Residents of Asely village, Madagascar, are pictured on February 22, 2013, standing near the debris of a school, reportedly burnt by soldiers. Amnesty International says entire villages were burned and accuses the security services of torture and mass murder during a campaign to end cattle rustling.AFP/File
A man in Asely, Madagascar, shows on February 21, 2013 scars reportedly left when a soldier beat him with his rifle because he refused to leave his house. Amnesty International says entire villages were burned and accuses the security services of torture and mass murder during a campaign to end cattle rustling.AFP/File
Residents of Morarano village, Madagascar, stand near the debris of their homes on February 22, 2013. Amnesty International says entire villages were burned and accuses the security services of torture and mass murder during a campaign to end cattle rustling.AFP/File
VOROMIANTSA, Madagascar (AFP) – 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, 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.
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.
"Bevolotanana came," a resident said, using the nickname of Colonel Rene Rolland Urban Lylyson, who led the operation. "He said, 'I come to burn your house.'"
Lylyson's name comes up frequently in conversations throughout this rugged region.
One man on crutches said he had lost everything. "I left. I was too scared. I had to leave my business. My plates. My food. They burned everything. Even my bed."
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.
"Even if there were cattle thieves in the area, the military did not have to burn the city. They could have taken them and left."
Colonel Lylyson, head of the military's Special Intervention Force, told AFP 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.
"It was these guides, victims from neighbouring villages that burned these places unbeknownst to us, when we were already gone."
"Anyway these villages were deserted. There was nobody there."
While government announced a joint investigation with the United Nations in February, progress has been glacial.
"The investigation is nowhere," a source in the Malagasy government told AFP, refusing to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"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."
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."