November 27, 2007--During the first two days of the military crackdown in Burma this September, horror stories leaked out of the country via Internet and cell phone: the junta firing into crowds, monks bloodied by beatings, activists burned alive. But on the third day, silence. Web and mobile connections went dead, and Lars Bromley realized, "Oh, jeez, I'm going to have some of the only looks at these cities."
For the past two years, Bromley, a 32-year-old geo-information specialist at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has been using satellite photography to help NGOs document atrocities in isolated crisis zones like Darfur and Zimbabwe. When on-the-ground watchdogs send him coordinates, Bromley buys images from commercial satellites and combs them for visual proof — refugee camps, burned villages, massing militias.
As the protests in Burma escalated, he submitted an order for shots of Rangoon and Mandalay from two satellites. It takes a few days to program the cameras, and each satellite flies over Burma only once every five days, so he crossed his fingers and hoped that it wouldn't be too cloudy when they passed.
Bromley received his first image a week later, and by then the cities were already in total lockdown.
"The streets were completely empty," he says, "except for large vehicles surrounding the monasteries." To catch human rights abusers in the act, Bromley will need a heads-up from the NGOs, who usually know what's about to go down. "If enough groups learn of the satellites," he says, "the odds increase that we can collect useful pictures" — pretty much anywhere in the world.
Though the impact of such photos is uncertain, in matters of human rights abuse, global attention is never a bad thing. "Right now, we take what the NGOs already know and prove it," Bromley says. "But my job's not done until we put a stop to it."