On a remote coral atoll in the Indian Ocean, the secretive air base of Diego Garcia has been crucial to U.S. military strategy for the past 25 years. It was the main launch pad for bombing strikes on Iraq and Afghanistan – and it will be key to any future attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The Pentagon calls it Camp Justice and the Footprint of Freedom. But its original inhabitants, brutally expelled by British authorities in the 1970s, are battling for their own justice and freedom as they seek the right to return home to Diego Garcia. It’s a campaign that could become a thorn in the Pentagon’s side as the U.S. lease comes up for renegotiation with Britain next year.
The small, palm-fringed atoll in the Chagos Islands, about 1,800 kilometres south of India, is dominated by two massive runways for B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth planes, along with hundreds of Navy and Air Force buildings – plus a golf course, bowling alley, tennis courts and windsurfing and snorkelling facilities.
The Chagos Islanders, descendants of African slaves who toiled on the coconut plantations for generations, remain strictly banned from their coral paradise today. But as they mark the 40th anniversary of their expulsion, they are vowing to continue their fight, despite another defeat in a British court on Tuesday.
The Chagossians have won a growing number of allies in recent years, including many British MPs. A former Labour deputy prime minister, John Prescott, is among those who joined the campaign this year, saying he was ashamed by the “terrible injustice” the islanders suffered.
Internal documents reveal that British officials referred to the islanders with humiliating nicknames. A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks shows that a senior British official dismissed the Chagossians as “Man Fridays” during a meeting with a U.S. diplomat in 2009. He was echoing the language of a 1966 British diplomatic memo that ridiculed the islanders as “some few Tarzans or Man Fridays.”
The Chagossians resent the cruel innuendo that they are as uncivilized as the fictional Robinson Crusoe’s loyal servant. “We are not seagulls or Tarzans or Man Fridays,” says Olivier Bancoult, who was born on the Chagos Islands and deported with his family when he was four years old.
“The British government always presents itself as a champion of human rights, but what they did on the Chagos Islands was a crime against humanity. Was it because we are descended from slaves? Was it because we don’t have blue eyes?”
French colonists had brought the Africans to work on the plantations in the late 18th century, and the islanders fell under British control when Britain seized Mauritius after the Napoleonic Wars. About 2,000 people were living on the Chagos archipelago in the mid-1960s when the British and U.S. governments reached a secret deal to turn Diego Garcia into a massive U.S. base.
Under the agreement, the Chagos Islands were quietly detached from Mauritius, which was to become independent in 1968. They remained a British territory, and Diego Garcia was leased to the United States in a deal that gave Britain a $14-million discount on its purchase of Polaris nuclear missiles.
Over the next few years, supplies to the islands were gradually cut off, and any Chagossians who ventured off the islands were prevented from returning. To frighten them into submission, hundreds of their pet dogs were rounded up and gassed to death. Then the remaining inhabitants were forced onto overcrowded cargo ships. After a five-day journey, most were dumped in Mauritius, nearly 2,000 kilometres to the south, where they were left in poverty. Some were eventually given a few thousand dollars in compensation.
The U.S. military says it doesn’t want the Chagossians to return for security reasons – but the final decision is in the hands of the British government, which still controls the islands.
Rosemond Saminaden, now 76, was among the final group of Chagossians to be deported in 1973. “It was a very big loss,” he said. “It was very sad for us. What was done to us was unlawful. We have to continue our struggle.”
Only about 680 of the deported people are still alive today. “The British government is waiting for all of the Chagossians to pass away,” says Mr. Bancoult, chairman of the Chagos Refugees Group.
Over the past 13 years, the islanders have won a series of British court rulings, establishing their right to return, although the rulings were later overturned by the House of Lords. They have taken their case to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and are considering an appeal of Tuesday’s court decision, which upheld Britain’s declaration in 2010 that the islands would be a “marine reserve.”
“We will never give up,” Mr. Bancoult says. All they want, he says, is the same right as the people of the Falkland Islands, who were permitted to hold a referendum this year to decide their future.
Mr. Bancoult says he applied nine times for jobs as a labourer at Diego Garcia. Instead, thousands of workers were imported from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Not a single Chagossian has been allowed to work on the base, he says.
Small groups of Chagossians have been allowed three brief visits to the islands. A video of their 2006 visit shows a British officer watching impassively as the islanders sobbed and kissed the ground.
Mauritius, where most of them live today, has become a luxury destination for affluent tourists. But the Chagossians have endured an arduous life. They say they have suffered job discrimination because they are racially different from the Indian-descended majority.
On a quiet coastal road here, the Chagossians have organized a photo exhibition to keep their memories alive. One photo shows the well-kept graves of British police dogs on Diego Garcia, in stark contrast to the neglected graves of the islanders. “The animals got better treatment than the humans,” Mr. Bancoult says.
Meanwhile, the WikiLeaks cable – which the British court refused to consider in its ruling this week – made clear that the “marine reserve” was a deliberate ploy to prevent the Chagossians from returning.
The U.S. diplomatic cable, quoting the private comments of the British official, said bluntly that the marine reserve would “put paid to the resettlement claims.”