Dark side of paradise: the islands that lost their innocence

Cape Verde was rescued from stagnation by a tourist boom. But the archipelago has been rocked by a double-murder - and the news that one of the victims was buried alive
Click to follow
The Independent Online

They held a vigil for the dead women on Monday: nearly 1,000 people, dressed in white shirts for purity, islanders and visitors alike; all holding candles, walking in silent procession through the main street of the little town of Santa Maria in the far south of the island of Sal.

From the shore came the sound of drumming. Snatches of "zouk love", the local dance music, blew in from the homes and little cafes of the town. But the marchers were solemn, silent.

"There are nearly a thousand of us here tonight," one of the organisers, Ninha Fortes, told a local radio station. "Our aim is to pay homage to the victims and give proof of our solidarity to their families, who have been most touched by our gesture."

The whole archipelago of Cape Verde has been stunned by the events of last Thursday - the murders that occurred just inland from a beach on the west of Sal. Things like this don't happen here, they say. Nothing like this has ever happened here. A few little robberies, some drug taking, yes, unfortunately, from time to time; some dirty business among the land speculators piling into Sal the past few years, throwing up hotels, apartments, casinos, everything. But murder? Never.

And the Cape Verdeans are particularly unhappy because the dead women were well known on the island: it was like a murder in the family. "These deaths have shocked all of us with their cruelty," said a note of condolence sent by Cape Verdeans living in Italy to the victims' parents. "These girls were the ideal tourists and guests, the sort every nation would desire, because they loved our islands and showed it by coming there often."

Last Thursday evening Giorgia Busato, 28, and her friends Dalia Saiani, 33, a junior windsurfing champion, and Agnese, who was about to celebrate her 18th birthday, had a dinner date. It was probably not something they were looking forward to; it was rather in the nature of something that had to be got over with.

Dalia had fallen in love with Cape Verde. A windsurfing fanatic for years, a junior champion at 13, she had discovered the archipelago's powerful, hollow waves and, like hundreds of young Italians, had succeeded in building a life around long, idyllic winter holidays centred on Sal's broad white beaches and perfectly clean sea. She had bought a little house by the shore, and struck up a friendship with Giorgia, a travel agent likewise besotted with the archipelago, who had also bought a small home.

All three had recently arrived from Italy. Dalia had brought her young friend Agnese from Ravenna - the teenager's first holiday away from her parents, while her school friends were off skiing - to introduce her to this blissful world.

But the appointment with Sandro Rosario was not expected to be blissful: it was, in Dalia's view, the only way of getting this tiresome 21-year-old Cape Verdean tour guide, the guy with the white streak in his hair, out of her life.

Dalia and Rosario had had some kind of relationship. To her friends she dismissed it as a brief flirtation. For him, however, it was something far more important. He wouldn't leave her alone. He rang her incessantly demanding dates; he lay in wait for her. But Dalia acquired a new boyfriend - a windsurfing nut originally from Cape Verde but living in Brazil, who was arriving for the first world windsurfing championships to be held in the islands, starting next week.

Rosario found out about his arrival. Everyone on the 22 mile by seven mile island knows everybody else - it's impossible to keep a secret. Rosario became more importunate than ever, demanding a dinner date. Dalia finally agreed on condition that she bring her two friends.

Rosario picked them up from their home in a borrowed car and drove them towards the house he shared with his parents in Espargos, in the west of the island. He had a friend with him in the car. On the way he veered off in the direction of the village of Palmeiras, saying he had to drop off his friend. But before reaching the village he changed direction again, hurling the car down the sandy track that leads to the oasis of Fontona.

The girls in the back grew worried and demanded to know where they were going. Rosario slammed on the brakes and doused them in pepper spray from an aerosol.

The two men then dragged Dalia and Giorgia from the car and on to the sand dunes. Agnese was ordered to stay where she was. From the car she watched helplessly as her friends were raped. "I saw what they did," she said. "I heard their cries. Then I couldn't take any more. I closed my eyes and lay down on the back seat. I was paralysed with fear.

"When they had finished with them, Sandro came back, started the car and we drove off. He made me get out in a wood and beat me on the head with a rock. I passed out and when I came to he wasn't there any more." After a night of terror and a desperate hike along the beach in the morning, she finally succeeded in flagging down a taxi and getting to Santa Maria and safety.

Police in Santa Maria, utterly unfamiliar with murder inquiries, were polite but sceptical when she told them her story.

