The long and hard-fought campaign by Olivier Bancoult and other members of the Chagos Refugee Group has eventually paid off. A boat journey for 100 Chagossian exiles – 85 from Mauritius and 15 from the Seychelles – took them home to the stunningly beautiful islands of the Chagos archipelago lying midway between Africa and India.
UN Resolution 1514 says that all colonial peoples have the right to nationhood without pre-conditions. In blatant disregard of this resolution, the Chagos Islands were detached from the British colony of Mauritius in 1965 prior to the latter’s independence in 1968, and instead subsumed into the British Indian Ocean Territory. Under the Labour Government led by Harold Wilson, the islands then became the scene of one of the most shameful acts in recent British colonial history. Between 1965 and 1973, some 2,000 Chagossians – a mix of people descended from slaves and indentured labourers brought to the islands to work on the coconut plantations in the late 18th century from Madagascar, Mozambique and south India – were systematically deported by the British to Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Officially the British authorities argued that the islanders were merely ‘temporary workers’ being repatriated to their places of origin. But with the islanders out of the way, the true agenda became abundantly clear. The British gave the US Government a 50-year lease to build a military base on Diego Garcia – one of the largest of the Chagos Islands. It has great strategic importance, being used, for example, as a launching pad for the B-52s and B-2 Stealth bombers deployed in air strikes against Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Chagossians’ boat journey home to their islands was an emotional one. ‘People were very shocked to see the state of some of the islands,’ testifies Olivier Bancoult. ‘The graveyards were overgrown and the roofs on the churches where we used to worship had crumbled.’
Their homecoming coincides with a resounding victory in the British High Court in May this year, in which the judges found the British Government’s decision to ‘exile a whole population’ both ‘irrational’ and ‘repugnant’. ‘It was a great victory for us,’ said Bancoult.
While further legal battles with Britain might still lie ahead, the trip to Chagos has strengthened the resolve of Bancoult and his fellow Chagossians to make a permanent return, particularly now that some of them have seen with their own eyes the immense natural wealth and beauty of their islands. They are already talking about how their homeland could provide a multitude of jobs in coconut processing, fishing and eco-tourism for the 70 per cent of the Chagossians of working age who remain unemployed in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Says Bancoult: ‘Life would be better – no drugs, no alcoholism, no prostitution, no discrimination.’
For more on the Chagos Islanders, see Letter from Mauritius, page 35.