Chagos Archipelago - Winning Back Paradise

The Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia is home to the most remote and secretive US military base in the world. Built in the mid-`70s, it houses B-52s and other aircraft used in the Gulf War and, most recently, in Afghanistan. It is also the site of a US-British conspiracy. Long before the base was built, Diego Garcia was home to a thriving community. Britain, who controlled the island, and the United States, who wanted it, covertly banished the local population. Those locals are Chagossians. Now they are fighting for justice, and a return to their homeland. Nick Lazaredes reports.

REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes


SONG: "We are an exiled people. From over there, on the other side. From the Chagos archipelago. We have no identity. We have no nationality. We are an uprooted people living in abject poverty.

THERESE NESTOR, ISLANDER (Translation): When I was on the island, I was always on the move. I had my knife to go fishing and carried a basket. I had enough to eat. No worries at all. I ate well. But here...there`s only rice to eat and your eyes pop out like periwinkles on rocks.

SONG: It`s time we stood up and made our voices heard, to show our sufferings to the whole world. You used the military base in Diego Garcia to smash Afghanistan. The islanders are sleeping outside the embassy in the cold.

CASSAM UTEEM, FORMER MAURITIUS PRESIDENT: I must say that there has been a conspiracy of silence. First of all - not only a conspiracy of silence, but they were damn lies. The international community was taken for a ride right from the start.

RICHARD GIFFORD, CHAGOS SOLICITORS: Simply by quiet diplomacy, paying off potential objectors and keeping a tight upper lip and being prepared to tell a whopping great untruth about the nature of the population, the whole thing was kept out of the public gaze.

Olivier Bancoult wants the world to know what happened to the Chagossian people. He has become the Chagos islanders` greatest champion, and he`s leading them in a David and Goliath struggle against the biggest powers in the Western world.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: My aim is to alert public opinion, to alert worldwide opinion, about all the suffering of our people who have been uprooted from our motherland and to come and live in exile. We can say that we have been dumped in the slums of Port Louis without taking care of us. What we want is to be able to return back to our native land and to have a wonderful life like other people.

A film, shot by a Catholic missionary in the early 1960s, offers a glimpse of the wonderful life enjoyed by the Chagos islanders.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: How people were living in Chagos, it was very different from here. Everyone has houses, everyone has a job, everyone likes to feed animals and everyone wants to go fishing and work on the coconut plantation.

THERESE NESTOR (Translation): I know where the best fishing spots on Peros Banhos are. Fish big as that. La Pointe Dans Songe, near the coconut trees. I know it very well. I know where the octopus are - I know where the octopus are on the Ile Anglais beyond the coral reef. I`ve been there, beyond the reef, my son.

The Chagossian people had been living here since the 18th century - African slaves brought here by the British to work on coconut plantations. When the slaves were freed, they stayed on the islands as contract workers. Officially, they were regarded as subjects of the British Empire. And they were well looked after - basic foodstuffs were provided, schools and medical facilities established, and there was a colonial administrator to keep the peace. Life was sweet.

LISETTE TALLATTE, ISLANDER (Translation): I was born in Diego. That`s where I grew up. I was married there. I was as happy as a fish frolicking in the water. I was working. I had a house. It wasn`t as if I was some lay-about who did nothing.

But as the 1960s drew to a close, life for the islanders was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. Despite their unswerving loyalty, Britain was about to betray them in a conspiracy to take over their islands and banish them forever. Secret plans were well advanced for the construction of a military base on the archipelago`s largest island of Diego Garcia, home to 2,000 Chagos islanders. Shaped like a horseshoe with a deep harbour, this once obscure little island was set to become the strategic linchpin of the world`s biggest superpower, the United States.

CASSAM UTEEM: The world must recognise the injustice that has been done to those people.

Cassam Uteem was president of the Republic of Mauritius for 10 years from 1991. He says Britain received a thieves` ransom for renting the islands to the American military.

CASSAM UTEEM: Millions, millions were pocketed by the British Government and then they gave peanuts to the Chagossians, and in return they expected the Chagossians to give away all their rights. They insisted that they should relinquish all their rights on the land, on the properties that used to belong to them.

