Madagascar gripped by targeted kidnap gangs

At least 100 kidnappings have targeted ethnic Indian Karanas in Madagascar

General view of local residents in a street in a poor section of Antananarivo,  25 June 2002, on the eve of the country ' 42rd years of Independence including 24 years under Didier Ratsiraka  and for the first time under newly-elected president Marc Ravalomanana. As a result of the political crisis,  reports say that one in every seven people are unemployed and many foreign companies have closed down due to the political turmoil in the country.        AFP       PHOTO     ALEXANDER JOE  / AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE
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It happened five years ago but "Andre" remembers being kidnapped at gunpoint like it was yesterday.

He was snatched from outside his home in Madagascar, kept captive and beaten for several days, until his desperate family raised the ransom money to secure his release.

For years, kidnapping gangs have operated largely with impunity in Madagascar, targeting "Karanas" of Indian origin, who form a 15,000-strong community renowned for its wealth and success in business.

Recent developments indicate that authorities in the large Indian Ocean island nation are beginning to crack down on the gangs after a recent spike in attacks.

"Andre" spoke on condition of anonymity, telling AFP that discussing his ordeal publicly could put him and his family in danger again.

"Even today I am sick – as soon as I hear that there has been another kidnapping in town. It has become automatic," he said, also declining to reveal his profession.

In his fifties, Andre says that a squad of four people arrived outside his house in the capital Antananarivo one morning wearing hoods and carrying assault rifles.

They bundled him into a car and took him to an unknown destination.

He was held in a single room, beaten, tied up and blindfolded while his captors opened negotiations with his family.

Andre refuses to reveal the ransom sum that was paid, or say how it was raised, but he was freed after seven days of intense dealing.

Shattered by the experience, he fled Madagascar to try to make a fresh start before later returning to the country.

"I came back and took up sport to try to recover, but it's a situation I will never forget," he said.

In the last 10 years, at least 100 kidnappings have targeted Karanas in Madagascar, reaching a peak last year.

"From what we know, there have been 14 kidnapping cases since 2017, a record level," said Jean-Michel Frachet, head of the Karana action group Collectif Francais d'Origine Indienne a Madagascar (CFOIM).

Frachet said that the real figure was higher still, as many families chose to keep silent.

"The situation is tense for our community, the fear of reprisals exists and it is often required that one is discreet," he said, adding that "the [Karana] community remains poorly understood by the general population."

Karana emigration from India to Madagascar dates back to the late 17th century driven by trade, and they have long occupied influential posts in business and finance, especially dominating the retail sector.

Many kept their French citizenship after the island's independence in 1960, and are viewed with suspicion by some Madagascans.

In 2017, Forbes magazine named Madagascar's wealthiest men, including Ylias Akbaraly, Hassanein Hiridjee and Iqbal Rahim – all Karana entrepreneurs who have amassed huge riches in one of the world's poorest countries.

The father of another targeted family said that all Karanas are assumed to be wealthy.

"I did not expect our family to become a victim," he said, after his son was kidnapped and later released when a ransom was paid.

"We are honest, average citizens who didn't do anything stupid.

"They were very poorly informed about my personal wealth because they first asked me for an impossible ransom: 500 years of my salary."

In recent months, CFOIM has stepped up demands for action, organising a protest in Antananarivo in March under the banner "Insecurity – that's enough!"

Previously reluctant to address the kidnappings, President Hery Rajaonarimampianina released a social media video deploring the threat to Karanas as "unacceptable".

Six months ago, police and justice authorities also set up a special unit to tackle the gangs.

"Extensive investigations and inquiries have been conducted and are continuing," the president said.

Last year, the courts handed down unprecedented sentences of life terms with hard labour to 20 people found guilty of the 2015 abduction of two Karana teenagers.

But many Karanas fear that increasing anger directed against them on social media could trigger a new wave of riots and looting of their shops and businesses, as happened during ethnic unrest in the 1990s and 2000s.

Some have left the country, but Andre says he will now stay.

"Our lives and businesses are here," he said. "I just hired bodyguards to protect us."