The Ayotzinapa Case

The Ayotzinapa Case

A Cartography of Violence

In collaboration with Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (Centro Prodh), Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF), and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) for the families of the victims.



On the night of 26-27 September 2014, students from the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa were attacked in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, by local police in collusion with criminal organisations. Numerous other branches of the Mexican security apparatus either participated in or witnessed the events, including state and federal police and the military. Six people were murdered – including three students – forty wounded, and 43 students were forcibly disappeared.

The whereabouts of the students remains unknown, and their status as ‘disappeared’ persists to this day. Instead of attempting to solve this historic crime, the Mexican state has failed the victims, and the rest of Mexican society, by constructing a fraudulent and inconsistent narrative of the events of that night.

Forensic Architecture was commissioned by and worked in collaboration with the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) and Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (Centro Prodh) to conceive of an interactive cartographic platform to map out and examine the different narratives of this event. The project aims to reconstruct, for the first time, the entirety of the known events that took place that night in and around Iguala and to provide a forensic tool for researchers to further the investigation.

The data on which the platform is based draws from publicly available investigations, videos, media stories, photographs and phone logs. We transposed the accounts presented across these sources into thousands of data points, each of which has been located in space and time and plotted within the platform in order to map the incidents and the complex relationships between them. This demonstrates, in a clear graphic and cartographic form, the level of collusion and coordination between state agencies and organised crime throughout the night.

The project thus reveals a cartography of violence spanning from the street corner level to the entire state of Guerrero. It describes an act of violence that is no longer a singular event but a prolonged act, which persists to this day in the continued absence of the 43 students.

It also seeks to demonstrate the ways in which collective civil society initiatives, undertaking independent investigations using innovative analytical tools, could help investigate complex crimes and confront criminal impunity and the failures of Mexican law enforcement.

In particular, it reaffirms our commitment to heal the open wound of the Ayotzinapa case and to work until the truth of the night is clarified, and the students’ whereabouts are known.

In addition to the platform, this project will be exhibited as part of Forensic Architecture: Towards an Investigative Aesthetics from 9 September 2017 – 7 January 2018 at the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC). 

Forensic Architecture Team

Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)

Stefan Laxness (Project Coordinator)

Nadia Méndez

Franc Camps Febrer

Irving Huerta

Theo Resnikoff

Belén Rodríguez

Simone Rowat

Christina Varvia

Ariel Caine

Nathan Su

Marina Azahua

Nathalie Tjia

Nicholas Masterton

Sarah Nankivell

Robert Trafford

and Anso Studio

Collaborators

Special Thanks

John Gibler

Rosario Güiraldes

Pablo Dominguez

Virginia Vieira

Témoris Grecko

Juan Omar Fierro

Taller cartográfico “Ariles”

Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ)

Other Means

Nestor Camilo Vargas

The surviving Ayotzinapa students and the families of the 43 disappeared for their tireless struggle for truth

Torture and Detention in Cameroon

Torture and Detention in Cameroon

The dark side of the US-backed war against Boko Haram

For Amnesty International’s report, Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers

Since 2014, Cameroon has been at war with Boko Haram, the armed extremist group responsible for thousands of murders and abductions across the Lake Chad Basin.

Trained and supported by U.S and European governments and armed by Israeli private companies, the Cameroonian security forces are acting with increasing impunity against civilians in the country’s impoverished Far North region.

Amnesty International has collected evidence of over a hundred cases of illegal detention, torture and extra-judicial killing of Cameroonian citizens falsely accused of supporting or being a member of Boko Haram, at around twenty sites across the country.

Using testimony and information supplied by Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture reconstructed two of these facilities – a regional military headquarters, and an occupied school – in order to confirm and illustrate the conditions of incarceration and torture described by former detainees.

At the two sites, detainees were kept in degrading and inhumane conditions in dark, crowded, airless cells. All were fed poorly, and most were tortured routinely. Dozens of detainees report witnessing deaths at the hands of Cameroon’s elite military unit, the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), or the Cameroonian intelligence agency, the DGRE.

