Sleuths from BBC News were able to use Google Earth, some simple geometry, and more than a little good luck to pinpoint the exact time and place – and even some of the perpetrators – of a mass killing in Africa. The news agency then explained their process in a series of Twitter posts that has since gone viral.
As IFL Science explains, earlier this year a horrifying video began making the rounds on the internet. The video shows two women, purportedly agents of the African terrorist group Boko Haram, along with their children, being forced by uniformed soldiers to walk to a certain location before being blindfolded, forced to the ground, and then gunned down execution-style.
The video was shocking, not just in its brutality, but also for the fact that women and children were murdered. And even though the women were accused of belonging to a violent terrorist group, the keyword here is “accused.” That is to say, there’s nothing to suggest that the women were given a fair trial or any trial. Long story short: this was a war crime – a war crime that nobody knew when or where it took place, or even what country’s soldiers were allegedly behind it.
In July 2018, a horrifying video began to circulate on social media.
2 women & 2 young children are led away by a group of soldiers. They are blindfolded, forced to the ground, and shot 22 times. #BBCAfricaEye investigated this atrocity. This is what we found… pic.twitter.com/oFEYnTLT6z
— BBC News Africa (@BBCAfrica) September 24, 2018
However, BBC News figured it out, with the help of some readily-available tools (as well as social media).
An Amnesty International team started with the assumption that the soldiers were from Cameroon, the West African nation that, like others, has been at war with Boko Haram. The Cameroonian government denied that it took place in Cameroon and denied even more strongly that it was their soldiers.
However, looking at the mountains in the background, and with the help of social media users in the area, investigators were able to find a spot from which a user could look and see the exact same mountain ridge. The spot was, in fact, in Cameroon, near the village of Zelevet. Investigators even narrowed to the location to a specific dirt road.
Using before-and-after satellite imagery and comparing notes, investigators determined that the murder must have taken place in either 2015 or 2016. Noting the footprints in the dirt road, they determined that it must have taken place during the dry season. And looking at shadows cast by the sun, they could pinpoint the time of the murder to a two-week period in either year.
Finally, it was time to narrow down the culprits. And other than a couple of nicknames being bandied about in the video, there was little in the way of identifying the killers. Though the Cameroonian government at first denied that the soldiers were theirs, calling it “fake news,” internet sleuths turned up photos of other Cameroonian soldiers in those very uniforms.
And at last, with the help of Facebook, the team was able to identify at least some of the murders, such as “Tchotcho,” who is actually a Cameroonian soldier named Cyriaque Bityala.
With the Cameroonian government forced to admit that it was their soldiers in the viral video, authorities moved quickly to search for and even apprehend those that could be identified. According to a statement from the Cameroon government, seven soldiers have been relieved of duty and are in custody pending an investigation.