On March 6, 2011, a satellite captured images of a burning village, Tajalei, in Sudan’s Abyei region. Earlier that month, two other villages in the area, on the border between northern and southern Sudan, had also been deliberately set ablaze. At the time of this writing, Abyei’s status following the January 2011 vote for southern independence is still being negotiated. Analysts fear that this contested region could erupt in further violence. On April 7, satellite imagery showed northern helicopter gunships and tanks near the boundary of Abyei. “The introduction of heavy air and ground attack capacity by [northern Sudanese armed forces] represents a significant buildup of firepower in a tense region,” says John Bradshaw, executive director of the Enough Project, an initiative of the Center for American Progress to end genocide.
The satellite imagery that confirmed the burning of the Abyei villages and the militarization of the northern boundary came out of the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), a new effort to use satellite imagery to track the spread of genocide. In 2010, George Clooney and John Prendergast, founder of the Enough Project, launched the SSP to monitor the violence in Sudan. Here’s how it works: private satellites passing over the north-south border capture images of mass movements of displaced people, burning villages, or other evidence of violence. The United Nations’ UNITAR Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) then analyzes these images, working with Google to allow easy public access to the reports, which participating NGOs can use to pressure policymakers to take action. The project is the first to provide near-real-time monitoring of mass violence, using technology to stop genocide before it occurs. “For the first time outside the national security sector, nonprofits are now making use of high-resolution satellite imagery to track the buildup and movements of troops near a border,” says Jonathan Hutson of the Enough Project in an interview with PBS NewsHour. “We can keep an eye on it and give some early warning to the world, and give people a chance to get involved, to pressure policymakers, to press for quick and immediate responses.”