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Cattle 'war zone' in Madagascar

By Jonny Hogg
BBC News, Madagascar

For many Malagasy cattle farmers, getting cows to market means a long walk lasting days or even weeks.

A Malagasy zebu cow standing in a field in Madagascar [Photo: Jonny Hogg]
Bandits are fighting cattle traders for zebu like this one

There is also the added complication - armed and dangerous cattle rustlers.

The road snakes through a weird volcanic landscape where perfect grassy cones and domes rise up to the height of skyscrapers to left and right.

Despite the seemingly impossible gradients, their sides are decorated in a crazy patchwork of small cultivated plots where farmers make full use of the fertile soil.

After a four-hour drive from the capital we reach Tsiroanomandidy, a town with a distinctly frontier feel to it.

It seems to exist for one purpose.

Each week it holds the largest cattle market in the country.

On a dusty patch of land not far from the town centre, hundreds of zebu, the hardy Malagasy cow, are herded, inspected, bought and sold.

The air is punctuated by the pistol crack of whips as the owners try to keep their herds separated.

Every now and then you have to leap out of the way to avoid a mini-stampede, as the animals run amok or clash horns in bovine conflict.

It is an extraordinary sight.

Bandit country

What is perhaps more amazing though, is the journey these animals and their owners have undergone to get here.

They have come on foot from the faraway and fertile grazing grounds on the west coast.

The journey through deserts and mountains can take a month.

It is not just the distance that makes it so testing. Beyond the road-head and the town lies bandit country.

The government calls it a "red zone".

Many of the cattle traders who cross it liken it to a war zone, where there is a constant struggle between them and the dahalo - the Malagasy word for cattle thieves - who will attack them without warning.

The practice of cattle rustling is not new in Madagascar. Indeed, for some ethnic groups it is a rite of passage.

Only after successfully stealing a cow can a boy become a man.

Deadly attacks

Recently, however, the rules of the game have changed.

Before, just a small number would be stolen by stealth. Now there are the "modern" dahalo, armed with guns, intent on stealing entire herds and prepared to kill if necessary.

Justin Tafika was attacked as he brought his uncle's herd to market.

He is a tall man and strong-looking but this was not a fight he could win.

Suspected cattle thieves are marched through the streets [Photo: Jonny Hogg]
Dahalo are handed over to the police or dealt with by vigilantes

"We were crossing a desert area when the dahalo opened fire on us," he told me, speaking quietly.

"We did not have guns so we ran away to hide and they took the entire herd."

I asked how many cattle were taken.

"Forty-five," he replied.

The local authorities know there is a problem and they say they are trying to tackle it.

Indeed, stories abound that they are simply shooting the dahalo on sight if they find them.

I spoke to local chief of police Alphonse Ramananjatovo and asked him about this.

"Sometimes the dahalo have weapons," he said, "and if they attack us we must defend ourselves."

He admitted that between five and seven dahalo are killed each year by his officers.

There have been attempts to prevent the sale of stolen zebus but the authorities in the town confess that the bandits are falsifying documents to legalise the animals and there is talk of corruption.

Antoine Sety [Photo: Jonny Hogg]
We have killed lots of them, even when they outnumber us
Antoine Sety, Zama senior member

Perhaps it is for this reason that some choose to use less formal methods in dealing with the problem.

The village of Anosivola lies not far from Tsiroanomandidy.

I was told by the villagers that after it was attacked they paid a local protection society called Zama to get their cows back.

This Zama duly did, and in the process two of the three bandits were killed.

Vigilante law

The police say they know about Zama and add that they hand over the bandits to the authorities.

But Antoine Sety, a senior member of Zama, told a different story.

He is an old man, toothless and with a wall eye.

He laughed when I asked whether they killed bandits.

"We have killed lots of them," he told me proudly, "even when they outnumber us."

And what do the authorities make of this, I wondered?

"They are very happy with our work," Antoine said.

"We are protecting the people."

To my astonishment he then produced a piece of paper showing that Zama was a government-recognised civil society.

After leaving Antoine's house I came face to face with a group of perhaps 10 heavily armed men, who were marching through the town.

In front of them, hands tied behind their backs and necks roped together, were three men who, it was alleged, were dahalos captured while trying to steal cattle.

One of them had several wounds on his face another had blood stains on his shirt.

I was told they were to be handed over to the police.

Perhaps, I thought, given the alternatives they might be counting themselves somewhat lucky.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 21 June, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Madagascar
25 Sep 07 |  Country profiles

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