Villagers in southern Madagascar recall with bitterness the day the soldiers came and razed their homes to the ground, but the officer they accuse denies any responsibility.
“The soldiers arrived and started shooting,” said Tongnazy, a farmwoman from Voromiantsa, a village in southern Madagascar a two-day walk from the nearest major town.
“What did we do wrong?” I asked. “A soldier told me to ‘shut up’ and smacked my head with his rifle.” “Then he said, ‘we are going to burn your village’.” Preparing rice in a small dark hut she built after her home was razed, Tongnazy traces the origins of her ordeal back to 2012.
That was when the Malagasy military launched Operation Tandroka, a bid to end cattle rustling that has plagued the south and west of the island nation and fuelled inter-communal violence. Their chief target was a near mythical bandit named Remenabila, blamed for mass rustling and the deaths of several soldiers.
He is accused of stealing countless zebu — humped mammals also known as Brahman cattle — a much-prized livestock on this Indian Ocean island.
A symbol of wealth, zebu are at the heart of southern culture — eaten only at weddings or special celebrations, sacrificed for ancestor worship or in burial rituals.
When southerners were starving after the devastation of Cyclone Haruna earlier this year, some preferred to eat crickets rather than their precious zebu. But many observers believe that the operation to capture Remenabila — who remains the island’s most wanted man and has a $50,000 bounty on his head — got out of hand.
Amnesty International says entire villages were burned and accuses the “rampaging” security services of torture and mass murder.
Just months into the operation Amnesty reported 40 cattle thieves had been executed and an unknown number of elderly people, differently-abled persons and children had been burnt alive as whole villages were razed.
While an international inquiry has been set up, it has not yet begun its work.
For Tongnazy memories are still raw.
“They took out all of our stuff, then they burned the house. My mother was there. They stripped us and told us to go into the bush.” As Tongnazy speaks a few villagers listen on in silence.
Outside, the village is still in ruins. Only three earth homes have been rebuilt.
The story is echoed across several villages in Andriry, a region of arid mountains where Operation Tandroka was carried out and which is now replete with displaced people.
Villages of Remenabila’s ethnic group — the Zafindravala — were particularly targeted, leading to some allegations of genocide.
Two days walk from Voromiantsa a second village remains in ruins.