A Video of Afghans selling children? – An OSINT Investigation

(Click here to watch and listen to the video version of this blog entry)

Introduction

On March 10, 2022, I came across a concerning video that had been shared on Facebook earlier that day. In his post, the author implies that the video depicts a market in a village in Afghanistan where people were selling children for “cheap money”. There is no information regarding when the video was made, by whom, or even where. I took upon myself to find out more information regarding this matter and assess whether or not the claims were founded.

My analysis was done using only Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and tools freely available on the web. Below you can read the process used to get from the initial claim on Facebook to the real events behind the video, supported by facts and evidence. It was quite a ride!


The Video and the Claim

The video that started this investigation can be found on a Facebook post (since deleted).

Below is a screenshot of the video posted on Facebook and the accompanying caption.

Figure: Screenshot of original post that I started investigating.

Video Analysis

The first thing we must do in OSINT is to analyse the initial content as much as possible before beginning the search. Leave no stone unturned (figuratively of course, can’t actually edit anything).

For that I watched the Facebook video over and over again taking mental and handwritten notes of everything I was observing. Nothing is too trivial or insignificant. I wanted to memorise everyone’s faces, every building, every look and interaction between the people, literally everything, to really understand what was happening in this 44 second video.

My initial impressions were:

The video starts showing a big group of adult males, possibly Afghans, with many young children, including babies, in a rural area with many decaying buildings around. Immediately in front of the person recording is a queue of people, most carrying babies and with young children, who are sitting and looking to their right, appearing to be waiting for something.
The man filming approaches this first row of people and focuses on one of the babies wrapped in a white fabric. He speaks in Farsi and asks “doesn’t the child cry?”. He then moves to show a couple more babies being carried by young boys.
Afterwards the crowd gets up and starts moving towards the person who is recording left hand-side where a group of men appear to be in charge of gathering and directing people. A man dressed in white with a black jacket is seen pointing to his right to where the crowd is now being directed.
The person recording pans back and focuses the footage on a baby before moving past the queue and showing the other group of people behind them, possibly waiting their turn. This group does not seem to have as many babies with them, with only one being visible, but there are still many children around. He then moves to his left showing several adult men that seem to be in charge of the situation with one wearing fuchsia pointing at his left to where an old man carrying a baby is seen walking. A man with a red piece of fabric on his shoulder and a firearm is seen ushering people along a line.
Behind him a few others in a line do the same. We then see a man wearing a bright orange (red?) jacket with a cream-coloured shape on his back and a blue woolly hat with white stripes. A teenage boy wearing bright pink clothing and a white hat that we had seen at the beginning of the video is now seen approaching a man wearing dark brown clothes matching his turban who directs the young boy towards the man with the red jacket. The video ends.


After observing the video I had a few questions:
Why are there only men with children and why are there no women taking care of them?
Why are they all looking in the same direction?
Why are they all in such a damaged location?
Why is there a queue and what are they waiting for?
Who is the person in the red jacket that seems to be in charge?

All of these questions will need to be answered in order to get to the bottom of this.


Similar Videos

Whilst researching for more information on this video I came across other similar videos that had been shared on Facebook with similar captions, many of which had already been re-shared several times. The earliest identical video had been posted on the 9th of March 2022, and had better quality than the one I initially analysed.

Below is a screenshot of the earliest submission of the video found on Facebook. The caption is different but the implication that this is portraying a market where children are sold is similar.

Figure: Screenshot of the earliest submission of the video found on Facebook.

Geolocation

Before I delved into the comment section of the video looking for leads I wanted to see if there was any point in trying to geolocate this video. Knowing where it was filmed would be a tremendous help in trying to figure out what is happening in it. For that I tried to screenshot various frames of the video where the mountains in the distance were visible and then attempted to create a panoramic(ish) photo with an image editing software. Spoiler alert, I didn’t get too far with that as expected. There’s barely any geography visible on the 44 second video.
That didn’t stop me though! I decided that I could just draw what I could see, any buildings, rubble, passages, etc. Here are my (untalented) attempts below. And yes, that is my mouse, the coolest mouse in existence.

Figure: The “front” (left), and “back” of the video (right).

