Geolocation of hidden footage of a Russian filtration camp

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

One of my OSINT reports entitled “Deported Civilians: How civilians are illegally deported to Russia” was published at the Centre for Information Resilience website amongst many other brilliant pieces of work from my colleagues. I spent weeks (months!) collecting and analysing data in order to accurately portrait the reality of the Ukrainian refugee population under Russian control, from the moment of their capture until they were taken to Russian soil, often against their will.

Whilst gathering data for the investigation I found hidden footage of the inside of a Russian filtration camp in Bezimenne, Donetsk Oblast. The process of geolocating the videos was fairly simple, straightforward and took me less than 5 minutes but it involved using a technique I have not yet covered on my blog so I have chosen to write a tutorial on it.


The footage

The first time I came across the hidden footage of a Russian filtration camp in Ukraine was on a telegram channel. The telegram message, shared on May 5, 2022, contained 3 different videos, all of the inside of an alleged filtration camp in Bezimenne, Donetsk Oblast, and was followed by a text only message with information about the life inside the facilities.

As I can’t embed telegram videos on my blog I have chosen to replace it with a YouTube alternative, published on the same day, containing the 3 original videos merged into one footage. The description of the video on YouTube also contained the information found on the additional telegram text message.

If you watch the footage below you’ll notice that it’s mostly indoors apart from a couple of instances in which the person filming approached the window. That scene, lasting around 10 seconds, between the 2:32 and the 2:42 minute mark, gives me enough information to successfully geolocate the alleged Russian filtration camp.

Hidden footage of a Russian filtration camp in Bezimenne, Donetsk Oblast.

Geolocation

The first step of any geolocation should be to get as much information about the potential location before starting. There’s no point of opening Google Maps immediately if we have no idea what we are looking for.

The telegram text and the description of the YouTube video, which contain the exact same information, mentioned a few important things. As the text is in Ukrainian I quickly copy paste it to Google Translate and get it translated to English. It says that the men were taken from Mariupol so we know it’s likely near that area. It names the village as “Nameless” in English, or “Безимяне” in Ukrainian, the original language. Lastly, the text mentioned a school in the village. There’s no name given to the school but we can find that fairly quickly later on.

First thing we need to do is locate this village on Google Maps. Interestingly enough if you try to just put “Безимяне” on Google Maps you’ll be directed to the wrong place. Unfortunately there’s a place in Donetsk Oblast that Google insists it’s the correct location. Google is sometimes unhelpful like that. Luckily for us we already have enough information by now to figure out the correct village on our own. We know that it’s a Russian filtration camp therefore it will be in Russian controlled territory, we know it’s near Mariupol and, if you are like me and can spot a coastline at a glance, you would have noticed that in those 10 seconds by the window you can see the sea in the distance. So let’s explore the map of Ukraine between the city of Mariupol towards the Russian border, focusing on coastal villages.

And seconds later you have your village as seen in the image below. Mariupol on the left highlighted in a green rectangle, Bezimenne spelled “Безіменне” instead of “Безимяне” highlighted in a red oval, and the Russian border which starts at the blue arrow.

Map showing the location of Mariupol (green square), Bezimenne (red oval), and the Russian border (blue arrow).

Now we just need to find the local school. I always keep it simple and just searched for “Безіменне школа” which literally translates to “Bezimenne school” on Google Maps. There’s only one result in this small coastal village so a great place to start.

Location of the Bezimenne school according to Google Maps.

Now that we have established a possible location of the footage we need to verify it. If it is not correct we will need to retrace some steps and figure out what went wrong; if it is correct we need to provide evidence of our findings.


Verification

Looking again at the 10 seconds of the footage where the person filming approaches the window you can see the frame below. This entire frame is enough to be able to geolocate the Russian filtration camp. We know we are at least on the second floor because we saw the person climbing up two flights of stairs. The building on the left is lower than where we currently are standing, the roof is flat and there’s something made of metal(?) on it. There’s also some tall windows on the side of the building and a row of trees across from it that, with a bit of luck, we will be able to spot from a satellite image.

Screenshot from Russian filtration camp video showing the view from the window.

Now that we have analysed the image and know what to expect let’s jump into Google Earth Pro to verify if the school that Google Maps pointed to in Bezimenne is the correct one.
At first glance, and looking at the image below, it looks very promising. There’s a flat roof, a row of trees next to it and it’s clearly facing the coastline.

Satellite image of the Bezimenne school.

There are a few other details that I would like to confirm before immediately verifying this geolocation. No detail is too much!
I would like to view that small metal structure on top of the flat roof, the windows on the side, and the height of the building to confirm that the section where the person was filming is actually higher than the rest. How can we do that with Google Earth Pro if this is the satellite image available?
That’s where the historical imagery option comes in handy. I use it very often when geolocating and it’s extremely useful.

At the top toolbar you’ll see an icon with a little clock and an arrow, as highlighted below. When you click on it a bar will show up with the available dates of the satellite images taken of the area.

Google Earth Pro historical imagery icon, highlighted in fuchsia.

The interesting thing about satellite images is that, depending on the slight tilt of the satellite at the time, the images change a tiny bit each time as they can be off nadir. This is great when attempting to figure out the height of buildings for example, or analyse one of the sides.
So if we play with the dates a bit we can get enough evidence for all the details we were looking for.

Starting with the side windows. They are visible on the June 2019 (left) and October 2015 (right) versions as seen below.

Examples of historical images where the side windows are visible.

Next we can verify the little metal structure at the corner of the flat roof. It is easily seen below, highlighted in light blue, on the June 2019 (left) version, as well as the May 2018 (right) version.

Examples of historical images where the metal structure on the roof is visible.

Finally, let’s confirm that the building where the person was filming was indeed at a higher level than the flat roofed building with the metal structure as seen above. The image from March 2016 (left) and the image from December 2015 (right), provide evidence for this claim. The section highlighted in purple below allows us to verify that there is indeed at least one extra row of windows above, likely indicating an extra floor.

Examples of historical images where the extra floor is visible.

And we’re done! We checked enough details to establish beyond reasonable doubt that this is indeed the location where the hidden footage showing forced civilian captives was filmed. Below is the image I used on the “Deported Civilians: How civilians are illegally deported to Russia” report to confirm my findings. I used the June 2019 satellite image from Google Earth Pro (left) and rotated the photo to face the same angle as the frame from the filtration camp video. Coordinates: 47.102124, 37.942215.

Geolocation of the Bezimenne school where Ukrainian civilians were being kept against their will. 47.102124, 37.942215

Conclusion

When trying to verify locations it is often useful to use the historical satellite imagery data on Google Earth Pro as it (usually) provides several off nadir images. These pictures, all put together, can paint a very realistic picture of buildings and structures, that otherwise, would be either too hard or impossible to verify.
I hope this brief explanation on how to use this option was useful to anyone wanting to learn more about geolocation techniques.
Thank you for reading!

~Sofia.

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