Evicted Indian Ocean islanders dream of returning to their homeland
Collateral victims of the cold war, the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands are striving to return home, 40 years after their eviction to make way for a US military base.
“It is our reason for living: the struggle to return to Chagos,” said Saminaden Rosemond, an 80-year-old native of Peros Banhos, one of the 55 coral keys that make up the Indian Ocean archipelago, and who dreams of dying on the island where he was born.
Rosemond was among those expelled from the Chagos Islands in 1973 and has since then lived in Mauritius, more than 1,200km away. Once the islanders were removed, the best-known atoll, Diego Garcia, was turned into a vital US military base.
“It is our parents who are buried in cemeteries in Peros Banhos, Diego Garcia, Solomon. How can we agree not to place flowers there to honour our parents?” said Olivier Bancoult, President the Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius and standard bearer of their cause.
Descended from slaves, Chagossians are prisoners of their own misfortune, their bad luck being to have lived on islands made strategic by the cold war.
As its colonial empire collapsed, Britain purchased the Chagos Islands from Mauritius.
“The Mauritian authorities in 1965 suffered an ignoble blackmail, but gave way. From their point of view at the time, it was a choice between independence or not,” said Paul Berenger, an opposition leader and former prime minister of Mauritius.
A year later Britain leased the Chagos Islands to the US for 50 years – until December 2016 – with a possible extension up to 2036.
Between 1968 and 1973 around 2,000 Chagos Islanders were uprooted, a process blithely described in a British diplomatic cable of the time as the removal of “some few Tarzans and Man Fridays”.
Most were shipped to Mauritius and the Seychelles.
The strategic nature of the remote and isolated Diego Garcia base became increasingly important through the 1970s as the fall of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia and an assertive Soviet navy extended communist influence in the Indian Ocean.
Later, it became a staging ground for the US bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Faced with the joint power and common interests of the US and UK, the stateless Chagossians hold little sway, yet they continue to fight, with the assistance of the Mauritian government which claims sovereignty over the islands.
In September, Mauritius Prime Minister Sir Anerood Jugnauth pleaded the Chagossians’ cause at the UN General Assembly and new British-Mauritian discussions are scheduled, with Mauritius reserving the right to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice.
To help push their case, pro-Chagossians have recently sought to disassociate the presence of the US base from the cause of their return.
“For us, the struggle is for independence. Mauritius does not dispute the existence of a base in Diego Garcia these days,” said Berenger.
Bancoult, however, rails against the injustice whereby employees of the base are allowed to live on Diego Garcia but Chagossians are not.
“Why is Diego Garcia accessible to Filipinos, Singaporeans, Sri Lankans, the British, the Americans and not the Chagossians?” he fumed.
Despite the promise of talks, many Chagossians believe Britain is playing an underhand game. In 2010 Britain declared the islands part of a ‘Marine Protected Area’, arguing that people should not be allowed to live there, but the move backfired as a UN tribunal declared the move illegal in 2015.
“It’s just a matter of time before Mauritius regains sovereignty over the islands,” said Berenger.
Today, around 10,000 Chagossians and their descendants are divided among Mauritius, the Seychelles and Britain.
Many still hope to return to live in the archipelago or at least be able to visit, like Claudie, the adult daughter of Rosemond, who was just four years old when the family left Peros Banhos.
She has no memory of the place but her father’s vivid stories have kept the islands alive for her.
“We often ask papa to tell us stories. Sometimes even the grandchildren laugh. So many memories. It’s beautiful, and sad at the same time.”
At her side, Rosemond silently stares, lost in memories of Peros Banhos.