Although not exactly useful at the moment, it will be (hopefully) handy later on.


Comments Analysis

Before diving into this research all over the web it is always useful to check out the comments. Sometimes there is something there worth pursuing. In this case I spotted a few comments on the Facebook video mentioning the possibility of this being a vaccination campaign and not a “hot market for buying and selling children” as the caption implies.
Below are some of the examples of the comments found, some in Farsi and some in Pashto, all translated into English using Facebook’s embedded function (so useful by the way).

Figure: Screenshot of a comment on Facebook mentioning a vaccine.


Vaccination Centre Hypothesis

With several people in the comments of the various videos shared on Facebook and Twitter mentioning that this situation could be showing a vaccination effort in rural Afghanistan, I decided to pursue that line of thought and find out if this was a credible explanation for the events depicted in the video.

For that we needed to find the answer to several questions.
Are the Taliban allowing children to be vaccinated?
Are there vaccination efforts in specific areas of the country?
How are vaccinations usually administered to children?”
Who are the people giving the vaccines?
In which setting are they usually administered?
Who usually handles the children in such cases?
What are the ages of the targeted children?

With a mix of news stories, press releases, and the analysis of online media, the answer to all of these questions was found.

The Taliban, after a three year ban on polio vaccinations, had agreed In October 2021, to allow United Nation’s health workers to restart their polio vaccination campaign in January 2022, all over Afghanistan. These vaccinations come in the form of drops administered directly to the childrens’ mouth. The people giving the vaccines, usually women health workers, will go door to door, to every household where children between 6 months old and 5 years of age can be found.

Figure: Health worker in Kabul administering a polio vaccine to a child during a house-to-house visit.


Now that we have answered the questions above we can see how some of the new information is contradictory to what we have watched in the video.
If the vaccinations are being administered door to door, why are all the children in the same location? A news article that I found could answer this question. In an article by ToloNews, the operations coordinator for the polio program at the Ministry of Health, Nik Wali Shah, said “It has been decided that this campaign will be mosque-to-mosque instead of house-to-house.” This could explain why the children were accompanied by a male relative instead of a woman. However, we can easily see that the setting is not a mosque therefore this theory is not sustainable.

We also see no easily identifiable health workers in the video and, judging by the appearance of the children, some are younger than 6 months of age and some definitely older than 5 years of age. All of these incongruences together make it clear that the video I was analysing is not of a vaccination campaign but something else.

At this point I got a bit upset. I was really hoping that the video depicted a vaccination program because the other possibility was just too dark to face. Are people in Afghanistan desperate enough to sell their own children? We’ll find out soon.


Child Selling Market Hypothesis

In order to verify the veracity of the child market claims in the video I needed to find out first if such markets actually exist, and if so, how they operate.
For that I need to answer a few questions:

Are there markets in Afghanistan where children are sold?
Who is selling the children?
Who is buying the children?
“For what purpose are children being bought?
What is the age range of the sold children?
What is the gender of the sold children?
Where is the location of such markets?

The answer to all of these questions was found in a variety of news articles by CNN, DW, Sky News, and videos from Bloomberg and Sky News. (Note: I would not watch or read them if you are easily upset.)

Unfortunately there are indeed cases of young children, mostly girls, being sold into marriage in Afghanistan, with a few reports of boys being sold to either families with no sons or for work. The average age of cases for girls seem to be between 5 and 10 years of age. Most of these transactions are done between the father and the buyer with no input (and sometimes no knowledge) from the mother, either in exchange for money or to pay off debts.

Figure: A screenshot from the Bloomberg video entitled “Parents in Afghanistan Are Selling Their Children as the Economy Worsens” posted on the 31st December 2021.

Now that we know a bit more about what drives some Afghan families to sell their children, we need to verify whether or not the information I just found out matches what seemed to be happening in the video.
The fact that there seem to be a majority of male Afghans present could mean that this is a situation in which there is money being transferred but the ages and gender of the children present don’t match the statistics. The majority of children in the video are either babies or young boys, none of which are in the target demographic for a children’s market. There are also far too many children, and with not many men unaccompanied, where are the buyers?

