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How Can Researchers Better Navigate the Profits and Perils of Satellite and Open-Source Investigations?

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In February 2021, three months into the war in Tigray in northern Ethiopia, researchers noticed something that would confirm their worst fears about the nature of the conflict.

With a communications blackout and access to the region largely closed off, the team from research organisation Vigil Monitor turned to satellite data to monitor the conflict. On the 10 February, after noticing a NASA fire management readout of a single fire in the middle of a road in a rural village called Adi Chilo, Vigil’s alarm bells went off and a rapid response satellite image was requested. The devastation in the area was stark and upon first inspection, the images of burnt-out vehicles, houses, and food stocks pointed towards damage caused by battle, says Alexander Lee, Vigil’s director and lead investigator.

But something didn’t look right. The structures were burned from the inside out without connecting burn scars, and the damage was far too extensive. From above the scars resembled a shotgun spread-like pattern that indicated a possible systematic door-to-door burning of homes and livelihoods.

The team analysed high- and low-resolution satellite imagery from different dates and triangulated this with other data – witness testimonies, social media, local and expert insights, and media reports of mass killings on 10 February. Vigil deduced there had been two incidents, not one: damage to vehicles inflicted on 9 February during a military ambush; and fire damage to houses and grain stores on 10 February. The second incident appeared to be a deliberate retaliation on the civilians in the immediate area by the security forces who were ambushed. This atrocity was by no means unique. The Vigil team applied their mixed methods research in multiple locations to demonstrate that the tactic of following up military ambushes with civilian attacks was, in fact, a trend across Tigray. Incident by incident, they developed an overall picture of widespread and systematic human rights abuse of thousands of civilians across the Tigray region.

A New Direction for Conflict Analysis

Satellite and open-source data are now reshaping how we understand the drivers, dynamics and direction of conflicts – particularly in regions off-limits to international actors and subject to information blackouts.

This wasn’t always the case. For decades, satellite imagery was the exclusive domain of governments, originating in the military and intelligence operations of the Cold War and the Space Race. Then, in 2000, regulations were relaxed and satellite data (also known as remote sensing) opened up to multiple sectors. For those researching and investigating conflicts, it transformed the monitoring of atrocities – providing visual evidence of violence, demolitions, mass graves, secret prisons, and other abuses.

Two decades on, the use of remote sensing research in conflict analysis is much broader. A growing number of companies provide ever-cheaper data to diverse organisations – research institutes, universities, media, governments, civil society, commercial risk analysis, and others. Researchers, including many working on the XCEPT programme, increasingly combine satellite and open-source data analysis with traditional research methods to dig deeper into why violence occurs, how conflicts connect across borders, the fallout for communities, and ways to build peace.

And, crucially, this research feeds into conflict and humanitarian response policies and interventions.

“We’re looking to use evidence and information so that we can track evolving situations, in order to prevent violence and conflict,” says Moazzam Malik, former Director General, Africa, at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). As well as documenting atrocities and laying the groundwork for accountability, policymakers use this mixed methods research to “understand the motivations and entry points for a whole range of conflict actors, so that one can begin to think about resolution, mediation, and… address underlying grievances.”

Amid information wars, ‘fake news’, and authoritarian media crackdowns, sifting truth from lies is difficult. Research that draws on multiple datasets to triangulate evidence, cut through the misinformation, and arrive on policymakers’ desks in a timely, concise and reliable fashion, is vital, helping shape policy responses more finetuned to meet conflict challenges.

Melding Old and New

With the use of remote sensing technologies in the commercial and civil society space booming, it is crucial that researchers engage with them. Finding the optimal mix of new and established research methods to identify conflict trends takes time, tenacity, expertise, and sound contextual knowledge. It typically involves honing in on an incident, understanding the specifics of it as thoroughly as possible – including by triangulating research with other data sources – and then by expanding to finding similar events.

“The border is a semi-autonomous place where people can mobilise and negotiate themselves into power in the centre”

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Joseph Diing Majok is a South Sudanese researcher with the Rift Valley Institute (RVI) and a member of the X-Border Local Research Network, part of the XCEPT programme. His work, in partnership with Dr Nicki Kindersley, is focused on the borderland regions between Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state in South Sudan, and Darfur and Kordofan in Sudan. On the strength of his work with the Local Research Network, as well as several other projects with RVI, Diing was recently awarded a scholarship to study for a Masters at Edinburgh University. We asked Diing about his work under XCEPT and his upcoming MSc in Africa and International Development.

Joseph, hi to you in Juba – please introduce yourself.

I’m Joseph Diing. I was born around 1987 –  it’s not exactly clear because my mum and dad had never gone to school, and they did not know exactly the year I was born, but it seems to be 1987. I was born during the war, in the SPLA [the Sudan People’s Liberation Army]-controlled area where I grew up. I am one of the ‘beneficiaries’ of the SPLA bush schools, where I studied until the peace agreement came [in 2005]. And this is when we first moved into town. I sat for my secondary school certificate, and finally studied Anthropology at the University of Juba. I graduated in 2018.

And how did you begin your career as a researcher?

