Exchange student documents mass graves in conflict zones

Khthon appeals to companies for higher-quality satellite equipment

The demonstration at City Park on Sept. 23 modeled mass graves for satellite imagery.
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The demonstration at City Park on Sept. 23 used drone technology to showcase the simulation.
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Queen’s students simulated mass graves as part of a humanitarian mission to discover and document mass graves in conflict zones worldwide.

The demonstration was held by an organization called Khthon in City Park on Sept. 23 to create a video for awareness of mass graves, and to appeal to private satellite companies who can provide higher resolution satellites to spot mass graves.

Khthon was founded in June 2022 by Sam McKnight, a third-year archaeology student on exchange at Queen’s from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“We combine open-source information, local language informants and private satellite imagery to discover, document and monitor mass graves in ongoing theatres of conflict,” McKnight explained in an interview with The Journal.

Khthon identifies the graves in photographs from high above, but requires satellites with more capabilities to capture the images effectively.

In the demonstration, students laid overlapped to simulate a mass grave as McKnight’s current satellite photographed the students to model a real grave. The photographs will be used to appeal to companies who can provide higher resolution satellites to spot mass graves.

“Powerful and wealthy entities have a social obligation to help if they can—and they can help,” McKnight said.

Khthon’s team is comprised of students in Scotland and Ukraine, who translate and communicate through the Telegram app.

Khthon currently has active projects in Ukraine and Ethiopia as they actively look for soil disturbances to spot mass graves from above.

“[The satellites] need to be somewhere which is kind of active and ongoing, so the mass graves can still be seen,” he said.

Public awareness is also central to Khthon’s mission since mass graves provide stark images as a symptom of a wider conflict.

Localized information gets lost in the news, and the app helps the Khthon team get closer to the source. There are online groups to trade local information and report missing family members—having local language speakers is very useful, McKnight added.

Burying people without dignity in mass graves is a human rights crime, according to the Geneva Convention. Often family members of the deceased don’t know they’ve been killed or where they are, according to McKnight.

After the graves are marked, the information is sent to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) to report the deaths and work on identifying the individuals.

The mass graves affected McKnight when he first read about the 550-year-old mass sacrifice of hundreds of Incan children and young llamas. These children are no longer identifiable, as it typically takes eight to twelve years for a body to fully decompose in most soils.

In Ukraine, Russian soldiers are killing people indiscriminately and using mass graves to cover up deaths, according to McKnight­. Khthon’s team intends to find the mass graves before the bodies start to decompose to help identify the people killed.

Mass graves create a microclimate to preserve soft tissue remains. Khthon wants to find mass graves before individual’s unique identifying factors dissolve into the soil.

McKnight said it’s important to uncover individual identities and compile evidence against those who committed the crimes. Khthon is investigating Ethiopian mass graves, many of which have already been dug up or destroyed, preventing future identification of the deceased.

“Life is equal everywhere. I want to be able to focus on small missions as well,” he said.

With Khthon still in the early stages of the project, McKnight said whether the information is of use to the ICMP depends on a lot of factors.

“I'm trying to do something, anything to help and maybe one day, we'll get a hit in the dark, and we can actually make a real difference.”

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