Everyone plays for high stakes in Ilakaka. You can get rich or you can get killed.
This city at the heart of Madagascar’s sapphire mining industry is estimated to produce 30% of the world’s sapphires -- worth at least $30 million a year. And in the Wild West lifestyle of shady casinos and banditry that swaggered into town with the fabulous mining wealth, speculators are being killed at an alarming rate, with as many as 30 homicides a year in a town of 20,000.
One of this year’s victims was Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law. Muhammad Jamal Khalifa was gunned down in January, presumably because of his sapphire business.
A more recent victim was a Madagascar businessman killed in September. The man, whom police identified only as Ernest, had just bought a sapphire worth $30,000.
“He was in his hotel room at 7 in the evening when the bandits attacked. Bang, bang, bang and it was finished,” mine owner Jean Noel Andrianasolo said.
Madagascar, a former French colony set in the Indian Ocean far off Africa’s southeast coast, is one of the world’s poorest countries, but Ilakaka is booming, thanks to its famous pink and blue sapphires.
Mining consultant Tom Cushman said it was difficult to know exactly how much money Ilakaka’s sapphire industry generated because some of the best stones left the island “in people’s pockets.”
Big business has driven development. Ten years ago, Ilakaka was no more than a collection of huts. Since the discovery of major sapphire deposits in 1998, it has become a thriving town with a riot of makeshift homes and ramshackle casinos, bars and shops that spill onto the roads and jostle against gleaming new offices where the gems are bought and sold.
“People are going to Ilakaka with a suitcase full of money and leaving with a briefcase full of stones,” said Cushman, who consults for the World Bank.
“All of the money goes straight back into the community and gets circulated again and again. It’s maybe a better development opportunity than all the aid projects in the country put together.”
But robbery, corruption and insecurity are major obstacles to further development.
“Of course we have a big problem with insecurity,” said Andrianasolo, who was among the few willing to speak on the record to a reporter, noting that even that could be dangerous.
People are reluctant to say who the robbers could be. Some insist that police are helping them or committing the robberies themselves.
“There are lots of policemen here, lots of army too. It’s full. So why haven’t they captured the bandits? That is the question,” said Andrianasolo.
Philibert Andrianony, the young and energetic head of Ilakaka’s police force, says he is determined to stamp out the violence. But he agrees with Andrianasolo that the police are not preventing, but causing, some problems.
“It exists, it exists,” he said. “Police salaries are very low and we cannot stop policemen who decide to work with the bandits.”
He also noted that despite their visible presence, police officers are ill-equipped to deal with crime. They don’t have radios or much-needed four-wheel drive vehicles. And the bandits are more heavily armed.
Andrianasolo said the violence meant fewer people were coming to Ilakaka, put off by the danger.
But dreams of making a fortune still attract poor miners.
“I know all about the violence here and the people who do it,” said Fensoa, a miner who would give only his first name for fear of retaliation. “I am afraid, but I must stay here despite my fear.”
With just one lucky find, Andrianasolo said, a miner could make $10,000 in a country where most people earn less than a dollar a day. Fensoa makes $2 a day, even if no sapphires are found at the mine where he works.
Ilakaka, which sprang up on Madagascar’s rocky interior plain, exudes a ramshackle energy. Attracting gem buyers from around the world, it has a cosmopolitan feel. Sri Lankans, Thais and Indians control much of the market.
There are strange contradictions in its development.
This key business center has no airstrip and no bank. Nor is it on the national electrical grid; most of the town is powered by generators. Yet it’s possible to watch French satellite TV in one of its bars.
Andrianasolo employs 60 people at his mine, a great trench 40 feet deep and 66 feet wide, snaking through the baked orange earth. The perils of the backbreaking work under a scorching sun are compounded by the risk of robbers attacking the mine site.
It is getting more difficult to find sapphires on the surface, but even children are in on the rush. Some returned from a swim in the river clutching handfuls of precious stones scooped from the water.
“Violence is the reality here,” Andrianasolo said. But “Ilakaka will continue to grow because there are still sapphires.”