This leaves us with the certainty that both the vaccination centre and the children’s market hypothesis are incorrect. We have one more thing we haven’t identified though, the location.

(At this point I will confess I needed a break. Researching and watching videos on such dark topics can take a toll on anyone’s mental health. It’s fine to stop for a bit and recharge before carrying on.)


The Location

Although the previous investigation into the vaccination centre hypothesis and the child selling market hypothesis were unfounded, I still gained valuable information in the process. Whilst trying to find information about the children’s market, I performed a reverse image search on all the clear faces of the video and one in specific gave me a very interesting, and unexpected result.

On the 0:14 minute mark of the Facebook video we see the little boy below, holding a baby in his arms. He is wearing a white hat with an interesting pattern in front. Some clothes are traditional and specific to certain areas of the country and, after searching and watching many videos with children in Afghanistan, only one image was found that contained a boy wearing a similar hat. The boy was a refugee in a village in Badghis.

First we see the young boy in the Facebook video we are investigating.

Figure: A boy with a white hat is seen on the Facebook video at 0:14min holding a baby.

Then we see the boy from a stock photo, wearing a similar patterned hat.

Fig 10. A stock photo of refugee children in Badghis. The boy in front is wearing a similar patterned hat as the one seen in the previous screenshot.


This can be a valuable clue pointing us in the right direction! If you were then to search for information regarding Badghis you’ll easily come across articles detailing the earthquake that hit the area in January 2022. The information in the article combined with the images gathered from the setting of the initial video corroborate the hypothesis of Badghis being the place where it was filmed.

If we look at some of the frames showing the buildings in the video from Facebook (or looking at my brilliant drawings from before), we notice that there is rubble around, damage on the walls and collapsed buildings, all of which could be an indication of a place that suffered an earthquake. All of those highlighted in red below.

Figure: Signs of structural damage in buildings where the video was filmed.

Now this is where things started to get interesting.

If we then compare the building style and type of materials used for houses in the previous images with some of the photos shared on the UNICEF article regarding the Badghis earthquake, we can quickly identify a clear similarity between the two.

Figure: A man stands in front of his house in Badghis, damaged by the earthquake that was felt in January 2022. The building style and materials are similar to the ones observed before.

The above comparison between the two sets of images corroborates my theory that the initial Facebook video was probably filmed in Badghis, most likely after the 5.3 magnitude earthquake felt in the Qadis District on the 17th January 2022.

Whilst searching for more information and images of a post-earthquake Badghis on Youtube, I found a video entitled “Afghan-Americans help victims of Badghis earthquake”, published by the Salaam Times.

Figure: Screenshot of the beginning of the video entitled “Afghan-Americans help victims of Badghis earthquake”, published on the 7th of February 2022 by the Salaam Times.


The video, entitled “Afghan-Americans help victims of Badghis earthquake” shows a team of people, all men, meeting and greeting local people and then giving money to little children. The description of the video explains that an engineer named Jalaluddin Wardak “travelled from the United States of America to Afghanistan in order to deliver the assistance to the residents of three villages of Qadis district on January 29-30 2022”.
The most interesting part about this video was the realisation that the setting was the same as the one from the video I was investigating! We can specifically match the area highlighted in red in the Facebook (“childrens’ market”) video below to the Salaam Times (“earthquake aid”) video.

Let’s compare the area highlighted in red below, first seen on the Facebook video (left) and later on seen on the YouTube video (right).

And if we highlight the specific details in the video we can verify it’s the exact same place! The same features on the same corner and maybe even the same lady sitting there! (Hard to know, a lot of them wear black.)

It’s a perfect match! A beautiful confirmation that this is NOT a childrens’ market. We kinda already knew that from the previous research into that type of practice but it’s still great to have factual evidence that it is something else. It was a great relief to me after a full day of reading and listening to harrowing stories.

This crucial piece of information alongside the description of the video, allowed me to establish not only the location but the time frame in which this video was recorded, a chronolocation! The footage initially claimed to be a childrens’ market was filmed in Badghis between the January 29th and 30th, 2022.

