friday in Palestine, a number of nonarmed demonstrations are held against the Israeli occupation. The following case deals with what the Israel military calls “nonlethal munitions”—here, tear gas canisters— shot at unarmed participants in these protests. The village of Bil’in, located on the western slopes of the West Bank, is at the heart of these struggles. In 2004, the wall was built on the village lands in a way that allowed the expansion of the nearby settlement of Modi’in Illit. In 2007 the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the dismantling of the wall in this area and its relocation to a less invasive path. While the military avoided implementing the court ruling, demonstrators continued to protest the injustice of the wall and that of the occupation as a whole.

On April 17, 2009, Bassem Abu Rahma was shot and killed in Bil’in during a demonstration against the separation wall that was being built on the village lands. Abu Rahma was hit with a tear- gas canister shot from across the wall which in this area, at the time, was a system of fences. He was standing on the eastern side of the separation wall when the munition struck him in the chest, causing massive internal bleeding which led to his death.

The report produced by Forensic Architecture and SITU Research was initiated at the request of attorney Michael Sfard, who acted for Abu Rahma’s parents, and the Israeli Human Rights organiza- tion B’Tselem. They asked us to examine a host of available data (including videos and photographs taken on the day of the event) in order to ascertain whether the shot that killed Abu Rahma was aimed directly at him. The report focused on establishing the probable angle at which the munition that killed Abu Rahma was discharged. The purpose was to refute assertions made by the Israeli military that the round in question struck a wire in the fence, causing it to change direction and hit the victim, thus unintentionally leading to his death.

As in many contemporary sites of demonstration across the West Bank, in Bil’in there was an abundance of video cameras present. The event was recorded in three sequences of video footage from three different digital cameras (two handheld and one on a tripod). Within the video footage there exists much spatial information. On obtaining the videos we synced them by aligning distinct elements in the sound track. We then traced the movement of each of the three cameras on a digital model of the terrain whose general contours we obtained from maps and satellite images and whose detailed features we have harvested from examining the video files. Having each person, object, or specific feature represented from two or three separate vantages allowed for a triangulation and the approximation of their location in space.

Fractions of a second directly preceding the impact, one of the videographers, David Reeb, an Israeli artist and political activist, was standing within a meter of Abu Rahma. At 05:44:07, a single frame—whose duration is a one twenty-fourth of a second—captures faint traces of the movement of the projectile from the area where the soldiers are deployed west of the wall, through the fencing system that composes the wall in this part, to the area where the demonstrators are located east of the wall. Fractions of a second later, it strikes Abu Rahma, who is standing directly to Reeb’s right and is seen falling to the ground, twisted in pain.

The single frame extracted from David Reeb’s video was used to reconstruct the path of the munition in a virtual model of the scene. After locating the position of the camera and Abu Rahma, the line illustrating the trajectory was extrapolated into the space behind to form a plane bounded by Reeb’s camera and the edge of the video frame. This virtual plane defines all possible flight paths converging on Abu Rahma. When extended outward beyond the separation barrier, a zone containing the probable firing position is determined. Based on the known positions of the Israeli military soldiers at the time, the maximum angle of fire was determined to be 5 degrees. The passage of the munition seen in Reeb’s cone of vision supports the conclusion that, contrary to the Israeli military statements, the weapon was being aimed well below the allowable 60-degree limit, with the likely purpose of killing or maiming the demonstrator.

Our report identifying the place and angle from which Abu Rahma was shot and the trajectory of the munitions was presented by advocates Michael Sfard and Emily Schaeffer on March 28, 2010, along with other testimonies of participants. On July 11, 2010, fifteen months after the April 17, 2009, killing of Abu Rahma, the military prosecution opened a criminal investigation, which it previously refused to do. On September 10, 2013, despite the report, the government announced that the military had decided to close the case, citing “lack of evidence” for an indictment, and insisting it did not know the identity of the shooter. The military asked the court to reject the claim, close the file without any indictments, and offered B’Tselem the opportunity to appeal its decision—a process that has been initiated but might take years to reach a conclusion.

Forensic Architecture team

Eyal Weizman

SITU Research team

  • Bradley Samuels
  • Therese Diede
  • Robert Beach

Collaborating Organization

  • Michael Sfard Law Office (Michael Sfard, Emily Schaeffer)
  • B’Tselem (Sarit Michaeli)

Report


Bil'In: video summary of our investigation
Video analysis of the flight of cartridge
Video analysis from the other angle

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Wall in Battir

THE WALL IN BATTIR

Landscape and heritage against the logic of separation


In the Palestinian village of Battir, a legal case argued against the Israeli separation barrier on the grounds of nature and heritage has forced the army to freeze their plans. The village is located south of Jerusalem, close to the 1948 Green Line and to an old Ottoman railway, where the Israeli army was planning to build a new segment of its separation wall. The local landscape includes terraces and irrigation channels dating to the Roman Period, trees that are more than a thousand years old, and several other unique cultural and social elements. UNESCO included this natural and cultural heritage in its World Heritage List in 2014 after a submission from a group that included two members of Forensic Architecture.

In this context FA provided the village and various NGOs, represented by advocate Michael Sfard, with spatial and visual tools in a petition to the Israeli High Court aimed at stopping the construction of the wall in this area. The petition and our engagement in the case departed from previous strategies aiming to change the route of the wall to take into account the human rights of residents and farmers along its route. The case did not seek to improve the wall along the least invasive path, but, rather, for the first time in this forum, to claim for its impossibility tout court

Unexpectedly for the army lawyers (and perhaps the judges) the case was brought in the name of the right of the environment, of nature and of cultural heritage. Our contribution consisted of a digital model and animation representing the effect of the wall – as an iron fence and as a concrete structure – on the environment and showing that even the most “architecturally sustainable” and “less invasive” methods proposed by the army would cause irreparable visual and environmental harm.

This strategy produced a rupture in the legal process concerning the wall, and in January 2015 Israel’s High Court froze the state plan to build the wall in Battir.