The process of getting rid of the local population began quietly in 1968. From then, islanders who travelled to Mauritius or the Seychelles for medical or personal reasons were told after they left that the islands had been sold and that they were forbidden to return. Others were tricked off the island with offers of free holidays and then dropped off in Mauritius penniless. But this means of removal proved too slow. These few photographs capture the confusion on January 23, 1971, as the British administrator of Diego Garcia announced that the islands had been sold. The Chagossians listened in disbelief as they were told they`d have to leave. Some islanders left, but most chose to tough it out.

LISETTE TALLATTE (Translation): We became martyrs on our own island. Even the white Mauritian workers quit. The nurses left. Without nurses, no medicine was available. There was none on the island. No food either, because the supply boat from Mauritius stopped coming.

Soon things turned really nasty. A large contingent of US Marines arrived on the island and the Chagossians were told they`d be bombed and shot if they disobeyed the directive to leave, but they remained defiant.

RICHARD GIFFORD: I was reading extraordinary stories, first-hand accounts of how the islanders were rounded up. There was over 100 put on this...

London-based lawyer Richard Gifford was one of the first people to collect sworn statements of what happened to the Chagossians.

RICHARD GIFFORD: In what seemed like a measure designed to intimidate them, there was a message sent out to the administrator that whilst saving the horses, he should destroy the dogs, of which there were about 1,000 running largely wild on the island, and he had the job of exterminating the dogs. After trying to shoot them and poison them, none of it very effective, he hit upon the ruse of luring them into the shed where they processed coconuts, and he would run pipes from the military vehicles into the shed where they`d been lured by meat, and he said he was able to kill scores at a time by that. As far as the islanders were concerned, they could hear the dogs dying a horrible death, being gassed, and the implication to them was that if they didn`t go, then the same would happen to them.

The Marines then rounded up the islanders, put them on a boat, and dumped them on one of the outer islands. There they were left to their own devices.

LISETTE TALLATTE (Translation): After that, we knew the end was coming. We were treated like animals. We were treated like dogs. Donkeys had grass to graze on, but we had nothing. When someone fell ill, there was no nurse, no doctors. No medicine for the children. It was as if they wanted us dead.

In 1973, the British authorities decided to clear the archipelago completely. A small vessel was chartered and hundreds of Chagossians were rounded up and crammed into its lower decks without food or water.

RICHARD GIFFORD: It was appalling conditions. It was rough weather. It was hot. The portholes were closed. The horses were spreading manure and urine all over the lower decks. There were people sick and ill and starving. Women were miscarrying. It`s about as appalling a vista as you can possibly imagine, and it was done in such an amateurish way that you can hardly believe that this is the British Government administering a territory and removing the population.

The ship was headed for Mauritius, but the first leg of the trip took the islanders to the Seychelles, several days sailing. Three decades on, there are still stark reminders of that horrific final trip on the Seychelles main island of Mahe. Here, on a sandbank, one of the last boats to clear the Chagos Islands of people and equipment lies abandoned as a wreck. Back then, Captain Rowly was the ship`s first mate and he remembers the distress of the islanders.

CAPTAIN ROWLY SAMYNADEN: For the last trip, they were not very happy, but in Mauritius also, they were not happy, they did not want to leave the ship, like many of them say, "We know where we come, but we don`t know where we are going, what will happen to us in Mauritius."

Not far from the Seychelles capital, Victoria, Olivier Bancoult found more reminders of the Chagossians` hellish journey into exile. On a hill above the town are the ruins of an old prison. When shiploads of Chagossians arrived in the Seychelles, this is where they were locked up.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: When people had to travel from Chagos to Seychelles and then Seychelles to Mauritius, arriving in Seychelles, they had been kept in these prisons. We don`t understand. We always ask the question how people have been kept. We don`t have any answers, and this formed part of the injustice that had been done by the UK Government to the people who had been uprooted from their motherland.

But the Chagossians` miserable journey wasn`t over. In 1973, the last ship from the Seychelles arrived in Mauritius and dumped its human cargo in the capital, Port Louis. Two Chagossians were so distressed they killed themselves on the first day. Several others died in the first few months after being hit by motor vehicles. They had simply never seen them before and were unaware of the danger. This is where the Chagos islanders came to live - in the shantytowns of Port Louis. They`ve stayed, trapped by poverty and circumstances, ever since. It`s a dirty and unhealthy environment, and with alcoholism and drug abuse adding to their misery, life expectancy amongst these slum dwellers is low. Olivier Bancoult grew up in this slum from the age of four, far from the idyllic island on which he was born.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: Everyone had put us aside without taking care of us. Every day when we wake up, we had to put your hand in your pocket. If you don`t have a job, how to find money? When a Chagossian tries to look for a job, they always say, when they see your birth certificate, "Oh, you are born in Chagos," as if, if we are born in Chagos, we are not a human being.

