Planet Labs satellite images confirm conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia continues

Satellite images have, once again, belied another African government claim. Planet Labs satellite images show havoc wreak by the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia.

Satellite image of Ethiopia
Credit: Google Maps

Planet Labs Inc. has released eight satellite images showing the carnage of war in Tigray, a state in the northernmost region of Ethiopia. Released on January 9, the images show Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps, two of the four refugee camps in Tigray, have been hit. Houses and other facilities in both camps have been destroyed.

This new evidence provided by satellite imagery contradicts Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s declaration that the civil war is over. Mr Ahmed had made the statement after the federal government forces captured Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, on November 28, 2020. That was barely 24 days after the war started. The Prime Minister had deployed the military to Tigray because the militia group of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked a National Defense Force base near Mekelle on November 4.

Before the conflict, Hitsats and Shimelba camps accommodated 25,000 and 8,000 refugees, respectively, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Similarly, Tigray had about 100,000 internally displaced people and 600,000 people dependent on food aid before the internal conflict began. The United Nations (UN) projects an additional 1.1 million people might be needing aid due to the ongoing crisis.

Satellite image of Shimelba camp
A time-lapse shows the WFP building being destroyed at Shimelba camp. Source: Planet Labs Inc.

The Planet Labs satellite images of Shimelba camp showed scorched earth as a result of recent attacks in January. A UN World Food Programme’s storage facility and a secondary school run by the Development and Inter-Aid Church Commission (a partner of UNHCR ) have been razed, according to the analysis of DX Open Network. Also, a health facility run by the Administration for Refugee & Returnee Affairs was attacked between January 5 and January 8, 2021.

The satellite images of Hitsats camp showed at least 14 actively burning structures and 55 others that were damaged or destroyed by January 5.

Isaac Baker, an analyst at DX Open Network told Bloomberg, “Recent satellite imagery indicated that structures in both camps [Hitsats and Shimelba] are being intentionally targeted. The systematic and widespread fires are consistent with an intentional campaign to deny the use of the camp”.

DX Open Network is a UK-based human security research and analysis non-profit organisation. Planet Labs is an American private Earth-imaging company. It operates over 150 satellites with the aim of imaging the whole Earth daily, monitor changes, and pinpoint trends.

These satellites images are particularly important because Prime Minister Ahmed had declared a six-month state of emergency in Tigray and shut down the internet and telecommunication networks. As a result, it has been difficult for journalists and human rights groups like Amnesty International to independently confirm the carnage of the civil war, its perpetrators, and mitigate against war propaganda.

“I am sick and tired of the fact that no matter how many Eritreans say that Eritreans troops are in Tigray, it is not confirmed until a foreign diplomat says it is”, Meron Estefanos, Director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, told the Guardian.

African governments are wont to use propaganda to gaslight their citizens, especially during conflict. For instance, the Nigerian Army boldly denied the Lekki Massacre that happened in Lagos, the commercial of the county, on October 20, 2020. Hence, the Digital Forensic Research (DRF) Lab released a report using satellite imagery and geo-location to belie the Nigerian Army claims.


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