Satellites Show War Crimes in Malakal

Today, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos travels to the capital of Upper Nile state where over 42,000 people have been displaced by violence. Satellite images of Malakal from January 27 show at least 210 tukuls burned to the ground in one of the city's quarters. In another part of town, images collected over the course of the past two weeks confirm the looting of a World Food Program, or WFP, compound and the damage and destruction of adjacent areas. Since the laws of war mandate both respecting and protecting "humanitarian relief personnel" and "objects" used for their operations, these satellite images offer independent evidence of war crimes.

Humanitarians Looted and Attacked

The World Food Program reports that its warehouses in Malakal have been almost entirely emptied by repeated incidents of looting. Across the country, the program has lost 4,000 metric tons of food from its warehouses -- enough food to feed more than 240,000 people for a month.


The three panel image above shows the World Food Program warehouse area before and after it was looted. Based on the timing of the images, major attacks must have occurred between January 8 and January 18. Additional damage to the warehouse tents was observed on January 27.

Imagery analyzed by the Satellite Sentinel Project ,or SSP, corroborates photos released by WFP on social media. Debris visible in these photographs can be seen scattered around the warehouse area in DigitalGlobe satellite imagery as well.


In a recent situation report, the International Organization for Migration reports that its staff recently conducted an assessment mission to the IOM warehouses in Malakal town, and found that their facilities had been looted and destroyed as well. International medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was forced to suspended its activities in Malakal after its compound was looted twice in one day. “Armed men entered the MSF compound in Malakal twice yesterday, where they looted and physically threatened the team.” Under international humanitarian law, attacks on medical personnel are prohibited, making these acts war crimes.

Razed Neighborhood

Malakal is-- and always has been—a multi-ethnic city, housing Shilluk, Nuer, Dinka, Bari and many others. Over the past few weeks, reports of violence and door-to-door along ethnic lines have been reported. Now it is a ghost town, with over 25,000 people sheltering in the U.N. compound in the northern part of town. Bishop Hilary of the Diosece of Malakal reports "The situation on the ground at the moment is not in good shape at all. Many have left the town in fear of death or starvation." Another harrowing eye witness described the scene as follows "corpses were laying down here and there on most of the roads and a stench that by now had become familiar."

The two panel graphic below shows the near complete destruction of a neighborhood in Malakal. Based on the difference between images secured on January 18 and those captured on January 27, the destruction must have taken place during the window that government forces recaptured the city. Almost every dwelling within the quarter was burned, leaving behind just charred earth. The United Nations Institute for Training and Research, or UNITAR, Operational Satellite Applications Programme has affirmed this assessment, counting over 500 destroyed structures in Malakal town, including 53 warehouses.


SSP's Work on South Sudan

Over the past two months, the Satellite Sentinel Project has been working with a network of contacts within South Sudan and a team of DigitalGlobe imagery analysts to track and document the impact of South Sudan's expanding conflict. In a previous report, released on January 11, SSP highlighted damage to civilian structures in Mayom, Bor, Teshwin and Mogiri. In a follow-up just four days later, SSP published imagery highlighting additional damage to Bor's central marketplace with clear evidence of active fires. Our third report focused on Unity state, with imagery showing damage to Bentiu, Rubkona, Mayom, Khor Bwow, and small villages along the road between Bentiu and Mayom. This report, on Upper Nile's capital provides the first satellite snapshot of Malakal following the conflict.

Satellilte Sentinel Project co-founder George Clooney has publicly argued that "there needs to be an end to impunity in South Sudan." Our program will continue to use both an eye in the sky and an ear to the ground to monitor the situation in South Sudan closely. As talks in Addis continue towards a political resolution to the conflict, combating impunity and ensuring accountability will be essential for South Sudan to move along the long road to durable peace.