This shantytown remains home to Olivier and his family.

SONG: All the Chagossians will return to their native island. That`s where we were born. That`s our little paradise.

Today is Mother`s Day, and the matriarch of the Bancoult family is kicking up her heels. Olivier Bancoult`s mother, Rita, has suffered her own share of grief and suffering in the years of exile from her island birthplace. She lost her husband just a few years after arriving here and in the ensuing decades lost four of her children, two of them to alcohol and drugs, another to suicide.

RITA BANCOULT (Translation): Our suffering is unending and we`re still suffering. Our suffering goes on. We ate stale bread that people had thrown out. I`d turn it into soup to feed the children. Now they`re big men, as you see.

The Bancoult family was one of the first to be exiled from the islands. When Olivier`s infant sister required urgent medical assistance in 1968, the family travelled to Mauritius, but the child died soon after they arrived. When they tried to return to Chagos, Mrs Bancoult was told by British officials that they could not. She remembers breaking the news to her children.

RITA BANCOULT (Translation): My kids thought I`d been attacked by thugs in the street. All eight of them surrounded me. They asked me what was wrong. I could hardly speak. Then I was able to tell them our homeland had been sold. "How will we live?" That`s what I said. Then Olivier said "One day when I grow up...I`ll do all I can to see that Englishman." And he succeeded in that. Yes, he did succeed.

OLIVIER BANCOULT (Translation): Trust Olivier Bancoult and the Chagos Party! Keep on trusting because I`m fighting for a better future for you.

Olivier Bancoult grew up determined to fulfil the promise he made to his mother - that he would one day tackle the Englishmen who refused to allow them to go home. He`s now the elected chief representative of the nearly 8,000 Chagossian refugees living on Mauritius. In 1981, when Chagossians staged a hunger strike outside the British High Commission in Port Louis, Olivier was just 19. The hunger strike ended in a demonstration and riots. Several Chagossians were arrested. It was this incident which spurred young Olivier to take a leading role in the Chagossians` struggle for justice.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: This flag is the flag that we have made for Chagos island. It represents three colours - orange, black and blue. The orange represents the closing of the plantation, coconut plantation, and the removal of all the population from Chagos and the black represents all the bad moments, the bad history, with hunger strikes, demonstrations, all things, all the bad moments that we have in Mauritius and everywhere, and the blue represents the lagoons of Chagos, which is not polluted, and at the same time represents the future of our young generation.

In 1999, Olivier decided that enough was enough. Rallying his people, the Chagossians took the dramatic step of taking the British Government to court - suing them for millions in compensation for their forced exile and their suffering and the right to return home. They were turning the tables on their former colonial masters.

RICHARD GIFFORD: I began looking into it with distinguished barristers in London and we cautiously came to the conclusion that this was probably an unlawful operation based upon a deliberate fiction - I have to say, a deliberate lie - that these people weren`t citizens of the territory they belonged to, and cautiously, bit by bit, we built up a case against the British Government.

Richard Gifford was the solicitor charged with proving that the conspiracy against the islanders was real. To his delight, he discovered secret files from Whitehall which proved crucial to his case.

RICHARD GIFFORD: And we came across some fascinating files, old Foreign Office files, old diplomatic files, in which there were some very strange letters being passed around between the British authorities in Westminster and Whitehall, and, in particular, with the UK mission to the United Nations in New York, and there were some very strange letters, saying, for example, "Don`t mention the population," or for example saying "If the question of the population is raised, the story we must tell is that these are transitory or migratory workers who come from Mauritius or Seychelles and can by returned to those countries at the end of their contract."

