New Internationalist

Empire’s exiles

Issue 392

Lindsey Collen on the women who have kept the flame of memory and longing alive for a homeland grabbed from under their feet.

Never heard of it,’ well-informed people from all over the world used to say when I asked them if they knew about Diego Garcia. Some even asked, ‘Who’s he?’ And when I embarked on telling them how the British and US governments in the late 1960s forcibly removed the 2,000 inhabitants of the islands of Diego Garcia in a genocidal mass kidnapping in order to install an exponentially expanding military base, then people just used to look at me as though, having thought up to that point that I was perfectly nice, it was now dawning on them that I was in fact stone mad.

If such things were true, they thought, how could they possibly not have known about them? Such was the success of the conspiracy to hide the operation. People worldwide didn’t know.

How did they find out? Some may have heard that B-52s were taking off from there to bomb Afganistan or Iraq. But it didn’t mean much to them.

Then a judgement of the High Court in London in 2000 hit the front pages of British newspapers. Once the 30-year censorship of the British Official Secrets Act expired and the official papers that prove the whole murky deal became available, the Mauritians from Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos Archipelago could put in a legal challenge about their forcible removal from their native islands. The judges exposed a hideous plot where ‘the British authorities [were concerned] to present to the outside world a scenario in which there were no permanent inhabitants on the Archipelago’ and followed a policy of what one memo at the time described as ‘quiet disregard – in other words let’s forget about this one until the United Nations challenges us on it’. And the people won the right to return.

But the Blair Government promptly issued two Queen’s ‘Orders in Council’ to override the judiciary. Earlier this year, judges threw out the Queen’s decrees and the right to return was won again.

The people of Diego Garcia and Chagos hadn’t just been sitting around waiting all those years. They never stopped struggling. To get back to their islands. To reunite the country. To get the military base that was the cause of all the problems closed down. And it was the women especially who acted. ‘Two of my children died of sadness when we were left stranded here,’ Marie-Magdalene told me, ‘and my heart has been left heavy because I couldn’t tend my grandmother’s grave on Diego Garcia. From this suffering, I got my strength.’

The first time I met women from Diego Garcia (and became lifelong friends with some of them) was when I went to an all-night candle-lit vigil in 1978 alongside a hunger strike in a poor suburb of Port Louis. Then, in 1981, we held big street demonstrations three days running to highlight yet another women’s hunger strike. Eight of us were arrested, during a confrontation with riot police, and faced a long trial for demonstrating without police authorization. The trial became a further focus for protest.

From 1997 onwards we attempted to get hold of a boat so as actually to go to Diego Garcia. At one point Greenpeace had one of its ships in line, but it fell through. In 2004, at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, yachters offered to join a ‘Peace Flotilla’ if we got hold of a main boat. But in the meantime, the right to return has been won.

In the women’s movement we received a gift from the women of Diego Garcia who had lived in a matricentral society and worked for equal pay on their home islands. They showed us how to face up to patriarchy in one of its worst forms: the police. The women from Diego Garcia felt no fear of them. I remember one police officer who made a quietly spoken ‘proposition/threat’ to one of the women during a protest stand-off, only to have her reply loud enough for everyone in the crowd to hear: ‘And what’s so special about your dick, then!’ The man crumbled.

In a million ways they shared with us that there’s nothing special to fear about any men – or their State hierarchies. Somehow they know that women hold the power. And this knowledge has in turn given them power. And with the recently won right to return, the womenfolk of one of the smallest communities in the world has succeeded in calling to task the biggest power of all, the empire of the US-UK military alliance. They know that empires are not eternal.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist. For more on the Chagos  Islanders, see Paradise Regained.

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