One of my university lecturers, who was affiliated with the Rift Valley Institute, invited me to participate in a workshop on oral history research techniques. My first work with RVI was as a research assistant trying to identify key informants and schedule interviews with them, and provide translation and data transcription. In 2018, when the X-Border Local Research Network project began, I was called back as a research assistant to collect data in the field, especially in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, where I have a lot of contacts and knowledge – it’s where I come from. My lead researcher Nicki Kindersley wanted to develop me, not just to work and make money, but to devote myself, to be able to write, and to become a future researcher.

You’ve just won this prestigious and very competitive scholarship to study an MSc in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh – congratulations!

It’s really like a dream, you can’t imagine! When I went to school in 2000, under a tree, only one teacher, and most of our teaching was about military training – Attention! Turn to the right! Turn to the left! – it was a sort of preparation for being in the army, for future liberation. It was a mechanism to control us, and to put us into the SPLA when we grew up. It was not intentionally to educate us for the future, because we were at war and we lived in an area that was heavily affected by violence, and raiding from various militias, and also the government forces. So, from there … to get a scholarship to study in the UK is just like a dream. And also because, in my country, scholarships are not given on merit, but on political loyalty or relationships.

What are you going to focus on in your postgraduate studies?

I was chosen for this scholarship because of my work with the Rift Valley Institute and the X-Border Local Research Network, and so my research experience and the area I’d been focusing on, especially cross-border migration, militarisation, agriculture and labour transitions, and governance.

With this scholarship I’m going to further explore the political economy of agrarian transformation in the borderland of South Sudan. The theme is militarised governance in the labour system, and the impact on agriculture in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. I will also look at how access to capital – where you form your own militia and tax people on the road – affects the social stratification and gender roles of the Dinka people in the borderland.

Could you share what sorts of experiences and opportunities the X-Border Local Research Network, the LRN, has offered?

The X-Border Local Research Network partnership includes international researchers taking a supervisory role and empowering local researchers – for example, giving them the chance to analyse [data], and guide them to build their critical thinking on analysing the situation. And also in their writing. If the partnership continues, I think South Sudan will have more local researchers in the future – I think it’s a very good relationship.

Let’s turn to the focus of your research. What interests you about borders and borderlands?

You’ll see people focusing on the centre – for example on Juba. And people sometimes look at the borderlands as areas far away from the capital with no influence on political changes inside the city, which is quite wrong.

If you look at access to power in the capital, the border is very important because it’s a semi-autonomous place where people recruit and mobilise, and negotiate themselves into power in the centre. People who are in political power in Juba compete for control of the border between Sudan and South Sudan because then they have access to money through tax. These [contestations] are very influential in shaping the political power dynamic inside the city.

Has anything surprised you during the course of this research?

What I really learn [in the field] is the interconnection between the labour system in the 1980s and 1990s – when people were displaced and being exploited in Darfur – and how it relates to today. It’s the very same people who formed their own militias – exploiting people, benefiting through agriculture and labour, and also taxing them – who continue to control the region of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. And what was perceived as illegal exploitation [previously] has become legal today.

So there are deep historical echoes here?

If you look at the history of South Sudan and Sudan, there is a lot that is happening today that can be related to the 1980s, and if you analyse even further back – there is a lot that can be related to the 17th century when the Messeriya and the Rizeigat Arab tribes in Darfur used horseman to raid the Dinka tribe of Bahr el-Ghazal. They killed people, dispersed the population, and robbed their property. And also took slaves – using them as their workers on the farms in Darfur and also in Kordofan, and selling them to Jazeera, where the plantations were developing.

So this is really fascinating! Why did people go back? Because what was perceived to have been wrong, and what people fought against during the 1980s and 1990s, is the same system installed today – and legalised.

And are people resisting this new-but-old exploitation?

Women, young people, and even elderly people who are being exploited every day have started a discussion. I’m really interested in researching this resistance further, because people have now become quite suspicious of their own government. And there are local discussions happening on how to resist this form of exploitation, which is now branded as “legal”, or something reasonable.

What forms is the resistance taking?

One emerging form of resistance is the Church. The Church counsels people, but it also enlightens people about standing up for their rights, and some Pastors tell people to stand for their rights.

Another form of resistance is song. Men and women are coming together, for example in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, and they’ve initiated a dance club, where people dance and they sing songs trying to correct their leaders, and they try to point out the exploitation and brutalities being inflicted upon them.

Women experience the worst exploitation in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. They’re prevented from migrating across the border to Sudan by security officials. A woman would only be allowed to cross the border once she had a letter from her Chief, and she has to pay a lot of money to be allowed to cross. Why? To keep this population of women, and exploit them by making them work on the farms with less payment – or sometimes they get paid in grain. But there is resistance. Women hold dance parties to interact together, and there’s also a club where women go and discuss their own issues.

Do you share your final research with the communities you focus on?

The Rift Valley Institute does dissemination. After we publish a report, we go back to the people in the community – we call them, we organise a small meeting to discuss it, and they are so impressed! Sometimes they look to us as activists. We’re communicating their problem to people who can help them, which is really very good. So, when I go to Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, many people know me as a researcher, as someone who collects data in order to help them, to elevate their voices to be heard by people in the US and the UK who cannot come to Northern Bahr el-Ghazal.

Read Joseph Diing’s work produced via XCEPT’s X-Border Local Research Network: