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'Welcome to the atoll of Diego Garcia, the ‘Footprint of Freedom!’' US naval personnel are told in an information kit about the remote Indian Ocean island. Meanwhile, its native population fights to return.
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POINTE AUX SABLES, Mauritius — The remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, shaded by palm trees and ringed with white-sand beaches, must seem a tropical paradise to the arriving American soldier.
“Welcome to the atoll of Diego Garcia, the ‘Footprint of Freedom!’” US naval personnel are told in an information kit. Bring your snorkeling gear and a fishing rod, it advises, for there are more than 700 varieties of fish in the warm, clear waters that surround this idyllic coral atoll.
But what isn’t mentioned is that Diego Garcia, and the other islands that make up the Chagos Archipelago, were once home to 2,000 people.
They were forcibly removed under a secret deal made some 40 years ago that created an American military base on the island, still officially owned by the British government. And they are desperate to return home.
Just last week, the High Court in London upheld a UK government decision to establish a marine park around the islands, including Diego Garcia, that effectively bans commercial fishing in the area.
A classified US government cable published by WikiLeaks quotes a British diplomat as saying in 2009 that the marine park — the world’s largest — would prevent the Chagossians from resettling on the islands, whose isolated location is strategically advantageous for the US military.
“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,” said Olivier Bancoult, head of the advocacy Chagos Refugee Group based in Mauritius.
More from GlobalPost: Chagos people press to return to their island home
Formed by exiled islanders, the group has led a series of court cases with the goal of returning home — if not to Diego Garcia, then to outlying islands of the archipelago, where their ancestors are buried. They also want to be involved in negotiations next year over the renewal of Diego Garcia's 50-year-lease that expires in 2016.
In January, the International Court of Justice in The Hague said it would hear a case brought by the Chagossians. While the islanders have won British court rulings establishing their right to return home, the House of Lords overturned these decisions.
“Was it because we are descended from slaves? Was it because we don’t have blue eyes?” said Bancoult, who was deported to Mauritius at age 4.
The Chagos islands were uninhabited until the late 1700s, when the then-French colony of Mauritius sent lepers to Diego Garcia and established coconut plantations using slaves brought from Africa and South Asia.
After Napoleon’s defeat the archipelago became a British colony administered from Mauritius. But when Mauritius became independent in 1968, the British retained control of the Chagos Archipelago under a deal with the United States that saw Diego Garcia leased in exchange for a discount on nuclear missiles.
The Chagossians, whose families go back five generations on the islands, were summarily deported, most of them to Mauritius and some to the Seychelles.
After years of protests and strikes, the British government in the 1970s and '80s paid compensation to the Chagossians, though it amounted to less than $6,000 a person.
Today the Diego Garcia base is staffed by workers from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, but no Chagos islanders.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the majority of US bombing runs were launched from Diego Garcia’s super-sized runways, where the nearest point of land is 1,000 miles away in India.
The base was also a refueling stop for extrajudicial transfer of US prisoners, and there are allegations it was a CIA black site. Any future attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities would likely start from there.
The US military has largely remained silent on the issue, while the State Department, responding last year to a “We the People” petition that garnered 30,000 signatures, deferred to the British government as official owner of the territory.
“The United States appreciates the difficulties intrinsic to the issues raised by the Chagossian community,” the brief response said.
Bancoult said that “maybe Barack Obama doesn’t know” the history of the Chagos people.
"Many Americans don’t know. Even British people don’t know about the situation,” he said. “It is very difficult for us to continue the struggle but we will not give up.”
Rosemond Saminadien, 76, was born on the islands, worked as a blacksmith and raised a family there before being removed in 1973 on the last cargo ship that left for Mauritius.
He fondly recalls his life surrounded by the sea, eating fresh fish every day, like his family had for the previous four or five generations.
“For me, Chagos was paradise,” Saminadien said. “What they have done is unlawful.”
Bancoult said that only 682 native-born islanders are alive today.
“The people of Chagos are becoming more and more old. Is it that the British government is waiting for all the Chagossians to pass away?” he said.
The marine reserve would mean "no human footprints" or "Man Fridays" in the territory, Colin Roberts, the diplomat, is quoted as saying in the classified WikiLeaks cable.
His choice of words harkened back to a 1966 British diplomatic memo that similarly labeled Chagos islanders as “some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure.”
The Chagos people take the “Robinson Crusoe”-derived term Man Fridays, which connotes an uneducated, subservient man, as a racial insult.
“It shows that they consider us like seagulls — like birds, we don’t have a permanent place,” Bancoult said. “They have declared Chagos as the world’s largest marine reserve without protecting Chagossians.”
The Chagos Refugees Group responded to the London High Court’s decision to uphold the creation of the marine park by saying “it is high time” the British government “made this resolution of our plight a high priority.”
“Chagossians are the natural guardians of our beautiful islands,” the group’s statement said. “Our return will not endanger the beautiful corals or remaining fish stocks in any way.
“But our right to return is fundamental and will never be surrendered.”