Ganglands part III: Madagascar’s Wild West

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

On the wall of my apartment I still have the short stabbing-spear that was given to me by the headwoman of a tiny hamlet in western Madagascar. She brought it to me as a kindly host would offer you a glass of water.

“Here,” she said, “keep this beside your bed tonight. If the bandits come you might have to fight with it.”

She was not being melodramatic. Just a few weeks before there had been such an attack. Mercifully the bandits were not heavily armed and the villagers had driven their attackers off. I met one man who killed a bandit with his spear during that fight. Since then the village – like most in the area – had been almost under a state of siege.

Madagascar’s ‘Wild West’ was one of the largest entirely lawless areas on the planet. The army had declared it a Zone Rouge and set foot there only occasionally and en-masse with heavily armed helicopters. The worst of the cattle-rustling gangs who controlled the area were themselves heavily armed with Kalashnikovs. The guns might be Russian but the story was that they were originally imported years ago by the CIA and the South African government who armed the bandits in an attempt to destabilize Madagascar’s socialist government.

But it turned out that the bandits were more interested in cattle than in politics. Soon bandit kings with names like Crazy Baby and Bad Lemur were amassing great herds in the Zone Rouge. The people who settled in this region recognized that this land of rich grazing might be bought only at the risk of a fight.

The next morning an old man told us that he had seen bandits waiting on the riverbank farther up the trail. He believed they were waiting in ambush for us. Instead of risking the direct route we added three days to our journey by trekking the long way out of the Zone Rouge. We ran as much as we could, never risked a fire and slept curled like animals in the thickets of dense thorn bushes.

Those three days stick in my mind as the most uncertain I’ve ever lived through.

Tomorrow’s Ganglands post: The downside to being a tourist in Bolivia’s most infamous prison.

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