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Chagos people press to return to their island home

Removed 40 years ago to make way for a US military base, they still want to go back.

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.