"OK, we will look," they responded vaguely. But friends among the island's burgeoning tourist community took her at her word, then drove to Fontona and soon located the bodies, buried in shallow graves in the sand. A police pathologist discovered sand in Dalia's lungs: she had been buried alive.

It was Cesaria Evora, the singer they call the Barefoot Diva, who did more than anyone else to make the world aware that somewhere "west of Africa and east of Brazil" there was this archipelago which few had heard of and no one went to, but which in its way was the equal of the Caribbean or the Maldives. A circle of volcanic islands that was Africa with a twist of Portugal, plus heroic surf.

Evora is a lady of 60-plus who prefers to go shoeless and who looks like the homely grandmother she is. But when she opens her mouth it's as though Ella Fitzgerald came back to life, but a Latin-cum-African Ella, singing mournful "morna" ballads about her Cape Verde home, "islands of the winds, islands of my love". With half a dozen albums and countless tours behind her, Evora is a world star.

In Cape Verde music is everywhere, pouring from the cars, shaking the pastel-painted clapboard homes, rocking the little bars and cafes all night long. But despite the ferocious rhythm, straight out of Africa, the music and much else about the place is tinged with sadness: the chronic melancholy of an archipelago practically lost in space, 310 miles from the coast of Africa, far out among the Atlantic rollers.

When the Portuguese came and colonised and christened it Cabo Verde, it was supposedly uninhabited. It is rumoured that the Chinese had found their way there, as well as certain African tribes, but if they had, they had bade farewell before the arrival of the Europeans.

The Portuguese proceeded to do with it what they did in other places - Goa, and Sri Lanka and Macao. They devoted immense energy to turning the place into a citadel of Catholicism, building huge forts and churches. Then, after about a century, they gave up and allowed the islands to quietly stagnate for half a millennium.

Cape Verde has always been terribly short of water and has suffered fierce droughts, roughly every five years, for centuries, but the colonial overlords never lifted a finger to help. The result was that for centuries the archipelago, for all its wild beauty, has long been a society on the move, dependent on the remittances of its millions of emigrants, now scattered all over the world.

Yet the Portuguese had their good points as colonisers. Under their absent-minded supervision the races and cultures interbred freely. Today, the population of the islands is 71 per cent Creole and the music, festivals and cuisine are a unique mix of the disparate worlds from which their inhabitants derive.

But the melancholy remains. Another ancient source of it was Cape Verde's moment of economic glory - when it became a crucial crossroads in the Atlantic slave trade. The Portuguese had brought slaves over from Africa to do the heavy work of creating a colony, and Cape Verde was also one of the places to which they exiled Portugal's Jews. For centuries merchant galleons sailed into Cidade Velha, the Portuguese capital on the island of Santiago - home still to an imposing cathedral and fort - to buy and barter slaves.

Then the slave trade was abolished, a disaster for the island's economy, compensated somewhat by the age of the cruise liners beginning early in the last century, when Cape Verde became a refuelling stop and the economy again perked up.

But life on the islands was always fragile. Aridity and fierce and constant winds mean that desertification is an ever-present menace, which is made worse by deforestation as the inhabitants plunder the shrinking forests for fuel.

Now, thanks to Cesaria Evora, the world is again beating a path to Cape Verde's stormy door. The Italians have been a big presence here for years, especially on the flat, arid Sal, where the water sports industry has its greatest concentration and which many of the tourists to Cape Verde never leave.

Santa Maria, the town through which the mourners processed this week, is by day the scene of frenetic building activity as developers capitalise on the archipelago's new airports, new fame and soaring land prices. An American mogul is planning a golf course, a bizarre idea in a place threatened with becoming a desert. The Chinese promise a cement factory.

The modern nightmare has arrived: the horrible murder of two surf-mad Italians may be yet another evil augury. But there is still music and a vital Creole culture out there for those ready to break away from the beaten path, still fresh fish and cachupa (corn stew) to guzzle as the day breaks at the end of a long night of carousing, while the waves crash down.

Profile of Cape Verde

* The official language of Cape Verde is Portuguese but the country is pronounced Cap Vert, after the green cape in francophone Senegal.

* There are 10 volcanic islands in the Cape Verde archipelago. Of these, only one - Santa Luiza - is uninhabited.

* More Cape Verdeans live abroad than in Cape Verde, with large diasporas in the US, Portugal, Senegal and France.

* Most people know the islands through the sounds of singer Cesaria Evora. She appears on stage without shoes to show solidarity with the islands' disadvantaged women.

* Cape Verde was the first European settlement in the tropics. Founded in 1462, the port of Cidade Velha was used as a clearing house for slaves.