How Google Earth Helped Solve The Case Of A Brutal Execution

If the women and children were afraid, they didn't show it. In the disturbing video that made its rounds on the social media circuit in July 2018, two women walked quietly with expressions of defeat on their face, likely aware that they and their children were being ushered to their deaths. 

Men wearing camouflage accessorized with sunglasses and assault rifles were forcing the women to walk somewhere. One woman held the hand of a little girl as a soldier held the woman by the back of the neck with one hand, occasionally slapping her in the face with the other. A second woman had a toddler strapped to her back. The group of men walked the women and children to a dry, sandy spot in the arid looking country where they blindfolded them, made them get on their knees, and shot them 22 times, according to BBC News Africa

The slow-moving atrocity was shocking, and The Poynter Institute reported that it kicked a group of journalists, amateur sleuths, and freelance investigators into motion to work to figure out who the men were in the video so that they would be held accountable. Initial theories were that the killings either happened in Mali or Cameroon, per BBC News Africa, but Cameroonian leaders denied it happened there, saying, it was "fake news."

The team used Google Earth and other technology to track down the soldiers

According to BBC News Africa, The Cameroonian Minister of Communication, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, said at the time, "The video that is currently going round is nothing but an unfortunate attempt to distort actual facts and intoxicate the public. Its sincerity can easily be questioned." 

But the group of journalists and media sleuths were not deterred. After all, they had Google Earth. According to the Poynter Institute, the investigators started by looking at the background that could be seen as the women and children were marched to their deaths. A mountain range could be seen, along with a group of buildings. A tip came in to look near a small town called Zelevet which is located in North Cameroon near the Nigerian border. 

According to BBC News Africa, the tip helped them find the exact match for that ridgeline with help from satellite images from Google Earth. Turns out, that area is where battles have been ongoing between the Cameroonian military and Boko Haram for years. Boko Haram is a jihadist group that sometimes refers to itself as the Nigerian Taliban, according to the Counter Terrorism Guide. According to the BBC, the Cameroonian soldiers in the video were accusing the women of being involved with the group. 

The team was even able to find the exact location of the shooting by slowing down the video to get more detail, and using satellite imagery from Sentinel Hub to match it up, according to Poynter and BBC News Africa. 

The men who did the killings were ultimately charged and sentenced

Next, the investigators wanted to find out when it happened. More satellite imagery showed that some buildings in the video had not yet been built when they were looking into the shooting, while other buildings were demolished, narrowing down the timeline, per BBC Africa News. They also took into account the footpath which showed them it was the dry, hot season, along with the shadows of the soldiers to figure out the position of the sun at the time of the murders. Using all of that information, they narrowed down the time of the killings to be between March 20 and April 5, 2015. 

Next, they wanted to figure out who the men were in the video. They discovered that the guns and the type of camouflage the soldiers were wearing in the video were those used by the Cameroonian military. What's more, at least one man's name was spoken in the video. Finally, On August 18, just a month after the video was released, the Cameroonian Minister of Communication announced that seven members of their military were charged with the killings, per BBC Africa News. 

In September 2020, Human Rights Watch reported that four of the soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison, and another was sentenced to two years for the 2015 murders of the two women and children. Two other men involved were found not guilty as they only watched and did not actually do the killing.