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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 21:16 GMT 22:16 UK
Ethnic strife rocks Madagascar
Abattoir district at dusk
The Abattoir district, the scene of the worst violence
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By Alastair Leithead
BBC correspondent in Madagascar

One of the things Hery Rasamoely loves about Mahajanga is just how cosmopolitan the little port town is, but now each morning she goes to school to teach English, she could be attacked simply because she has straight hair.

Hery has the Indonesian looks of a "merina" or a Malagasy person from the highlands.

It's mainly the politicians who are trying to separate the people

Hery Rasamoely

She comes from the interior of the island but lives on the coast, where people have a more African look - and have curly hair.

"Here in Mahajanga some people are now pursuing the highlanders and as we have got very straight hair we are the first targets for them," she says.

Sporadic violence

"The former president's [Didier Ratsiraka] supporters were using this ethnic problem between the highlanders and the coastal people to get more votes. It's mainly the politicians who are trying to separate the people."
Hery Rasamoely
Merina people fear ethnic violence

Hery is very determined she will not leave her town, and she is both fatalistic and brave about what could happen to her. But many merina people are scared - they stay indoors, certainly after dark, and are considering leaving Mahajanga.

The violence has been sporadic for three weeks now, but in the last few days running battles have claimed lives and left many injured.

In the dismal surroundings of the rundown provincial hospital, where there is little sign of medicines, Rija Randriamaharavo sits upright on his bed and describes the injuries he suffered.

There are burns scattered around his body where petrol was poured on to him and set alight, machete cuts on his back, his head and his arm where he put it up to protect his face.

His leg is in plaster and there are two deep cuts where the nails in the piece of wood that smashed his leg dug into his shin.

Traditional rivalries

He is both from the highlands and a supporter of newly appointed president Marc Ravalomanana.

Rija Randriamaharavo
It can be tough being a Merina and a supporter of Marc Ravalomanana

It is a brutal business, and what began as political division has developed into ethnic conflict.

Politicians are using the rarely spoken of traditional rivalries between the highland and the coastal people to drive a wedge into the community.

Propaganda is played every day on the television station that backs long-standing president Didier Ratsiraka.

It preaches division.

Those broadcasters who back Marc Ravalomanana have a tough task - when they began to broadcast coverage of Mr Ravalomanana's investiture, their cables were cut.

And the Mayor of Mahajanga, Claude Pages, is not spared attention.

He runs one of these TV stations and the office was attacked with rocks and petrol bombs.

"These people are mainly young people who are not particularly bright, and it is very easy to manipulate them," he says.

"They have been paid by the supporters of Didier Ratsiraka because they would like trouble in the town and because they don't want to accept their defeat at the election."

Rosy picture

Arab style buildings in Mahajanga
Architecture is influenced by the Arab civilisation

He plays down the ethnic element to the violence, saying it is mainly political, but posters and leaflets put up around town shouting "merina leave" prove these traditional rivalries are being deliberately stoked.

The provincial governor also tries to paint a rosier picture of his beautiful little port with its thriving fishing industry and its Arab style architecture.

He is one of four governors who have declared an intention to secede from Antananarivo and set up a confederation of independent states.

Governor Etienne Razafindehibe
The local authorities deny there is an ethnic issue

"On the whole things seem calm and quiet - there is no major problem and people feel quiet and feel they are secure," Governor Etienne Razafindehibe says.

"The situation now in Mahajanga is not an ethnic problem, but the politics created it - it is a very cosmopolitan town so there is no way we can have an ethnic problem."


But in the pro-Ratsiraka Abattoir district of the town the propaganda is clearly working.

Stalls run by merina have been destroyed and battles have been taking place almost nightly between the mainly ethnic quarters.

One of the main thoroughfares of Mahajanga
The main boulevards are quiet by day

Both sides are now armed with guns and grenades, and the military and the police do not have the will, or perhaps the orders, to intervene.

But Hery Rasamoely is optimistic.

"Yes, the propaganda is working as there is violence, but will they succeed in creating divisions along ethnic lines? No, I don't think so. We think that everything will be OK later as people get on together, but now we still have very big trouble in our country," she says.

The BBC's Alastair Leithead reports from Mahajanga
"Clashes have turned this peaceful town upside down"
See also:

07 May 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Chasing shadows in Madagascar
06 May 02 | Africa
Second coming in Madagascar
02 May 02 | Africa
OAU envoys begin Madagascar talks
18 Apr 02 | Africa
Madagascar rivals sign peace deal
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