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 farmer from Voromiantsa, a village in southern Madagascar, two days 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,’” she said.
Preparing rice in a small dark hut she built after her home was razed, Tongnazy traces the origins of her ordeal back to last year.
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 the 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.
However, many observers believe that the operation to capture Remenabila — who remains the island’s most wanted man with a US$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, the physically disabled 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.
Two days walk from Voromiantsa a second village remains in ruins.
“Bevolotanana came,” said a resident using the nickname of Colonel Rene Rolland Urban Lylyson, who led the operation. “He said, ‘I come to burn your house.’”
Another day’s walk away, the village of Miary Omby is all but deserted.
An old man said the local king was too old to run and instead chose to stand and fight.
“He stayed with an old rifle. The soldiers beat him until was unable to rise. That’s how he died,” he said.
Lylyson, head of the military’s Special Intervention Force, said the accusations of abuses were unfounded.
“The villages that were burned were villages inhabited by dahalos — zebu thieves,” he said.
“To get to areas the Tandroka force used local guides. To protect their identity, we dressed them as soldiers,” Lylyson said. “It was these guides, victims from neighboring villages that burned these places unbeknownst to us, when we were already gone.”
“Anyway these villages were deserted. There was nobody there,” he said.
While the government announced a joint investigation with the UN in February, progress has been glacial.
“The international community does not want to hurt the president, who ordered and financed the operation. The international community is focused on having upcoming elections pass off peacefully,” a source in the Malagasy government said.
Those elections are aimed at ending years of violence and political deadlock that have brought Madagascar’s economy to its knees.
“Madagascar is not a priority on the international scene,” said one foreign diplomat who also asked not to be named.
“If a member of the Security Council of the United Nations does not push the issue, nothing is going to happen. The truth is no one cares,” the diplomat said.