Forensic Architecture’s research also uncovered the presence of U.S. personnel – military and private contractors – at one of the sites. Using satellite imagery, open-source material, and images gathered from social media, Forensic Architecture demonstrated the proximity of those personnel to sites of incarceration and torture, raising troubling questions for continued American support of Cameroon’s security forces.

A companion article, co-authored with U.S. news website The Intercept, explores some of the further material uncovered in the course of our investigation which did not fall within the remit of the video.


Forensic Architecture team

Eyal Weizman (Principle Investigator)

Omar Ferwati (Project Coordinator)

Robert Trafford

Simone Rowat

Nicolas Gourault

Nicholas Masterton

Sarah Nankivell

Christina Varvia

Death By Rescue

Death By Rescue

The week commencing 12 April 2015 saw what is believed to be the largest loss of life at sea in the recent history of the Mediterranean. On 12 April, 400 people died when an overcrowded boat capsized due to its passengers’ excitement at the sight of platform supply vessels approaching to rescue them. Less than a week later, on 18 April, a similar incident took an even greater toll in human lives, leading the deadliest single shipwreck recorded by the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Mediterranean.    Over 800 people are believed to have died when a migrants’ vessel sank after a mis-manoeuvre led it to collide with a cargo ship that had approached to rescue its passengers. More than 1,200 lives were thus lost in a single week. As Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) commented at the time, these figures eerily resemble those of a war zone.  

Team

Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani: Principal Investigators, Text

Rossana Padeletti: GIS and AIS data analysis

Samaneh Moafi: Graphic design, animations

Laure Vermeersch: Video filming and editing

Richard Limeburner: Oceanographic Analysis

Nancy Porsia: Fieldwork, Interviews (Lybia)

Sabine Llewellyn: Research assistant, fieldwork (Sicily)

Shela Sheikh: Editing

Christina Varvia: Forensic techniques consultant

Matteo Menapace and Aimee Matthew-John: Web design (based on an original design by Nick Axel, Forensic Architecture)

 

77sqm_9:26min

77sqm_9:26min

Counter investigating the testimony of Andres Temme in relation to the murder of Halit Yozgat in Kassel, 6 April 2006

Commissioned by the People’s Tribunal “Unravelling the NSU Complex”; Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt (HKW); Initiative 6 April; and documenta14

Shortly after 17:00 on the 6 April 2006, Halit Yozgat, 21 years old, was murdered while attending the reception counter of his family run Internet café in Kassel, Germany. His was the ninth of ten racist murders performed by a neo-Nazi group known as the National Socialist Underground or NSU across Germany between 2000 and 2007. 

At the time of the killing, an internal security agent of the State Office for Constitutional Protection (Landesamt für Verfassungsschutz) of the German state of Hessen named Andreas Temme was present in the shop. He did not disclose this fact to the police but was later identified from his internet records.

In his interrogation by the police and in the subsequent NSU trial in Munich, Temme denied being a witness to the incident and claims not to have noticed anything out of the ordinary. The court accepted his testimony. It determined that Temme was present at the back room of the internet café at the time of the murder. It also accepted that from his position in the shop it was possible not to have witnessed the killing.

Within the 77 square meters of the Internet café and the 9:26 minutes of the incident, different actors crossed paths — members of migrant communities, a state employee and the murderers — and were architecturally disposed in relation to each other. The shop was thus a microcosm of the entire social and political controversy that makes the “NSU Complex”.

In November 2016, eleven years after the murder, the People’s Tribunal “Unraveling the NSU Complex” commissioned Forensic Architecture to investigate Temme’s testimony and determine whether it could be truthful.

