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How to Locate a “Secret” Pro-Russian Training Camp

August 15, 2014

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Sometimes when geolocating events we can’t rely solely on imagery from sites like Google Earth and Yandex Maps, but instead, we have to utilize several tools and combine multiple sources to come up with an accurate location and complete assessment.

In late May, BBC published a YouTube Video titled “Secret training base for Ukraine’s militias”.  The video highlighted a secret militia camp used to train over 100 new recruits seeking to join the fight in eastern Ukraine.  The video was obviously created in such a way as to not give away its location and lucky for us, giving open source investigators a decent challenge

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The first step to geolocating a location from a video is always to gather as much information about the location to help narrow our search.   As we go through this particular video, we can conclude three major points about the location that will get us started in right direction.

1) The camp is most likely near the city of Luhans’k. In this screenshot, we can see recent graduates from the camp standing in a formation in front of the Luhans’k SBU building.

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2) Its close enough to the water to allow the rebels to go for a refreshing dip between intense training sessions.

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3) Based off the colouring and condition of the shacks in the video, the camp may be located at an old camping ground or children’s camp.

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In order to begin our search for a Luhans’k waterfront camping ground we turn to a Wikimapia.org, an open-content collaborative mapping tool which allows users to mark locations on a map similar to the way they would add information into a Wikipedia page.  Wikimapia gives us the option to search for certain categories such as military bases, schools, hospitals, and yes… even campsites.

Here is a screen shot of the map with the ‘campsite’ category selected.  You can see that we there is a handful of marked locations that are near water.

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Now we can go through each location to see if we can either find a match.  Here is a campsite right along the water, but it doesn’t have a dock which should be visible in satellite imagery.

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The same is true with this one…

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And then there’s this one, “Campsite Yaseny”, located approximately 800 meters from the Russian border. Not only does the location make sense, but you can even see a dock in the water the same shape and size as the one in the video. But due to the lack of recent satellite imagery and tree cover, we cannot verify the location using only imagery.

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Wikimapia provides users with the ability to add details about the location they created.  At this particular location, a user added a note implying the campsite may be the venue for a music festival.

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Here is the text Google translated into English.

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The user also added a website into the details: venichkina.narod.ru.  Let’s investigate further.  This is a screen shot from the home page of the website provided… The title of the page Google translates into”Venichkina Rainbow 2010 held!” From this information we can gather than a music festival may have been held at this campsite in 2010.  Lucky for us, we can assume there are pictures somewhere on the World Wide Web that may allow us to confirm our location.

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We can also assume that someone may post the pictures on the Russian social media site, VKontakte.  So we turn to our trusty friend Google and search for “Веничкина радуга vk.com”.  Most of the time you will get better results by searching in the target language than you would if you search in English. Anyway, here are the results.

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It doesn’t take long to see that the first result is exactly what we were looking for.  This VK page seems to be the music festival’s community page where attendees discuss future/pass festivals and of course, post photos.

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Now we can view the page’s photo albums and see there are several mentioning the festival in 2010.  Let’s take a look and see if any help us verify our location.

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And there it is.  Same paint scheme on the outside.

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Same paint scheme on the inside.

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Same three buildings from a different angle.

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And then there’s the dock that lead us to this location.  I’d say we’ve confirmed the location!

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Even though we don’t always have clear satellite imagery, Streetview, Panoramio photos, or may be looking for a campsite deep in the forest along the Russian border, it is in fact possible to find by combining multiple tools and techniques learned here at Bellingcat.

Extra:

Here is another video posted in June showing heavy weapons training at the same training camp… Just 800 meters from the Russian border.

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18 Comments

  1. Neil

    As an active redditor, I’ve helped assist geolocation on certain prospects of interest during the Ukrainian Crisis, but haven’t done anything comparable to the scope of this revelation. Great job in finding this location.

