Geolocating school girls in Paktia, Afghanistan

Introduction

So far I have been focused on writing about geolocations in Ukraine, which tend to not be too hard. I wanted to show how different things can be when there is no updated satellite imagery, google streetview, or local business photos to rely on. Therefore, in this blog entry I will show you how to do just that and as an example I will be using a video of school girls protesting in a province in Afghanistan.


The Video

The footage I geolocated was published on Twitter on September 10, 2022, and depicted a large group of girls walking along a road. It does not present much information behind their actions so we will need to find that out ourselves. Context being photos and videos can often help with geolocation.

Unfortunately the tweet has since been deleted but I always plan ahead and saved a copy for myself alongside a screenshot of the original tweet (plus archived it!). Always remember to save your evidence for situations like these.

Below is the video saved to my YouTube account. I suggest muting before playing it as it is quite loud and the sound won’t help with the geolocation anyway.


Context

Whilst in some footage you are given a general area of where it happened in the description of the video, sometimes you are not that lucky. The video above says nothing about its whereabouts so we need to look for clues elsewhere. The first thing you could do is look at the language used by the person sharing the video. Twitter is quite useful in terms of translations as it contains Google Translate embed so you can simply click the “Translate Tweet” button and see what it says in your selected language.

Tweet that shared the school girls’ protest video.

When translating the text you will also find out, if you did not know already, which was the original language of the message. In this case, the tweet had been written in Pashto, one of the official languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Below is a map showing the areas in which Pashto is predominantly spoken.

Map highlighting where the Pashto language is spoken.

We can also quickly note that the tweet was shared by a pro-Taliban user as seen below. You can verify that by the presence of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flag on their profile photo and the many Taliban men on their banner. That alone already leads me to believe that the user will most likely be sharing content from Afghanistan and not Pakistan.

Pro-Taliban account on Twitter.

Now that we have some extra details we can just add it all together for a quick google search. Something like “Afghanistan girls street” is already enough for google to point you in the right direction, as seen below.

Google search result when searching for “afghanistan girls street”.

And within a few minutes you went from not having any information about the video to knowing that this footage was probably of a girls’ protest against their school closure in Paktia, an Afghan province. The little preview of the news article from Al Jazeera even tells you that it happened in the city of Gardez.

And here is the full context of this story:
In March 2022, schools for female students above 6th grade were closed throughout Afghanistan denying girls access to formal education. After pressure from local people in Paktia, a province in the East of Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan, several girls’ schools reopened allowing girls to resume their education. Unfortunately as this was done without the knowledge of the Taliban government, shortly after media coverage of the situation, the schools were ordered to be closed again.
On September 10, 2022, as many girls in Paktia found out that their school gates had been closed again, they marched the streets in protest against the decision. The 29 second video shared on Twitter shows dozens of girls, wearing their school uniform, walking along a street in Gardez, Paktia.


Geolocation

Now that we already have a city to focus on we can try to see if there are any details in the footage that would help us narrow down our search even more.

There’s a few things we can see in the video that may help us geolocate the footage but, as you may have already noticed, there is very little to go with. The video shows dozens of school girls walking on a wide paved road, there’s a long building across the street and in front of it a row of tall trees. Right at the end of the video the person filming pans to their side of the road where you can see an interesting building behind the girls and more tall trees next to the road. We already know that this protest happened in Gardez, but as this is the capital of the Paktia province, it is a big city and quite a large area to cover in search for big roads with trees and buildings. Or is it?

As mentioned, at the 13 second mark you can spot a tall and interesting building on the side of the road where the person filming is standing. At first glance it looks quite a modern structure and, because it is very tall compared to the surroundings, we might be able to spot it somewhere else.

Video frame showing an interesting building near the protesting school girls.

In Afghanistan, like other similar countries, Google streetview is almost non-existent. In addition to that there is a very limited amount of panoramic images or user generated content available on Google Maps to help geolocate data. But there is a great tool you can use instead: YouTube!
If you were expecting something obscure I must disappoint. YouTube is great to find (high quality!) footage of almost every single big city in Afghanistan. They either come in the form of drone footage (seriously!), dashcams, or local reporters talking to street vendors. I cannot overstate how amazing YouTube is to find current and high quality footage of streets in Afghanistan.

I simply searched for Gardez in Farsi (“ګردېز”) and got several useful results of the city, one of which the video highlighted below.

YouTube search result when looking for videos with the keyword “ګردېز”

The video had been submitted in November 2020 and was about how the ancient building of Bala Hesar in Gardez was in danger of collapsing. Absolutely nothing to do with school girls’ protests but I wasn’t after that anyway. I wanted to look at buildings. See if you can spot the one from the footage of the Afghan girls on the frame below, taken at the 19 second mark.

Frame a YouTube video where the interesting building is visible at the 19 second mark.

And here it is the building I was looking for. Below, on the left, the partial image from the girls protesting footage, and on the right the image from the YouTube video. The same building.

Comparison between the building seen in the protesting girls video (left) with the building seen in the Gardez YouTube video (right).

So now that we know that the building is somewhere in Gardez we still need to locate it. Luckily for us the YouTube video gave us a pretty good view of the city and, not only showed an iconic monument, it also named it for us in the title as “Bala Hesar”. This will be quite easy now.

We can simply locate the name of the monument in the description of the video (“ګردېز بالاحصار” which translates to “Gardez Balahisar/Bala Hesar”), and ask Google to point it out for us on Google Maps.

Google Maps location of the Balahisar/Bala Hesar monument in Gardez, Paktia province, Afghanistan.

Afterwards we can jump to Google Earth Pro with the coordinates so that we can rotate the camera easily to locate the monument, and afterwards try to spot the building seen in the girls video. It doesn’t take too long to find the specific shape of the monument wall (red) and line it in a way that I can see the street next to it (green).

Comparison between a frame from the YouTube video (top), and Google Earth Pro satellite image of the area (bottom).

Now that I know the general direction where the building from the school girls video should be, I can just navigate slowly until I track it down. You can see it highlighted in dark blue in the image below.

Google Earth Pro satellite image showing the Bala Hesar monument (red), the street facing Northwest (green), and the building from the protesting girls video (dark blue).

If we really zoom in on the building and check the various satellite images from all the historical photos available on Google Earth Pro, we can really get an idea of the shape of the structure. Below are the four best images.

Several satellite historical images of the building from the protesting girls footage.

As always, after geolocating something we need to verify it in order to establish without reasonable doubt that this is, in fact, the correct location of the school girls video.


Verification

Comparing the frame from the school girls’ protest (top) and a satellite image taken of the area in October 2018 (bottom) we can establish that this is indeed the same location. The shape and details of the building match (purple), the specific tree with an interesting outline (blue) also matches and, if you were to locate the nearest high school you would find out that there are a few nearby, one of which is a girls’ school from the direction where the girls were coming from.

Comparison between the details of the protesting school girls’ frame (top), with the historical satellite image from Google Earth Pro (bottom).

Final coordinates of where the girls were seen in the protesting video in Gardez, Paktia province of Afghanistan on September 10, 2022: 33.601136, 69.226070.


Conclusion

YouTube can be your best friend when Google is not there for you (as if they are not owned by the same company). I hope you remember to give it a go whenever you need to find footage from locations where streetview is not available as I can almost guarantee that someone, somewhere, filmed something nearby. The trouble is going through endless videos looking for very specific buildings but I like the challenge that comes with it and I hope you do too.

Thank you for reading!

~Sofia.

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