This investigation was presented at the Hessen parliamentary inquiry on 25 August 2017. Our response to these recent developments is available here.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Christina Varvia  (Project & Research Coordinator)
  • Stefanos Levidis
  • Omar Ferwati
  • Simone Rowat
  • Nicholas Masterton
  • Yamen Albadin
  • Ortrun Bargholz
  • Eeva Sarlin
  • Franc Camps-Febrer
  • Hana Rizvanolli
  • Sarah Nankivell
  • Chris Cobb Smith (Advisor)
  • Lawrence abu Hamdan (Advisor)

Collaborators

  • Ayşe Güleç / People’s Tribunal “Unravelling the NSU Complex”, Initiative 6 April and documenta 14
  • Natascha Sadr Haghighian / People’s Tribunal “Unravelling the NSU Complex” and Initiative 6 April
  • Fritz Laszlo Weber / People’s Tribunal “Unravelling the NSU Complex”, Initiative 6 April and documenta 14
  • Cordula Hamschmidt / HKW
  • Khaled Abdulwahed
  • Cem Kayan
  • Vanina Vignal
  • Sebastian Bodirsky / People’s Tribunal “Unravelling the NSU Complex”
  • Dr. Salvador Navarro-Martinez / Imperial College London
  • Grant Waters / Anderson Acoustics
  • Armament Research Services (ARES)
  • Mihai Meirosu / Nvision Audio
  • Christopher Hupe / HKW
  • Frank Bubenwer
  • Gozen Atila
  • Markus Mohr / People’s Tribunal “Unravelling the NSU Complex”
  • Mathias Zieske
  • Serdar Kazak
  • Norma Tiedemann
  • Basak Ertur

Press

Kriminalität: Forensic Architecture | BR Capriccio, 7 November 2017

A German Intelligence Agent Was at the Scene of a Neo-Nazi Murder. He Can’t Explain Why. | The Intercept, 18 October 2017

Forscher verteidigen Gutachten zu NSU-Mord in Kassel | Monopol, 17 September 2017

documenta14: der NSU-Mord in Kassel | Metropolis, ARTE TV, 1 September 2017

V-Mann Temme in der “Mausefalle” | der Freitag, Edition 35, 30 August 2017

Reestablishing Facts in the Post-Truth Era | ARCH+, Issue 229: In The End, Features 67, 25 July 2017

77sqm_9:26min | E-Flux Architecture, 24 July 2017

Documenta Kassel: Using art as their witness | New York Times, 23 June 2017

The most important piece at documenta 14 in Kassel is not an artwork. It’s evidence. | Artnet, 8 June 2017

Architects seek to debunk spy’s testimony in neo-Nazi murder trial | The Guardian, 7 April 2017

Die Pulverwolke | Süddeutsche Zeitung, 5 April 2017

Image Gallery

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Al-Jinah Mosque

Al-Jinah Mosque

US airstrike in Al-Jinah, Syria: Architectural assessment confirms building targeted was a functioning mosque, US misidentification possibly the cause for civilian casualties. 

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Summary

Forensic Architecture has undertaken an architectural analysis of the 16 March 2017 US Airstrike in Al-Jinah, Syria. We conducted interviews with survivors, first responders and with the building’s contractor, and examined available and sourced videos and photographs in order to produce a model of the building both before and after the strike. Our analysis reveals that, contrary to US statements, the building targeted was a functioning, recently built mosque containing a large prayer hall, several auxiliary functions, and the Imam’s residence. We believe that the civilian casualties caused by this strike are partially the result of the building’s misidentification.

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The Incident

On the evening of 16 March 2017, a major unilateral US drone strike targeted Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque in Al-Jinah, in the province of Aleppo, Syria. According to witnesses, the strike took place when close to 300 people were in the building. Most were gathering for the Isha’a night prayer while 50 others remained in the smaller “winter prayer hall” where a religious seminar had just finished. The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, claimed to have recovered the bodies of 38 civilians. Five of them were children. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 42 dead but the actual death toll might still be higher.