I also did a quick research on this story and found a couple of articles with a few more interesting details. According to the Salaam Times, a number of Afghan-American people gathered enough money to provide financial assistance to the many victims of the earthquake that hit the Badghis area. The BakhtarNews then added that the charity foundation distributed 15000 AFN in cash to each bereaved families, 10000 AFN to each vulnerable family, and finally 12500 AFN in cash to the surviving infant child of each.
This would explain why there are only men in the video as they are there to accept the financial aid in cash. It also explains why they brought all their children as they were there to “prove” how many they had to also collect money per each.

But I’m not done yet, I wanted to dig just a bit more into this new video.


The People

Once the location was established I decided to try to find out more information about the protagonists.
By analysing the new video and comparing it to the previous information, we can start matching a few characters.

Person 1 – Jalaluddin Wardak

Wearing: A orange/reddish jacket with dark cream shapes. A black shirt underneath the jacket. A woolly blue hat with white shapes/stripes. He is highlighted in purple below.

On the Facebook video (top left) he is seen as likely the person in charge. In the Salaam Times video on YouTube the same person, identified as Jalaluddin Wardak, can be seen on different occasions. First meeting with the local elders (right), and then later on distributing money to children (mid left). A few seconds later we can also see him talking to the camera, possibly explaining what he is doing in Badghis (bottom left).

We can safely conclude that this is indeed the same person in both videos. Mr Jalaluddin Wardak is not in charge of a childrens’ market or a vaccination centre, he was in the village to distribute aid to the affected families of the earthquake that earlier that month devastated the area.

Person 2 – Unknown

Wearing: A dark brown turban with some lighter colour / golden markings. A big piece of fabric of the same colour of his turban covers his body. He has a very dark and thick beard. He is highlighted in yellow below.

In the first video, from Facebook’s “childrens’ market”, he is seen directing the young boy wearing bright pink and carrying a child towards the orange jacket man (Jalaluddin Wardak), as seen in the left image below. In the YouTube video (right) he can be seen at the beginning greeting other men, just behind Jalaluddin Wardak, previously identified.

We can conclude that both videos depict the same person wearing the same clothes and in the same geographical area, very likely on the same day.

Person 3 – Unknown

Wearing: An orange piece of fabric over his shoulders. The fabric has white stripes on it. Wearing a dark yellow / mustard coloured jacket underneath. Black turban with white stripes. Light blue trousers and long shirt and sports shoes. Highlighted in dark blue below.

He is visible in the first Facebook video on a few different instances as shown below on the top and mid left images. He was also spotted meeting the elders (right), and help distributing the money (bottom left).

Person 4 – Unknown

Wearing: Dark blue turban, mustard coloured wide scarf over his shoulders, dark blue shirt and white trousers. Also has a dark beard. Highlighted in light blue below.

He was partially seen on the initial video, on the corner, as seen below on the left. And he was also part of the group of people meeting the town elders on the YouTube video, as seen below on the right.

Although person 4 is not as visible as the other ones, it is safe to conclude that it is likely the same individual on both videos based on the clothes he’s wearing, the geographical location and the group of people he is with.

Overall and with four clear matches, all wearing the same clothes in both videos, we can safely conclude that the events recorded on both the videos happened in the same day. Either that or they coordinated within the group to wear the same outfits on different days which is unlikely.

I also had a 5th match but I wasn’t 100% confident on it and chose to leave him out. Feel free to look through the videos and see if you can spot mysterious man number five.


Conclusion

Now that I have found the location where the initial Facebook video was recorded, the date which it was filmed and the team behind the events, I can confidently assert that the initial claim that it depicts a childrens’ market in Afghanistan, is false.
All evidence points to this being the distribution of money by the Jalaluddin Wardak Charity Foundation between the 29th and 30th January 2022, following the Bagdhis earthquake in January 17, 2022.

Unfortunately that is not to say that such things do not happen, as evidence was found that children do get sold in Afghanistan. This just means that in this instance, the outcome was a happy one (preceded by the tragic earthquake that is).
It is important to celebrate the little victories. This was one of them.

I hope you enjoyed this (lengthy?) explanation on how I found the truth behind the disinformation.
Thank you for reading!

~Sofia.

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