In fact, the haul of documents that Richard Gifford obtained from the Foreign Office revealed a conspiracy far greater than he`d ever imagined. What they showed was a single-minded determination to rid the islands of their population. In 1964, the United States approached Britain for assistance in securing a base in the Indian Ocean. After a few surveys, it was agreed - the Americans would get the island of Diego Garcia - for a decent yearly rental, of course. From the start, the Chagossians were considered expendable and the Americans made it clear that a resident civilian population nearby was unacceptable. This confidential Foreign Office minute from 1966 clearly shows Britain`s contempt for the islanders. "We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours. There will be no indigenous population except seagulls, who have not yet got a committee (the Status of Women Committee does not cover the rights of birds)." If that weren`t enough, this hand-written note was added. "Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans and Men Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished onto Mauritius. D. A. Greenhill." And there was more. Worried about the United Nations, Whitehall began its plot in earnest. Sticking to its story that the islanders were transient contract workers, officials developed new immigration laws aimed at getting rid of them and fooling the rest of the world. "Point 2. Evacuation of Chagos - Purpose of Immigration Ordinance. (a) to provide legal power to deport people who will not leave voluntarily; (b) to prevent people entering; (c) to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population. Point 6. Maintaining the fiction. The British Government will have to continue to argue that the local people are only a floating population."

RICHARD GIFFORD: They were worried that it would be picked up at the United Nations. They were terrified of being confronted with the African nations complaining that this was a move against a population. So they had the fiction already in place, but, in fact, it never got raised in the United Nations at all.

ARCHIVE NEWSREEL: The men and women have settled to normal everyday occupations.

Amongst the most damning pieces of evidence presented to the court was a film, produced by the British Foreign Office and clearly acknowledging the local people.

EXCERPT FROM ARCHIVE FILM: The worker starts his day by picking up the fallen fruit. The husking looks quick and easy, but this rhythm is only acquired through long experience.

At Britain`s highest court, the judgment on the government`s treatment of the Chagossians was quick in coming.

ARCHIVE NEWSREEL (3 November, 2000): They waited 30 years for this moment, and today at the High Court, the islanders declared victory. They`d been forced from their homes by the British Government in an act which was now ruled illegal.

OLIVIER BANCOULT (archive newsreel): Now we are very proud for all the Ilois community, who are suffering in Mauritius, and the court has given us the right to return back and to have a very wonderful life on our motherland.

RICHARD GIFFORD: I think we had an extremely strong case on the facts. We had an extremely strong case on the injustice of it. And I think really the officials who were called upon to justify it in 1999-2000 must have had quite a difficult task. The historical record was so incriminating.

The High Court ruled that the British Government had acted illegally in evicting the islanders and immediately overturned the law that has prevented them from returning. That was in November 2000, but nearly two years on from their amazing victory, not much has happened. Now the islanders are wrangling with the British Government over the logistical and financial details of their resettlement, and it`s proving troublesome. That`s mainly due to the United States, which continues to insist that the Chagossians aren`t welcome.

ARCHIVE VIDEO (12 April, 1977): Diego Garcia isn`t near anywhere. 1,200 miles from India, 2,000 miles from East Africa and the Persian Gulf, it`s remoteness, which has made this ragged horseshoe of coral so strategically important. Anyone seeking to dominate the Indian Ocean needs to base aircraft here.

When work began on the American base, it was soon clear that this was not simply an austere communications facility - the description used in all official correspondence. This is some of the only film publicly available of Diego Garcia, shot during the base`s construction. It`s now home to 5,000 people, mostly military, but including about 1,500 civilian contractors from Singapore and the Philippines. More recent photographs provided to the Chagossian community show why America jealously guards this facility. The base has two huge runways capable of handling long-range bombers. There are berths for nuclear submarines and a deepwater anchorage for 30 warships. Afghanistan was bombed from here and this will also be the launch-pad for any military action against Iraq. It`s the most secretive and remote military base in the world.

RICHARD GIFFORD: Every US air base around the world has an adjacent civilian population. This is the only air base which does not. And it`s grown - fed on its own isolation. It`s something that the American military, I am told, regards as the jewel in the crown because they can do what they like there. Now, what they do there nobody knows.

Despite their court victory, the islanders` struggle is a long way from completion and Olivier is once again flying to England to plead his people`s case.

SONG: How many days have passed since our people left our isle? We would like to return to the place of our birth. Olivier is with us. He is our leader. He is the Mandela of the Chagossian people. Olivier is with us. He is our leader. He is the Mandela of the Chagossian people.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: I can thank God for having given me the courage to continue my struggle, but I always realise what President Nelson Mandela had asked - that the struggle continue.