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US Statements

The US Central Command claimed responsibility for the airstrike, stating, “US forces conducted an airstrike on an Al-Qaeda in Syria meeting on March 16th, killing several terrorists”. It wrongly identified the mosque as a “partially constructed community meeting hall”; wrongly located it in the province of Idlib; and claimed that there was no indication of civilian casualties. The Pentagon has later released an image showing the destroyed mosque and insisting it “deliberately did not target the mosque at the left edge of the photo.” This statement omits the fact that the targeted building also was a mosque that was in frequent use by locals.

Update (5 May 2017): Despite initial denials from the Pentagon that the building hit was a mosque and that there were civilian casualties, US defense officials told CNN that the results of a US Central Command investigation found that a March US airstrike in northern Syria did, in fact, strike a building that was part of a “mosque complex.”

Update (7 June 2017): In a press conference, the U.S. Defense Department told the New York Times that their investigation concluded that the strike was “legal and appropriate”. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Paul Bontrager told the Washington Post that the Special Operations Task Force that ordered the strike “complied with operational and legal requirements” and that they were “confident this was a meeting of al-Qaeda members and leaders; this was not a meeting of civilians.”

Update (8 August 2017): A United Nations Syria Commission report concludes that US forces “lacked an understanding of the actual target”, “failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life”, and was “in violation of international humanitarian law” (p.13).

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Forensic Architecture

In engaging with this case, Forensic Architecture focused on the architectural questions raised by the strike: What was the function of the building targeted? What can its architectural characteristics before the strike, and the state of the ruin afterwards, reveal about the incident? Where civilian casualties to be expected in such a building?

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Method of Investigation

Forensic Architecture constructed a detailed model of the building before and after the strike. In order to obtain the necessary information to do so, we undertook remote interviews with the mosque’s original contractor, several survivors of the US attack, and the director of the rescue operation Mohammad Halak of the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets). We then cross-referenced and confirmed our findings against available photographs, videos and satellite imagery of the building, and further commissioned several photographic surveys on the ground. In the preparation of this report Forensic Architecture was in continuous contact with Bellingcat, who helped provide much of the source imagery, and with HRW, who worked with us to corroborate finds, identify munitions, and locate witnesses. We have also benefited from research and advice provided by Airwars.

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Findings

Our report, presented as a video (above), confirms that the building was not a “partially constructed community meeting hall” but a large, functional mosque. The concrete and cinder block building was divided into two parts, north and south, separated by an entrance, a passageway and stairwells. It had two levels, with the upper level still incomplete in parts.

On the ground floor, the south part of the building contained the main prayer hall. The upper floor above it was still incomplete. The south part of the building was damaged in the strike but remained largely intact.

The northern part of the building contained a set of typical auxiliary functions of a mosque: a communal kitchen with a dining area, the toilets, a ritual wash area and the secondary, smaller prayer room, also know as the “winter prayer room”. A residential flat used by the Imam and his family was located above these functions on the upper floor of the northern part of the building. This part was completely destroyed in the strike.

As a result of the strike, the passageways connecting the two parts of the building were partially blocked by rubble. The stairwells connecting the ground level with the upper floor were also destroyed.

Witness testimonies and photographs of the building taken before the strike show that there were no doors separating the “winter prayer room”, the main passageway and the wash area. These rooms were accessible, as well as acoustically and visibly exposed.

Given that the building was open to the public, that a large number of local residents were free to move through and around it as they gathered for prayer, and that there was a publically accessible religious lesson with 50 people present, raises doubts regarding the likelihood that an Al-Qaeda meeting was taking place in the building at the time.

The architectural reconstruction has also allowed us to understand the sequence of events that took place in and around the mosque following the strike. The strike began when two bombs completely demolished the northern part of the building. The layout of the rubble in the deep craters is consistent with ground penetrating bombs. In order to escape, worshippers in the main prayer hall in the south part of the building had to climb over the rubble that partially blocked the doorways and passageways and destroyed the stairs. While people exited the building and immediately afterwards they were targeted by further missile strikes. Examining images of munitions remains, Chris Cobb-Smith (who assists Forensic Architecture on weapon analysis), Bellingcat, and HRW’s experts identified the munitions fired outside the mosque as likely to be Hellfire missiles. This is consistent with an anonymous US official who, when speaking to the Washington Post, confirmed that “the attack involved two Reaper drones, which fired more than four Hellfire missiles and dropped at least one 500-pound guided bomb in a follow-up strike.”

