Globe, Human Rights, Latin America, Politiks

The Chagossians – under fire in their own land

America has been using the island of Diego Garcia, a British Overseas Territory in the Indian Ocean, as a military base since its rightful inhabitants were driven out in the 1970s.

 

Chagosianos bajo 1

 

 

History books are filled with hundreds of pages about colonialism, one of the most striking phenomena of the Modern and Contemporary Era.  The domination of territories for economic and political reasons evolved thanks to the imperialist pretensions of European countries, including the UK, Spain and France, amongst others.

Although such territorial domination occurred principally during  the 18th and 19th centuries, the effects of expansionary politics such as these can be seen today in many parts of the world.

Chagosianos bajo 4Cultures have been exterminated, tribes have been eliminated and people have been displaced; these are just some of the consequences brought about by colonisation.

However, there is no need to go back hundreds of centuries to find an example of these aforementioned cruelties: we need only look to the Chagossians. The Chagossian people inhabited the island of Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Archipelago, a British Overseas Territory in the Indian Ocean.

Although either Portugal or Spain was thought to have first discovered this atoll, the island was owned by France until the 1814 Treaty of Paris, which left it under British rule following the Napoleonic War.

Chagosianos bajo 3From that point onwards, Diego Garcia became part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT, to use the English acronym).

The Chagossians

As early as the 20th century, this British island was marked by the American government as the perfect strategic point to establish their military and naval base in the area. The base had to be located on British soil, as the US did not own any land in that region.

For this reason, and as both countries are allies, in 1966 the UK lent the island to the American government for a period of 50 years. Nonetheless, the island was still populated by the Chagossians.

Chagosianos bajo 11 - Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon

The solution was simple: drive the inhabitants out of the island and move them to Mauritius. This way, official documents at the time would show that the island was uninhabited.

But it was not to be. Around 1000 people called Diego Garcia home. The Chagossian people’s ancestry formed as they lived through various historical eras on the island.

Descendants of former Malayan slaves, people from Mozambique and Madagascar, as well as the Seychelles, China, Somalia and India have formed their own Creole society, which included hospitals, schools and churches. They worked mainly on the plantations and for some of the already established companies in the area’s colonised metropolis.

However, according to later declassified documents, the governments of Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon agreed to “sweep” and “sanitize” the islands.

Chagosianos bajo 8As a result, 400 families voluntarily left home, although others were forcibly and violently removed, with promises of £650,000 and work on arrival in Mauritius, located in the South West of the Indian Ocean, where they were to be relocated.

This money was given to the government of Mauritius, in order to cover the costs of the Chagossians’ resettlement. However, the people’s need to relocate was not recognised.

diego garcia5 native 1975Thus, many people were left stranded in the capital city’s port, Port Louis, and ended up living in poverty in the slums, without jobs.

This then freed up the island for the United States to establish the base they wanted in this area, which came to be known as “Camp Justice” and housed more than 2000 troops, 30 warships, a nuclear graveyard and a spy station, amongst other facilities.

The Chagossians’ homeland was thus inhabited solely by US and British troops, in addition to the civilian personnel hired to work on the military base.

diego garcia5Diego Garcia today

Since their exile, the islanders have fought for their right to return home. Although they achieved a victory in 2000, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that their expulsion was illegal, Blair’s government invoked legal processes which restored the prohibition on the islanders return.

Again, in 2006, the Chagossians’ right to return to their homeland was recognised as “one of the most fundamental liberties known to mankind.” The British government successfully lodged an appeal to reverse the judgement in 2008. As such, the problem remains unresolved and chances of the islanders being allowed to live in Diego Garcia anytime in the near future are slim.

diego garcia6This was a crucial area for the US government during the Cold War, particularly because of its strategic role. Since George W. Bush began his private war on terror, the land has once again become crucial for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Similarly, the island served as a prison where individuals suspected of belonging to Islamic group Al Qaeda were detained and interrogated during the conflict. According to British historian Andy Worthington, the CIA has also used the island in a manner akin to Guantanamo and the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

In any case, the island is serving an entirely different purpose than originally intended. It should accommodate and serve as a home to the real inhabitants of Diego Garcia; the Chagossians.

 

(Translated by Marie-Thérèse Slorach – Email: marietherese.slorach@gmail.com)

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