It was in the British Parliament that the shameful exile of the islanders was first raised and here, the islanders still have some friends. One of the closest is veteran Labor MP Tam Dalyell. After seeing the plight of the islanders on Mauritius in the mid-70s, Dalyell has relentlessly pursued the question of justice.

TAM DALYELL, BRITISH MP: The real truth of the matter is that we kowtowed to the Americans. The Americans didn`t want any distractions on the area of their base and the people had to suffer and were considered to be expendable. I think that that was deeply wrong.

Thanks to politicians like Dalyell, even more information is filtering out about secret deals in the Chagos archipelago, and it seems that the islanders are still losing out. Dalyell recently forced the government to reveal how much it receives each year for licensing fishing rights in Chagos waters.

TAM DALYELL: I was told by the new minister at the Foreign Office, revenue generated by the sale of licences for fishing in British Indian Ocean territory waters during 2001-02 was 800,000 pounds.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: We could not accept this kind of thing. We have people living in great difficulty in Mauritius, facing all kinds of problems, like alcohol and drugs - everything. We have now in the house of parliament the responsibility for income and wealth, particularly as it receives a big sum, £800,000 Sterling upon the fishing, all the fish, ships who came and fished in the lagoons of Chagos. What is for the Chagossians themselves? Nothing! Even peanuts we do not have.

Olivier has managed to extract one important gesture of good faith from the British Government. It has given permission for a group of several hundred Chagossians to make a pilgrimage to the islands to visit the graves of their ancestors. The only problem is Diego Garcia, home of the US base, is to be excluded, and that`s got Olivier banging on the highest doors of London`s officialdom. As chair of Britain`s Foreign Affairs Committee, Donald Anderson is a figure with considerable influence and today he`s being taken to task over Britain`s continuing shoddy treatment of the islanders.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: I think the British Government needs to take into consideration that we are a people who are suffering. We must have a sort of trying to help those kind of people.

DONALD ANDERSON, UK FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Clearly all the financial details, the form of compensation, the infrastructure costs, the budgetary costs, the assistance in all possible ways, these are matters which will have to be negotiated with the representatives of the islanders over the next few months, and we could defer decision as to whether or not the Government had been generous or otherwise when we see the colour of their money.

Having already waited quite a while to see the colour of their money, the Chagossians have stepped up the pressure. They`ve now filed a class action against Britain`s co-conspirator, the United States. In a US Federal Court, the islanders are alleging genocide, torture and forced relocation, and they`re seeking millions in compensation.

RICHARD GIFFORD: We think the Americans were fully complicit and there`s some very good historical pieces of evidence for that, the first one of which was a joint UK-US military survey in 1964. Before they decided on Diego Garcia, they sent a joint exploration, a military one, to check out the island, see what kind of a military facility there would be, and it clearly reports that there is a population living and working on the island. So they knew right from the word `go`, there was a population.

OLIVIER BANCOULT (Walking from High Commission and holding his new passport): Here it is, folks. A job well done.

Back in Mauritius, Olivier walks triumphantly from the British High Commission in Port Louis holding his British passport. As a result of his victorious court action and his determined campaign, all Chagossians are to be issued with British passports, finally acknowledging their status as subjects of the Queen.

OLIVIER BANCOULT (Translation): We are proud of what we have achieved. Today we are reaping the benefits.

But British citizenship is a long way from what the Chagossians really hope to achieve. In Port Louis harbour, a large ferry has already been reserved for the voyage islanders hope to make later this year, but they`ll only go if Diego Garcia is included.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: It is the dream of all the people of Chagos to be able to travel on the sea, to go and visit our native land, our paradise lost, and to be able to pay tribute to all of our family, our grandparents, ancestors who are buried in Chagos whom for so many years we have not been able to visit and to pay tribute. It will be a very unforgettable moment, a memorable moment.

OLIVIER BANCOULT (Translation): If you could take a boat back tomorrow, would you go?

THERESE NESTOR (Translation): Hey, sonny, don`t say that!

OLIVIER BANCOULT (Transaltion): Would you go right now?

THERESE NESTOR (Translation) Of course I`d go! I pray for that every day.

Source SBS

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