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Satellite imagery in a Human Rights Watch report documents how whole neighborhoods were destroyed following religious violence in Burma last month — at least 800 buildings, mostly homes, burned to the ground. The Washington Post's Max Fisher described how the violence started.

In late March, as tension between Burma’s Buddhists and its Muslim minority escalated, a street vendor and a customer in the city of Meiktila began quarreling over a piece of gold. Somehow, the Buddhist customer received a head injury, possibly from the Muslim vendor. Before long, Buddhist mobs were attacking Muslim-run gold stalls. A group of Muslims then stabbed a Buddhist monk to death, apparently in revenge.

From there, the violence escalated, with entire neighborhoods completely destroyed. Human Rights Watch, as part of a call for the Burmese government to investigate the violence, discovered that the violence was easily visible from space.

An estimated 40 people were killed and 61 wounded in the clashes between Muslims and majority Buddhists in Meiktila in the Mandalay Region. Satellite images analysed by Human Rights Watch show the scale of the destruction: an estimated 828 buildings, the vast majority residences, were totally destroyed and at least 35 other buildings were partially destroyed.

The group focused on three areas in Meiktila, two of which are identified on the map below (which is from HRW's full report). In each case, satellite images from December were compared with images taken at the end of last month. Click "before" and "after" below to toggle between the two views.

Main Damage Area 1

As seen on Google Maps:


Main Damage Area 2

As seen on Google Maps (the photos below have been rotated):


For the sake of reference, here's what the destruction seen in Main Damage Area 1 would look like if it were moved to New York City. It's a large enough area to completely destroy Rockefeller Plaza and St. Patrick's Cathedral.

One refugee from the violence was interviewed by the UN.

“Never in my life could I imagine this. It all happened so fast. Everything was on fire. We barely escaped with our lives. Everything I owned and worked for is gone. I have no idea what happened. Total strangers set my home and shop ablaze, but for what?"

“I have no idea how we are ever going to recover from this. My husband had died earlier, and I was already struggling to support my family and two-month-old son. Now all we have are the clothes on our backs."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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