In Saudi's mass murder of Ethiopian migrants, seeing is believing
On 6 March 2022, a Facebook account shared a video showing a group of at least 67 people descending a steep trail to a valley floor 335 metres below. In it, seven members of the group carry a woman by her arms and legs, slipping on the loose shale and dirt while doing their best to avoid scraping her back on the rocks.
The woman grits her teeth in pain as they lower her down the slope. Her thighs are soaked in blood. Some higher on the hill look toward the scene with confusion, others with fear, but most with resignation. With exhaustion.
This is one of over 350 pieces of visual evidence I collected and analysed for the new Human Rights Watch report revealing the mass killings of Ethiopian migrants by Saudi border guards.
Using visual evidence and interviews with survivors, the report documents how, from at least March 2022 to June 2023, Saudi border guards systematically shot and shelled Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers trying to cross into Saudi Arabia from Yemen.
"If committed as part of a Saudi government policy to murder migrants, these systematic and widespread killings would amount to a crime against humanity"
Ethiopians fleeing poverty, drought, conflict, and serious human rights abuses have been met with a storm of bullets and explosives. Hundreds, potentially thousands, have been killed.
The 38 survivors we interviewed shared accounts of unconscionable violence. They described how Saudi border guards slaughtered groups using explosive weapons or shooting people who tried to cross the border, reducing several hundred to dozens in minutes or hours.
If committed as part of a Saudi government policy to murder migrants, these systematic and widespread killings would amount to a crime against humanity.
The evidence gathered by my colleague was consistent across interviews. Survivors identified the same locations, source, and patterns and methods of attack. Some sent images of their open wounds, scars, and recently amputated limbs.
Instead of unconditionally embracing Saudi Arabia and rolling the red carpet for MbS without questions asked, the UK should urgently push for investigating the atrocity at the Yemen border, writes @anthonyjharwood 👇 https://t.co/8KjVVYSwc0— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) September 4, 2023
We shared these images with external medical experts who, in a letter to Human Rights Watch, concluded there were “clear patterns consistent with the explosion of munitions” and “characteristics consistent with gunshot wounds.”
Survivors spoke through tangible mental and emotional trauma. There should be no questioning their candour or the violence they experienced at the hands of Saudi border guards.
Yet despite the specificity and power of their story, we feared the survivors’ voices alone may have been dismissed. Wrongly ignored as tragic but baseless text from faceless, far away people.
We knew that to force the world to listen we needed to illustrate the migrants’ experiences. To provide the weight of unimpeachable visual evidence through digital investigation. To show that yes, these are real people. Real killings.
But how are we so confident that the hundreds of photographs and videos we collected match the survivors’ statements? How did we find so much potential digital evidence of these crimes? What methods did we use to turn contextless videos shared online into verified evidence?
Drawing from the survivors’ evidence, we scoured social media for various spellings of the names of the two main camps in Yemen where smugglers took migrants before they attempted their crossing.
Through trial and error, we eventually found a user on TikTok who had posted several videos with the names of the camps in their captions. They showed arid mountainous settlements filled with tents, just as the interviewees described.
This user opened the floodgates. In addition to confirming the proper spelling of the migrant camps, they reposted videos that other users shared of the same locations. This led us to an ever-expanding network of sources and, more importantly, a plethora of videos on Facebook and TikTok showing the life and the death of migrants at the border.
"We knew that to force the world to listen we needed to illustrate the migrants’ experiences. To provide the weight of unimpeachable visual evidence through digital investigation. To show that yes, these are real people. Real killings"
There were videos—recorded by migrants, border residents, and smugglers—of unarmed Ethiopians walking in large groups on steep rocky trails. Of Saudi Arabian border guard stations directly across from bright orange and blue tents. Of migrants bleeding from gaping wounds, lying dead under bushes on mountainsides, being buried in the hills and next to camps.
Despite how geographically remote it is, the section of the Yemen-Saudi border crossed by migrants appeared to be remarkably well documented.
However, before citing the content as supporting evidence we needed to locate where it was recorded and confirm that what it showed corresponded to the survivors’ evidence.
Our team began identifying landmarks visible in the videos like footpaths, mountain peaks, and riverbeds, matching them with satellite images or topographic maps of the border in a process we call “geolocation.”
We identified where over 100 videos and photos were recorded along the border or in nearby hospitals. We were also able to recreate sections of a route used by migrants to cross from one of the main camps in Yemen into Saudi Arabia by connecting 29 of these located videos with trails visible in satellite imagery.
To ensure the content was contemporary, we searched for the earliest date each video was shared online. We also matched the appearance of landmarks that changed over time, like the number of tents in migrant camps, to dated satellite images.
External translators helped us confirm the people in the videos were Ethiopian by identifying the languages spoken were Tigrinya and Afaan Oromo.
We counted migrants in videos showing their movement across the border and found their large numbers consistent with the witness evidence. The high ratio of women to men visible in the videos also supported what survivors told us.
This removed any doubt the content documented the experiences of migrants like those we interviewed.
Once we identified relevant hotspots of activity, we used geospatial analysis to glean as much information as we could from high resolution satellite imagery captured over the border in the past 18 months.
Scanning images of hundreds of square kilometres, we identified likely Saudi border guard posts that overlooked the migrant trail we mapped, newly created fences lining the border, and burial sites near a camp which grew considerably since the start of 2022.
These findings don’t just support the statements we collected, they bring this immense amount of death to life. They make turning a blind eye to these mass killings that much harder.
"These findings don't just support the statements we collected, they bring this immense amount of death to life. They make turning a blind eye to these mass killings that much harder"
In March 2023, Saudi Arabia denied the United Nations’ public letter from October 2022, which stated Saudi Arabia was responsible for a “systemic pattern of large-scale, indiscriminate cross-border killings.” It claimed the UN’s allegations lacked "times, dates, locations, or details of specific incidents.”
Through this report, through this digital investigation, we have provided just that.
The digital investigation was many things. Labour intensive? Yes. Emotionally taxing? Absolutely. But for five open source and geospatial researchers from a non-profit it was not, strictly speaking, difficult.
The methods used to gather and verify material are commonplace among news organisations. The videos we identified were shared by public pages. Some had hundreds of thousands, even millions of views. Most were easily unearthed with basic searching.
Governments, with their infinitely greater resources, have no excuse for ignoring this widely available material. To feign ignorance or avoid due diligence while offering weapons deals and military training to a country with an abysmal human rights record is unacceptable.
A robust and unambiguous response is imperative, but so too is preemptively acting on publicly available intelligence without being shamed into doing so.
Human Rights Watch calls for a UN-backed independent investigation into the killings and abuses against migrants and asylum seekers at the Yemen-Saudi border, including those documented in our report.
This visual evidence can help make it happen.
Devon Lum is the open source research assistant for the Digital Investigations Lab at Human Rights Watch.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.