Sharing screens in a Skype call with Halak, the head of the rescue team, we identified the location of the casualties pulled out of the rubble. There were eleven people injured and eight killed as a result of the first two blasts within the northern part of the building, he said. They included the Imam’s wife, Ghassun Makansi, a fourteen-year-old boy named Mohammad Khalad Orabi, and his ten-year-old brother Hassan Omar Orabi. The rest of the casualties were caused by the secondary missile strikes outside the building. We identified traces of missiles on a nearby road and these traces support witness testimonies regarding the secondary strikes on evacuees.

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“Exchanging architectural plans and photographic analysis with people on the ground we managed to reconstruct a detailed model of the mosque. We believe that the US forces that targeted the building misidentified the nature of the building, leading to high levels of civilian casualties.”

-Omar Ferwati, Project Coordinator

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Resources

While undertaking this investigation, we exchanged information with Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat, and Airwars.

Video footage without voiceover and subtitles as well as the Arabic/English timecoded script is available upon request from Forensic Architecture.

Our video report is also available on our YouTube channel.

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This analysis was produced at Forensic Architecture’s own expense.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Christina Varvia
  • Omar Ferwati (Project Coordinator)
  • Nick Masterton
  • Simone Rowat
  • Stefanos Levidis
  • Sarah Nankivell

MSF-Supported Hospital

MSF-SUPPORTED HOSPITAL

Attack on an MSF-supported hospital in al-Hamidiah, Idlib, Syria

15 February 2016


On the morning of 15 February 2016, an MSF-supported hospital in al-Hamidiah, a small village located south of Ma’arat al-Numan, Idlib Province, was hit by in two separate attacks. Each attack consisted of a number of strikes within a few minutes of one another.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the hospital, MSF publicly claimed that the strike on the hospital was ‘very likely’ carried out by Russian or Syrian forces. Their claim was met with denial from both Russian and Syrian governments, with the Syrian UN envoy talking about the “so called MSF hospital operating without permission” and Russia denying any responsibility. The controversy caused by MSF’s claims and the denial of the perpetrators highlighted the urgency to conduct a private investigations into these events. It is in this context that FA was commissioned by MSF to determine the perpetrators of the attack, which killed 25 people.

This work is part of a new collaboration between MSF and Forensic Architecture that aims to develop the independent capacity to investigate and report on hospital strikes worldwide.

Although multiple videos and photos claimed to capture the attack, FA was faced with a bipartite challenge. On one hand, both Russian and Syrian regime planes were carrying out air raids in the area of Ma’arat al-Numan on multiple medical facilities throughout the day; on the other hand, the media attention given to the attack on the MSF-supported hospital meant most footage uploaded via news agencies and social media fell under the blanket term of ‘attack on MSF hospital’, even though the footage in question had not captured the attack on the MSF-supported facility.

In order to determine which material captured which attack, FA cross-referenced testimony provided by MSF from people on the ground who witnessed the attack first hand, as well as publicly available testimony from the Free Syrian Army Observatory against spatial and temporal details found in the videos. These methods included image triangulation to locate the scene, shadow analysis to corroborate the time of recording, and observing clues as to the characteristics of the fighter planes involved. In doing so, it was possible to produce a clear timeline and map of the different attacks that occurred that day. The balance of probability resulting from this analysis tilted towards the attack on the MSF-supported hospital being carried out by the Russian air force, while the attack on the other hospital later that day was more likely to have been carried out by the Syrian regime.

Furthermore, the report illustrates a coordinated strategy involving the systematic targeting of medical facilities, leaving Ma’arat al-Numan and its surroundings critically deprived of much needed medical infrastructure.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman
  • Christina Varvia

Collaborating Organizations

 

 

Saydnaya

Saydnaya

Inside a Syrian Torture Prison


Since 2011 thousands have died in Syria’s prisons and detention facilities. With anyone perceived to be opposed to the Syrian government at risk, tens of thousands of people have been tortured and ill-treated in violation of international law.

In April 2016, Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture travelled to Istanbul to meet five survivors from Saydnaya Prison, near Damascus. In recent years, no journalists or monitoring groups which report publicly have been able to visit the prison or speak with prisoners.

As there are no images of Saydnaya the researchers were dependent on the memories of survivors to recreate what is happening inside.

Using architectural and acoustic modelling, the researchers helped witnesses reconstruct the architecture of the prison and their experiences of detention.  The former detainees described the cells and other areas of the prison, including stairwells, corridors, moving doors and windows, to an architect working with 3D modelling software. The witnesses added objects they remembered, from torture tools to blankets and furniture, to areas where they recalled them being used. The recollections sparked more memories as the model developed.

With next to no daylight, in particular in the solitary cells underground, the prisoners in Saydnaya develop an acute experience of sound. Detainees were made to cover their eyes with their hands whenever a guard entered the room and speaking was prohibited, so prisoners became attuned to the smallest noises.

To capture these auditory memories, researchers developed techniques to solicit “ear-witness testimony” and reconstruct the prison’s architecture through sound.

Witnesses listened to tones of different decibel levels, and were then asked to match them to the levels of specific incidents inside the prison. “Echo profiling” helped to determine the size of spaces such as cells, stairwells and corridors (this involved playing different reverberations and asking witnesses to match them with sounds they remembered hearing in the prison) while “sound artefacts” simulated the noise of doors, locks and footsteps, helping generate further acoustic memories.

Detainees at Saydnaya are generally transferred to the facility after spending months or even years in detention elsewhere. Such transfers often take place following unfair trials at secret military courts. Others arrive at the prison without having seen a judge and do not know the alleged charges against them or how long they will be detained.

The Saydnaya project is part of a wider campaign led by Amnesty International calling on the Syrian government to allow independent monitors into its brutal detention centres. Amnesty is urging Russia and the US “to use their global influence to ensure that independent monitors are allowed in to investigate conditions in Syria’s torture prisons”.



2016 Digital Dozen logo white

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Christina Varvia (Project Coordination)
  • Ana Naomi de Sousa (Video Filming, Co-directing, Co-production)
  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan (Interviews, Acoustic Investigation, Sound design)
  • Hania Jamal (Interviews, 3D Modelling)
  • Nestor Rubio (Website Design)
  • Stefan Laxness (3D Modelling, Animation)
  • Pierre-Francois Gerard (3D Modelling, 3D Panoramas)
  • Simone Rowat (Video Editing)
  • George Clipp (Video Editing)
  • Gochan Yildirim (Camera)
  • Mihai Meirosu (Sound Mixing)
  • Yamen Albadin (Translation, Assistant Video Editing)
  • Hala Makhlouf (Translation, Assistant Video Editing)
  • Ghias Aljundi (Translation)
  • Samaneh Moafi (3D Texturing)
  • Hana Rizvanolli (Project Assistance)
  • Susan Schuppli (advisor)
  • Francesco Sebregondi (advisor)

Collaborating Organizations & Individuals

  • Amnesty International
  • 1635film-istanbul
  • Vasif Kortun/SALT Galata
  • Fiona Gabbert/Goldsmiths’ University Forensic Psychology Unit
  • Goldsmiths’ University Computing Department
 


Introduction Video  
The Road to Saydnaya
Jamal Abdou describes the arrival into Saydnaya prison. © Forensic Architecture
The Architecture of Sound
Four former detainees describe their experiences of living in Saydnaya prison through the sounds that they had heard. 
© Forensic Architecture 

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.

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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.

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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.