Chagos people press to return to their island home

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius — Lisette Talate has a message for the British government: “Give me back my Diego, my land,” she says, her eyes flashing with a mixture of pain and anger.

In the early 1970s, Talate was one of about 2,000 people evicted by the British from the Indian Ocean archipelago of Chagos to make way for a  U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia. Today, she is considered the soul of a decades-long struggle to return home to the islands, a struggle that persists despite the best efforts of the U.K. government.

Now more than 40 years later, she and others are waiting on a judgment from the European Union's court to allow them to return to their island home, despite the fact that it is a massive U.S. military base.

It is a well-documented story that has never lost its power. Expelled from 1968 to 1973 on the fictional grounds that they were merely temporary residents of their homeland, the Chagossians were shipped to Mauritius. Dumped in the slums of the capital of Port Louis, families that had previously led a simple life based on  subsistence farming were confronted by urban problems such as poverty, depression and drug addiction. It was over a decade before they received compensation of less than $5,000 each.

Walking around the various shanty towns where they now live, past stray dogs sniffing rubbish on the sides of the roads and shops with bars in the windows, you can hear the countless tales of individual suffering.

In Pointe aux Sables, Talate recounts how two of her six children died of “sadness” soon after her arrival. In Cassis, Ansie Andre, who also lost three children, remembers how she fell into a heavy depression, losing her ability to communicate for four years. In Roche Bois, Julie Lem still dreams she is back home, crying out in the night when she realizes she is stuck in exile.

These are the original islanders, a stubbornly inconvenient human factor in the increasingly complex battle for control over the Chagos archipelago, which has served as a base for U.S. attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The law has been on their side in the past. In 2000, it seemed that they would finally be going home after a landmark victory at the U.K. High Court, which deemed their expulsion illegal, but the judgment was later crushed by royal prerogative, an arcane measures that bypasses usual rulings. Led by Louis Olivier Bancoult, an electrician, the Chagos people have now taken their struggle to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, where a judgment is expected in the coming weeks.

The ruling cannot come too soon, as a number of events conspire to once again frustrate their prospects of returning to their homeland. The most publicized of these are the U.K. government’s unilateral plans to turn the Chagos archipelago — one of the most unspoiled coral reef systems in the world — into a marine protected area, a move which would severely limit fishing and construction in the area, effectively scuppering the islanders’ hopes of going home.

It is a “condemnable way of ensuring the natives don’t return to their land,” said Cassam Uteem, a former Mauritian president, who has long championed the Chagossian cause.

“Enough is enough,” said Bancoult. “We are the real guardians of the environment.” He is particularly indignant that the conservation project would stand beside a U.S. military base, a hub for transits of nuclear material and an alleged source of fuel spills. “It’s hardly environmentally friendly. Where we have U.S. military activities, there is potential for pollution. The sea is the sea. If something falls in we can’t stop it.”

Mauritius has recently shown increasing support for the Chagossians, but its interest in the cause intermeshes with its own aspirations for sovereignty over the archipelago, an area it claims was illegally removed from its territory prior to its independence from the U.K. in 1968.

Vexed that it wasn’t consulted by the British on the marine protected area, it has been seeking support from other African states in its bid for sovereignty, threatening to take its case to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice. It has also been lobbying Washington for access to negotiations on the renewal of the latter's 50-year lease on Diego Garcia, set to expire in 2016.

The Mauritian government has vowed that the Chagossians would be returned home were it to win back the territory, but Bancoult is skeptical. “We were sacrified for Mauritian independence,” he said, referring to the country's negotiations with the U.K. government of Harold Wilson at the height of the Cold War, a point at which the islands were already being cleared for the purposes of transatlantic military strategy.

“Up to now, we have been fighting alone.” He described the current situation as a “ping-pong game” and alluded to plans to eventually hold a referendum allowing Chagossians to decide by whom they wish to be governed.

As the politicking continues, the U.S. is ramping up its nuclear presence in the region, installing a maintenance platform for its so-called fast-attack and guided-missile submarines. But, the world’s policeman is increasingly unwelcome in the region. Last year, African states ratified the Pelindaba Treaty, an attempt to establish a nuclear-free zone across the continent, a domain which extends as far as Diego Garcia. Mauritius also signed up, though it is not yet clear how far it would take its commitment were it ever in a position to claim rent for the U.S. presence in Chagos.

Back in Pointe aux Sables, Talate recounts the battles she faced as a young woman in Mauritius. Now in her late 60s, she cuts a painfully thin figure, the result of successive hunger strikes.

“Depis sa mo endan serre,” she says in her native Creole — ever since, her insides have “tightened,” making it difficult to eat. She has lived through the death of her children, confrontations with the police and spells in prison.

The islanders’ determination to return home still burns bright, but with each passing year, the original population is dwindling. Time is running out if their struggle is not to go to waste.