Bevilany — In 2010, scores of bandits attacked Bevilany, a charcoal-producing settlement in Madagascar's southern Anosy Region. By the time the fight was over, 11 outlaws and one 'zamasi' - a security guard hired by a community for protection - were dead.
The 'dahalo', as the bandits are called, are thriving in the country's rural south, where security forces have been unable to stop them. The dahalo's primary enterprise is the rustling of zebu, a distinctive and prized breed of humped cattle, which are estimated to number in the millions. The zebu are, by and large, the only possessions of value rural residents have - though the dahalo steal cash and other assets when possible as well - forcing many communities to fend for themselves.
Love, 40, who goes by a single name, is one of three zamasi hired to protect the Bevilany settlement. The community sells two to three truck-loads of charcoal per day, and the cash business is an attractive target for the dahalo.
Love wears a steel-handled dagger at his side and a sword slung across his chest, but carries no guns. "What is sad for me is that we are not armed," he told IRIN. "We only have machetes and big knives. If we had guns, I could have killed many dahalo."
The gendarmes, a paramilitary police force with a national complement of about 11,000 personnel, is mandated to provide rural protection, "but they never come here", villager Rene Rakotmanga, told IRIN Rakotmanga said.
"Before, we tried to protect ourselves, but now it is not possible anymore because the dahalo carry guns, so we cannot fight back... So we hired zamasi," Rakotmanga said.
The zamasi are each paid about US$400 a year through contributions from the villagers and - according to their contract terms - they also receive coffee each morning and are supplied with soap.
Love is described as an "exceptional fighter" by community members. Still, his weapons are rudimentary compared to his opponents' firearms.
"We want the government to give us guns, so we can fight the dahalo. That is what we want," a villager said.
No money, no security
Lt-Col Mbina Mamelison, gendarme commander for the Anosy Region, told IRIN the gendarmes do not cooperate with the zamasi, "but we are thinking about it now". The problem is that some zamasi have divided loyalties.
"The first type [of zamasi] is paid to protect the population of the village, and the second type of zamasi is really just dahalo. They just tell their friends not to attack the village because they are being paid by the villagers not to be attacked," he said.
The rule for the zamasi is simple: no pay, no protection.
"There was one village nearby, where they did not pay the zamasi and the village was attacked by the dahalo. There is usually one person in a village who knows the dahalo and tells them if there is any money," villager Allain Ratahafehy told IRIN.
"The dahalo are going from bad to worse. There have been several attacks recently, but we are overwhelmed," Mamelison said.
Community self-defence units
In Ambinanibe, a lagoon settlement a few kilometres from Taolagnaro, two self-defence units were established after eight of the chief's zebu were stolen in August. "My grandson needed to pee, so my wife opened the door for him, and she noticed a person in the shadows. She pulled my grandson back as a shot was fired, and then there were two more shots. If I went out, I would have been killed," Chief Julien Tsarandro told IRIN.
He blamed the theft on the dahalo "because they are the only ones who carry guns."
Five of his zebu were recovered after trackers pursued the cattle thieves and communities further down the coast were alerted by cell phone of the theft, but the perpetrators have not been caught.
"I am still angry about the theft. One zebu is worth a million ariary [$500]. I gave one zebu to the trackers and five were recovered, so now I have four," he said.
Now, one of the community's self-defence units guards the chief's compound while the other stands vigil for the rest of the village. The patrols offer only limited protection, Tsarandro said, as they possess crude weapons, including axes, rocks, iron rods, knives and a single 12-gauge shotgun. The only qualifications for enlisting are that members be male and over 18 years old.
"If the patrols see the dahalo, they can't fight them because we don't have guns and the dahalo have guns. So they will warn us, and we will take our valuables and run into the bush and hide."
Sgt Jules Tsitonizara, 34, who has fought against the dahalo in the Anosy Region and is now based in Taolagnaro, provides advice to the volunteer self-defence units when he is off-duty.
Tsitonizara's mother Josephine, 56, was a victim of the recent crime wave in Ambinanibe; the entire $200 contents of her local shop were stolen. "We [the community] asked for help from the military and gendarmes, but they said they could not help," she told IRIN.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]