In Madagascar’s vast, roadless expanses, bandits rob and murder with impunity.
Armed with axes, hunting shotguns and AK-47s, outlaw gangs target the herds of zebu – humped cattle – that are the last vestige of the region’s wealth. The frequency and violence of these attacks has spiked in recent years, and as numbers of cattle plummet, so does the price of life. Despised and feared across the country, I wanted to know if these bandits deserve their infamy.
For the pastoralist tribes who call the savanna home, both economy and culture revolve around cattle. Here, small-scale zebu theft is not a new phenomenon, but decades of regional insecurity, poverty of opportunity and a growing demand for beef have birthed a new generation of professional cattle rustlers – the malaso.
The malaso strongholds of the south and western plains cover an area the size of the UK. Operating in gangs and travelling by foot, these bushmen raid isolated towns and villages before disappearing into the wilderness with the stolen cattle. Non-existent infrastructure impedes any response by an under-resourced gendarmerie, and local militias represent the only line of defence for most herdsmen.
So difficult is Madagascar to police that a third of the Indian ocean nation is designated a "red zone" – an area acknowledged as being outside the control of effective law enforcement. For the millions who live in these isolated regions, existence is perpetual insecurity.
Having worked in Madagascar’s Southwest for two years, I’ve grown accustomed to the gunfire of cattle raids, seen the torn flesh of the victims, listened to the legends of invincible bandits and witnessed the fear and devastation inflicted by this conflict, but never met the men responsible.
As I cross into the "red zone" I pass a herdsman driving his zebu in the opposite direction. Heading for the cattle market at Ihosy, this proprietor will trade the prestige and heritage that is cattle ownership for paper money. He hopes his reduced status will buy his family security from the men I hope to meet.
Decorated like a post-apocalyptic warrior, the malaso chief, on the right, arrives at the rendezvous with a host of bandits. He speaks with a heavy accent and slight lisp. He doesn’t even bother looking at me while I earnestly explain why he should show me the other side of a narrative that paints him as the villain.
A gift of rum seems to swing it. I'm granted permission to accompany the gang to their encampment in the wilderness. Without roads, the malaso negotiate the savanna on foot. They stride across their land, guns on their shoulders. Born bushmen with a relentless pace. I struggle to keep up.
Disappointingly, the bandit camp is no mountain fortress, just a few reed shelters under a scraggy tree. Between cattle raids the malaso live here with their wives, girlfriends and children. Fires are lit before sunrise, and hunting and foraging begins shortly after. Afternoons are lazy, the bandits sleep on the stocks of their shotguns, lovers tattoo each other with battery acid, messengers bring news from the frontiers of the chief’s territory. At night the men drink moonshine and shoot the branches off the scraggy tree.
The chief’s position is never secure. Many before him have fallen at the hands of assassins and mutineers. He maintains order through discipline, dealt with an iron fist. Disloyalty means execution. A word out of line earns public humiliation. This young bandit is being shamed for a minor infringement by confiscation of his gun.
Following a raid, a malaso refits spent shotgun shells. Ammunition is expensive and bandits reuse shell casings up to five times, forging new shot from the lead in old car batteries and mixing gunpowder from black market potassium nitrate, charcoal and dried zebu shit.
The son of a malaso plays with his spade while on a foraging excursion. He talks only of proving himself worthy to carry a gun and following his father and brothers on cattle raids.
I pose with a few of the malaso before they embark on a cattle raid. The target is three days and nights' march to the north over tough terrain. If the raid is successful, the return journey will be undertaken at a run, with a herd of zebu and without interval. I ask to accompany them but the answer is no. There is no discussion. I won’t keep pace.
As the gang departs, I wish them luck. It’s a moment before I realise the murder and theft I am advocating. How quickly am I seduced by a different perspective? These are the villains, the murderers, the thieves, but also the opportunists daring to prosper in lands the world ignored.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.