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"We're Looking for Truth and Justice"

Uncovering hidden conflicts and the minds behind Project Khthon 



Sam McKnight, fourth-year ancient history and archaeology student and Director and Founder of Project Khthon, was reading about the Ukraine War and the mass internment of civilians: “I just thought [...] can we not just use satellite imagery to find these graves? And then I looked it up, and no one was really doing that.” With that, his passion project turned registered non-profit was born. 


He describes Khthon as a “war crimes intelligence company” specialising in satellite imagery and mass graves. June 2022 marks the project’s official beginning, though McKnight had thought about it since studying funerary archaeology in his second year: “I was reading about this mass grave of 250 or something Incan kids,” he recalled. “I cried about it.” 


Last semester he started hiring people in St Andrews, and this semester, he hired even more. Following some “pretty chill” interviews in the library, Khthon amounted to a team of around 40 signed volunteers working under NDAs and time-commitment contracts, he said. 


One of them is the current Deputy Director and Peacebuilding and Mediation postgraduate student Isabella Sansanelli. Her three and a half years of work experience with humanitarian, immigration-based non-profits, alongside completing both of her undergraduate dissertations on conflicts of mass displacement, “went in line with working with Project Khthon,” she said.


McKnight points out that most of his team are Gen-Z — an advantage that makes them particularly wary of the influence of social media on the spread of information. “Other pre-established companies [...] have really good outreach on Facebook and Twitter,” he noted, “but they haven’t reached the Gen-Z audience for Instagram and TikTok.”


Being a self-described “content creator,” Khthon’s social media presences combine important information and statistics with Gen-Z Internet humour. In one reel, McKnight stands outside of the library and asks students what their historical “Roman Empire” is in relation to conflict and injustice. “[Users] do respond positively, and often people say, ‘I didn't know that,’” he noted. 


Apart from connecting with people online, McKnight added that Khthon has brought him in contact with a variety of wizened individuals, from CEOs, intelligence agents, photographers, archaeologists, parachute chaplains, journalists, and even the former Dean of Derby Cathedral (who now works for Khthon). “It's like a domino effect,” he said. “One person sets us up with another person, who sets us up with someone else.”


And how did he manage all of those connections? “A St Andrews email, and just emailing until they answer,” he said. “Honestly, it does the job.” 


On Khthon’s website, they showcase satellite images of various mass gravesites in different countries — some of which even include a link to Google Maps of the exact coordinates. Their website currently features research from Ethiopia and Myanmar, but McKnight assured Khthon “[has] quite a few promising investigations underway.” According to McKnight, “we focus everything on the places people haven’t heard of.” 


McKnight feels that most young people — in focusing on one global crisis — tend to forget about the many others. He hopes Khthon can change that. “We advocate for those who are forgotten,” he said, “for those who the Western world and the world in general — let's be real — doesn't care about.” 


While Khthon seeks to “increase awareness of hidden conflicts in young people,” McKnight also mentioned that the project has formed many professional connections where their information gets put to good use — for one, they formulate reports and send them to the UN. “There is an actual, legal process that we try and abide [by],” he confirmed. 


Though “the pursuit of justice” — as McKnight called it — comes at a hefty cost. He disclosed that, as Khthon has grown stronger, his mental health has not. This is largely “because of all the images and stuff that I’m seeing every day,” he explained. “I thought I was gonna be fine, honestly. Six months later I was not.”


McKnight remembers reading about an open-source intelligence researcher who lived his day-to-day life with his fight-or-flight at the ready in the event of a mass act of terrorism. “I was like, wait, that's what I do,” McKnight realised. Because of his work with Khthon, he had developed vicarious trauma — a typical side effect of working closely with victims and survivors of conflicts. 


Sansanelli recalled a focus on this issue while working with other nonprofits. “It's really a huge topic, and we're not the first humanitarian nonprofit to exist, so obviously this has been a recurrent theme,” she explained. 


McKnight raised mental health concerns at a Khthon general meeting at the start of this year. He’s made sure that Project Managers monitor the well-being of their Research Analysts, ensuring that — in the midst of analysing gruesome satellite imagery and reports — they’re doing okay. “If you’re struggling, you need to get cycled out of the project,” he said. 


“This isn’t a normal nine-to-five, it’s something students do as their schedules permits, so it’s hard to separate it from the rest of your uni work and daily life,” said Sansanelli. “I think creating those distinct lines of where you begin and end that kind of work is really important to prevent vicarious trauma.”


As director, McKnight has found his own way to separate Khthon from his personal life — he wears a bracelet that symbolises the project itself: “It's a thing that I put on when I do Khthon work and I take it off at the end of the day when the Khthon work finishes [...] It separates it for me,” he explained. 


Even still, though, McKnight admitted, “Sometimes I forget I’m at uni, like I spend all day every day doing Khthon.” He hopes that Khthon will be his “main job in the future.” Nonetheless, he’s committed to “finding the right people” to continue Khthon’s legacy in St Andrews after he graduates. 


What began as an extracurricular hobby has developed into something much bigger than him, he said. “It’s about promulgating these hidden, complex people,” he concluded. “We’re looking for truth and justice, so we want to expose these acts. We want to expose who’s done [them],” he added.


“I feel like [Khthon] is at the nexus of truth and justice, which is really important,” said Sansanelli. “And it's victim based. It's victim oriented and victim centred, which I think is what's really attractive about it.”




Photo: Sam McKnight

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