I kept extensive notes at the time of Nancy Coutu’s murder. I have just finished reviewing them. It has been over twenty years since these events occurred. I have been struggling to come up with an appropriate context within which to describe them. At the human and emotional level, it is almost impossible to describe the impact of an event like this.
Many of the volunteers, living alone – often in extremely foreign and remote circumstances – could see themselves in such tragic circumstances. They felt they’d lost their sense of personal security. Until then they had felt integral to their communities. Now many felt like outsiders – or worse – potential victims. In an abundance of caution, the volunteers got orders to return to the capital. They U.S. Mission needed time to reassess the security environment and to think about next steps.
Nancy (my Nancy, Nancy G – the victim’s name was also Nancy, Nancy C) got a steady streaming of worsening news. Nancy C had been accosted the previous evening in her tiny village of Bereketa. It was the Monday after Easter and the biggest holiday celebration of the year. Bereketa borders the Isalo National Park. Isalo is Madagascar’s answer to the Grand Canyon or the Painted Desert. My notes from a visit there describe the place like this: “Bereketa, Nancy’s village, is home to 300 hundred people. It lies 13.5 kilometers down a dirt tracking leading from the national highway. I couldn’t find the path leading to the town until some nearby kids ran up the road to show me.
I traveled six miles on good dirt/sand road with grass growing high between single tire tracks. Then saw a black cloud of locust up ahead. A truck, the first sign of humanity since the highway, stopped under the swarm. A kilometer further, a boy, naked except for cutoff jeans, raced down the dirt track. I stopped. Was I going to Ranohiro, he asked? Wrong direction, but yes, I’ll be going back. He climbed in. He was looking for his T-shirt which had blown out of the truck that I’d seen pass.
The road got worse. Steep downhill, then sand. I needed to engage the 4 wheel drive. I gunned it through a stream and barely made it. Beyond, a small new fence enclosed a four foot mound of rocks all painted white. ‘You know what happened?’ the boy asked, referring to Nancy Coutu. Yes, I knew. “This marks the spot.” It was dark for her then, only 5 am. Her bike would have gotten bogged down in the sand. The village was out of ear shot – but only just.
When we got into town, I found her house beside the new dispensary. The town’s setting was beautiful beyond words. My general impression – safest place on earth. A phrase came to me: The other side of anywhere. Echoed the idea of being very far away as well as being very common. Like ‘it could as easily happen here; the bad that is in all good places’.
The ceiling in her house is hardly higher than my head. The walls covered in yellow paint. Three rooms, no windows, just a couple doors. Someone is living there, though I thought the president of the commune told me they had knocked it down. She had gestured to the ceiling beams in her own thatched hut and made a sawing motion as she explained. It later turned out she was telling me was that her husband was out chopping wood.
I drew a crowd as I looked at the new dispensary. They said there was a doctor. No, she was actually a midwife. The place had beds and desks but no medicine. Still, more than most clinics I have seen. I carried applications for the Ambassador’s Self-Help program. I gave one to the only French speaker in the town. I don’t think he really understood.
On my way back out, which I would never have found alone, we saw the vast cloud of locust again. The kid told me his brother was local police in town. He was out chasing the Dahalo, the local name for cattle rustlers. Real-life Malagasy version of Mexican banditos. Sombila, the man arrested for Nancy’s murder, was the leader of one group. He often walked his stolen cattle through village on his way to Ihosy market. He made the long, dry, difficult walk with only a blanket, a jug of water and a stick with an ice pick point. He used the stick to murder Nancy, driving it through her skull, because she’d shunned his advances at a party. He was now jailed on the prison island of Nosy Lava. The other the members of his gang are all dispersed or dead.
‘Robert Drury’s Journal’ describes the ancient tradition of cattle rustling. The difference between now and then is that back then it was village against village. Now it is outlaw gangs against villages. It is common knowledge that the police, the gendarmes, are all corrupt. It is said that they rent their AK-47s out to gang members by the day. The Dahalo steal cattle in broad daylight. With the police paid off, there is nothing the villagers can do.
On our way back out to the highway, the kid found his T-shirt. One in a million chance. Told me it was the only shirt he owned. I drove him all the way back into town and gave him money for a second shirt.
This is what happened in quick succession after they found Nancy’s body:
- Peace Corps and the Embassy responded deftly. They chartered a plane and sent professionals to investigate.
- The Ambassador called all volunteers into the capital. She ordered a security assessment of all volunteers’ villages and towns
- The national police got a lead on the bandit, Sombila. They determined that he and two of his gang were responsible for Nancy’s death.
- They captured Sombila and brought him into the capital to stand trail.
- The US government tirelessly pushed for the death sentence. Madagascar had one on the books but they had never executed anyone before.
- While awaiting sentencing, they sent Sombila to the prison island of Nosy Lava. Nosy Lava was a notoriously dangerous place. It was commonly believed that escape from there was impossible. That was before he made his escape.
Unfortunately, Sombila’s story isn’t over yet…I’ll return to it in a bit.