Malagasy villagers recount epic clashes

2012-09-07 11:15

Fenoevo-Efita - Three mass graves covered with branches bear witness to the recent violent clashes in which townsmen killed dozens of cattle-rustlers in rural Madagascar.

"We surrounded them. We used rods and rocks," said Barizon, 21, from the village of Fenoevo-Efita deep in the Indian Ocean island's forests, following the weekend clashes.

"We knew when they would come, so we organised ourselves," he said, proudly explaining why his townsmen took up spears, rods and axes to defend their livestock.

Regional authorities said the thieves had some rifles, but none had the "war guns" of their violent clashes with police in June.

From Friday to Saturday, the villagers killed 67 rustlers, according to police, 86 according to local leaders, or even 90 according to the townsmen themselves. Some bodies may yet be uncovered.

The bodies of 17 were hastily buried in three graves, barely visible through the bushes, an AFP correspondent noted in the village.

Clashes erupted elsewhere as well, with more bodies discovered for example on Wednesday in Emanombo 20km away.

Police operations chief Tahina Rakotomalala said the killers acted out of "legitimate defence" and won't be charged.

Women and children

Zebu cattle, akin to the humped Brahman cattle sacred in India, have become the target of a booming criminal trade in the isolated southern parts of the world's fourth-largest island.

The crime evolved from a customary practice in which a youth must steal an animal to prove his manhood and win the favour of his in-laws. As the rustling escalated, however, villagers realised they had reached their limit.

"We decided it was enough, we are going to fight back," said Marcelo, 30, who owns five zebu in the isolated town, which is a three-hour off-road drive from the nearest city of Fort Dauphin.

He said the 10 gendarmes, or paramilitary police, at the nearest station in the town of Ranomafana hadn't responded to earlier calls for help.

"The gendarmes are far, in Ranomafana, and we already had incidents with them", he said.

After the cattle rustlers, known locally as the dahalo, sent word they were coming, the villagers put out a rallying call, a stark change from their habit of fleeing ahead of the bandits.

"We were 400 at the beginning, then others joined," Marcelo said.

In the end, a group of 3 000 awaited the attack.

"When they came, we sent the women and children into the forest", Marcelo said, adding the villagers then proceeded to kill every attacker in sight, only allowing one teenage girl to live.

Vola Rotsy Benerezy, a talkative 14-year-old clad in a soiled white and green dress and over-sized army jacket, was the only witness left to tell the dahalo story.

Revenge attacks

She came with her boyfriend, Remenabory, a leader in the group of 130 rustlers, who was killed along with one of her brothers, the girl told AFP while waiting in a paramilitary truck with handcuffs on her tiny wrists.

"Our job, of the women, is to sing during the attacks, to entertain," said the girl, who never got an education because she was too old when the village school was built.

She said she hid during the fighting until she was discovered and provided protection by one of the villagers.

Another 18-year-old woman who was with her died in the skirmishes.

The girl said her boyfriend had promised her a zebu if she came along.

"He said I must not be afraid to join them, that he will protect me, but when the villagers attacked us, he left me alone."

Still mystified by the mythical dahalo, the villagers hope the girl can shed light on the group.

They also fear revenge attacks from rustlers.

"We are going to eat and then we, the women and children, are going to sleep in the forest," said Marie Ange, 55, surrounded by children.