The hunt for Remenabila

Yvan Razafimandimby, 22, was working at the family store in the Taolagnaro neighbourhood of Anbounato, Madagascar, when two soldiers arrived to inform him that his 50-year-old father was killed by bandits.

“It was really a shock that my dad was killed the way he was. If he had died of some disease, I would not have felt so much pain,” Razafimandimby told IRIN. “I miss my father. I have lost a shoulder that I could rely on.”

Fenandson Razafimandimby, a staff sergeant and career soldier, spent three weeks of every month for nearly a decade on operations against the bandits, who are known as the ‘dahalo’. The primary breadwinner for his family of five, his US$400 salary was supplemented by the family shop, which has a daily turnover of $6 to $10.

Razafimandimby said soldiers told him how his father was killed. The security force, comprised of soldiers and the paramilitary gendarmes, were rounding up stolen zebu - Madagascar’s humped cattle - near Lambohazo Village, in the south-eastern Anosy Region, in June.

“As he was checking the zebu certificate of a villager, a dahalo came up and shot him in the back,” Razafimandimby said. “I don’t think his killers will ever face justice. I can do nothing, and I know the government will do nothing.” Two soldiers and eight gendarmes were killed in the clash.

Lt Col Mbina Mamelison, gendarme commander for the Anosy Region, told IRIN, “Unknown to the security forces, Remenabila and his dahalo were in the village organizing a burial for a dahalo killed a few days earlier, and they did not know there was a large number of dahalo in the village.”

Remenabila, 54, has become the most wanted man in the country. A reward of $10,000 for information leading to his capture and $50,000 for his apprehension - dead or alive - has been posted by the government.

“The gendarmes are very angry about the killings, and we are ready to fight, but there is a huge lack of resources,” Mamelison said.

Dahalo with military training

A serving soldier, who declined to be named, told IRIN, “I was sad and ashamed after the killings - sad and ashamed because the army is very weak and can do nothing to fight the dahalo.”

''I was sad and ashamed after the killings - sad and ashamed because the army is very weak and can do nothing to fight the dahalo''

He said many dahalo had received military training, having joined the army - one of the few sources of formal employment - as young men. After two years, young soldiers must pay a bribe of about $500 to continue their army careers, which most cannot afford to do. Instead, many return to their villages and earn a living as dahalo.

About 85 percent of the rural population lives on $1 or less a day. The only tradable commodity of value in poor rural communities is zebu, which are used for draught power and fertilizer; the size of the country’s zebu population is estimated in the millions.

In the past three months, the theft of 2,000 zebu, valued at about $1 million, has been attributed to Remenabila. His wealth - in a place where bribes can secure one’s release - and the terrain in which he operates make many doubt he will ever be detained.

After the killings of the gendarmes and soldiers, 250 troops, among them members of the elite Special Intervention Force, were deployed to the area in a month-long operation, but failed to make any arrests.

The dahalo are armed with an assortment of weapons, from those dating back to World War I to modern AK-47 assault rifles. When cattle rustling, they wear distinctive red headbands, but otherwise they appear “like peasant farmers, growing rice and beans. It is difficult to identify them… Catching [Remenabila] will not end the problem of the dahalo, I don’t think,” Mamelison said.

Red with a swagger

Remenabila, whose name, loosely translated from Malagasy, means ‘red with a swagger’, roams across 5,000sqkm of mountainous territory known as a ‘zone rouge’, where the government exerts little or no control. “Lambohaza is not accessible by road, and you first have to drive to Esira, and then it is a two-day hike on foot without helicopters or radio support. You have to carry all the necessary equipment, including food and ammunition,” Mamelison said.

Insecurity in south Madagascar
View slideshow

There are plans to launch another operation to capture Remenabila, but without troop-carrying helicopters or radio communications to coordinate forces in the field, “the gendarmes are easily spotted and [Remenabila] has ample time to flee”, he said.

A woman alleged to be Remenabila’s sangoma, or spiritual advisor, was arrested on 15 September in Analabinda by security forces and was paraded before the local media on her knees in front of senior military personnel. According to local reports, she refused to disclose any information about Remenabila’s whereabouts.

Mamelison said communities protect the dahalo out of fear or loyalty, and “the solution is to strengthen the system of zebu papers needed to sell zebu,” to take away the market from the dahalo. Gendarmes are increasing scrutiny of zebu certificates at the main cattle markets in south-central Madagascar, but the dahalo are also becoming more sophisticated, with some specializing in the forgery of zebu-ownership certificates.

Little is known of Remenabila. He spent about two years in jail for cattle theft in Farafangana when he was younger and is said to have four or five wives and an unknown number of children. He belongs to the Bara ethnic group, in which zebu rustling was traditionally viewed as a passage to manhood, a custom some still adhere to.

Armed forces minister Lucien Rakotoarimasy told IRIN, “The dahalo issue has existed for a long time. It was a kind of sport before. If you don’t steal the cattle or are not sent to prison, then you are not a man. Nowadays, it has changed and has become a source of earning money, and it has become worse and worse… The army’s responsibility is to maintain order, but now there is a lot of disorder, so now the army are trying to restore order and security.”

Spreading insecurity

“The threat is that it will be spread throughout the region, so we have to identify what is behind the acts of the dahalo - is it political?” he said. In early September 2012, about 300 dahalo attacked Belo Tsiribihina in south-western Madagascar, killing the commander of the national gendarmerie and the area’s army commander, according to local reports.

Rakotoarimasy conceded the security services were ill-equipped to contain the dahalo, and although they had reconnaissance helicopters, purchasing troop-carrying helicopters would be “very expensive”. The army is to upgrade its field communications as “at the moment we are using satellite phones, and it’s expensive”.

Read more
 Madagascar's unforgiving bandit lands
 A decaying health sector
 Sex for survival
 Combating child malnutrition in Madagascar
 Rice In Madagascar

Part of the problem, he said, was the impunity that the dahalo enjoyed from the courts. Witnesses are afraid to testify for fear of retribution, he said, so more guarantees for people’s safety are needed. “The army catches the dahalo, but they are released [by the courts]… Those who are caught should be kept in prison - but it does not really happen.”

In the interim, the government is encouraging communities to protect themselves against the dahalo, as the security apparatus - which comprises an army of about 15,000, a gendarme force of about 11,000 and a police force of about 20,000 - does not have the capacity.

“I agree with self-defence by the villagers against the dahalo. People should protect their goods. So it is not the case that the government is teaching people to defend themselves - the idea is to make people aware that they have to defend themselves,” he said.

In Betroka and other villages in the Anosy Region in early September, about 100 alleged dahalo were killed by thousands of villagers.

go/rz