    Reply
  2. Elisa

    Hi Elliott, me again (@elisaschreuder). What a breathtaking story again.
    In the past weeks I learned from you how to locate a possible building anywhere in the world. Today I found, using your method, the house of Cliff Richard in Berkshire, only starting with a newsitem in NL showing the policecars entering a “park”. Via streetview/Google I found the place, the satelite images of the wall surrounding the mansion was clearly to see. What a fun is this! Thank you again. Your Dutch follower and fan Elisa.

    Reply
    • bellingcatadmin

      Thanks, glad to here you’re taking a shot at doing some yourself, best way to learn is to do it, whatever the subject is.

      Reply
      • Jean Luc Discard

        Hi,

        great job, as always. Meanwhile I would like to ask where I can find any active projects which needs investigations. I’m quite experienced with that kind of task, I did lots of them for my friends way before I discovered your website.

        Reply
  3. LawrenceAlexander

    Great article – really underlines how lateral thinking and use of alternative sources like social media can help investigations.

    When searching within a site on Google, I’ve found adding the ‘site:’ operator useful to reduce irrelevant results. Putting double quotes around a key phrase (like a person’s name or place name) helps also. So to apply that to your example above:

    “ВЕНИЧКИНА РАДУГА” site:vk.com

    narrowed the results to 9,520 to 2,150.

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply
  4. John Boy

    why are the roofs on the buildings different? The ones at the rebel camp are low, the ones at Campsite Yaseny are tall and steeply pitched.

    Why do you assume a campsite that doesn’t actually border the river wouldn’t still have a swimming platform in the river?

    Reply
    • Kyle

      You cannot be serious in questioning the location? The steeply pitched roofs are only the two buildings in the second to last photo set which match up perfectly. As do the rest of the photos? You must be confused…

      As always, great work bellingcat!

      Reply
  5. Numb Chucks

    @John Boy There are 3 buildings in both shots. Both pictures show two buildings with a steep roof and one building with a less steep roof.

    He did say: “you can even see a dock in the water the same shape and size as the one in the video”.

    Reply
  6. Peter Ustinov

    John Boy, honestly you have the observation ability of a child.. refer to the photo you mentioned and look to the left.. There are the same said roof inclinations on pitch as per the rebel camp..

    Well done bellingcat. Good find

    Reply
  7. Usagitsuki

    Fantastic work.
    @John Boy, the pic of the steep-pitched rooves with the sheep in the foreground is from the training camp video at 2:29. The pic below it is from the festival.
    The location of the camp at Yaseny appears to have been confirmed by the Ukrainian government:
    http://www.interfax.com/newsinf.asp?id=508851

    Reply
  8. Janet

    This is an incredible investigative work. If you can locate a campsite in a jungle that’s a great forensics work. I may now ask: Why haven’t you taken time to investigate what happened to Malaysian jetliner MH17 that was shot down by the Ukrainians over Donetsk? Is shouldn’t be too difficult since we have lots of video, photos and we know the site of the crash. I may be jumping the gun here not knowing whether you are still compiling your report and for that matter i will hold on passing judgement assuming you are not like the many journalists who have become government coverup agents in Ukraine.
    I know, just like so many intelligent people out there that there is a massive propaganda campaign going on against Russia as far as the war in Ukraine is concerned. So do some of your readers a favour and publish some facts regarding the shoot down of MH17 by the Ukrainian government. How about you start by asking the Ukrainian government about the ATC recordings prior to the plane getting shot. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Antony

      I think we can see here a bit of how the Russian propaganda machine works. Search out sources that undermine the Russian propaganda and try to introduce doubt. Point out ‘government coverup agents’ and the ‘ massive propaganda campaign going on against Russia as far as the war in Ukraine is concerned’.

      Ignore all the evidence to the contrary, state the propaganda line repeatedly enough times so that hopefully, people will believe the propaganda rather than the truth which has been backed up by plenty of evidence..

      Reply

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