– The long struggle to return home –
Between 1968 and 1973 the UK forcibly removed the indigenous population of the Island of Diego Garcia to make way for a US military base.
Located midway between Africa and Asia in the Pacific Ocean, Diego Garcia is one of 65 islands that make up the Chagos Archipelago. Some two thousand people inhabited these islands, the majority on Diego Garcia itself.
Known as the Ilois, they are referred today as the Chagos Islanders or Chagossians.
The ancestry of the Islanders went back to French colonial rule when the French Government brought slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar to work on coconut plantations.
Upon the fall of Napoleon in 1815 rule passed from the French to the British. Britain introduced Indian s to the island and the inhabitants converted to Catholicism, and in 20 years slavery was abolished in 1835.
The forced removal of the Ilois was parallel in its unlawfulness by its sheer brutality. The UK and US effectively blockaded the Island stopping food ships from arriving leading to starvation.
Rumours began to circulate that the Island would be bombed and US aircraft flew low over the Island leading many to believe that bombing was imminent.
Perhaps the most shocking tactic employed by the UK and US was the systematic destruction of the Islands dog population which numbered over 1000.
Dogs were vital to the Ilois. They were beloved pets, hunting partners and a source of joy for the Islands children. On the orders of Sir Bruce Greatback, Colonial Governor of the Seychelles (1969-1973) the dogs were first poisoned and the remaining were rounded up, contained and gassed.
The Ilois had to listen to the whimpers and screams of their beloved pets, breaking their spirit of resistance against the dehumanization and robbery of their ancestral home.
Robin Mardemootoo, the Islanders Mauritian lawyer, stated that the Ilois were “absolutely destroyed by the fate of reserved by their dogs, and many of them told me that it was clear to them that if they offered any objection to the depopulation they would suffer the same fate”.
The Ilois were rounded up and crammed onto a vessel departing on a 2,500 mile journey. The men were ordered to huddle together on the bridge under intense weather conditions, women and children were sent down into the hold. For five days the horses were fed and the people were not. Upon arriving in Mauritius the people were dumped like cargo onto the port and left to fend for themselves.
Former President of Mauritius, Cassam Uteem, who has been a supporter of the cause of the Ilois told how “terrified and bewildered they 9the Ilois) were. Some camped on the dock waiting for the ship to return and take them home. No British official was there to ease their way, even though they were British citizens”.
The Ilois were directed toward an abandoned housing estate called Beau Marchand, which was woefully uninhabitable. Goats occupied the room and there was no electricity or running water.
By 1975 the death toll began to rise with 26 families dying of poverty and nine suicides. Young girls were forced into prostitution just to pay for food.
In 1978 the Islanders were offered £650,000 in compensation. Upon protests which included hunger strikes and many demonstrations outside the British High Commission in Port Louis, compensation rose to £4 million, less than half the minimum that the entire population could survive on.
Compare this with the expenditure of £2 billion protecting the Falkland Islanders from the threat of depopulation by Argentina. Both were British citizens, the only difference being that one island was white and the other black.
Today there are 4,000 Ilois living in Mauritius. On Diego Garcia there are an estimated 40 British and 1,000 US military personnel and 2,400 support workers.
The US has launched attacks against targets in Iraq and Afghanistan from the Island, and it is thought suspected terrorist suspects are held and tortured on the Island.
The Ilois understand and accept that they can never return to Diego Garcia because of the US airbase but hope to return to another of the Islands in the Chagos Archipelago. The US aim to block this as they insist it will violate security.
Although in 2000 the Ilois were granted a right to return home by the British High Court in 2004 Tony Blair’s Labour Government invoked two orders in council under the Royal Prerogative forever banning the Ilois returning home.
In 2006 the High Court overturned the 2004 decree but to date the Ilois are still fighting for their right to return to their ancestral home.