Up­rooted, In­dian Ocean Cha­gos is­landers dream of home

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Col­lat­eral vic­tims of the Cold War, the in­hab­i­tants of the Cha­gos Is­lands are striv­ing to return home, 40 years af­ter their evic­tion to make way for a US mil­i­tary base. “It is our rea­son for liv­ing: the strug­gle to return to Cha­gos,” said Sam­i­naden Rose­mond, an 80-year-old na­tive of Peros Ban­hos, one of the 55 co­ral keys that make up the In­dian Ocean ar­chi­pel­ago, and who dreams of dy­ing on the is­land where he was born. Rose­mond was among those ex­pelled from the Cha­gos Is­lands in 1973 and has since then lived in Mau­ri­tius, more than 1,200 kilo­me­ters away.

Once the is­landers were re­moved, the best-known atoll, Diego Gar­cia, was turned into a vi­tal US mil­i­tary base. “It is our par­ents who are buried in ceme­ter­ies in Peros Ban­hos, Diego Gar­cia, Solomon. How can we agree not to place flow­ers there to honor our par­ents?” said Olivier Ban­coult, Pres­i­dent the Cha­gos Refugees Group in Mau­ri­tius and stan­dard bearer of their cause. De­scended from slaves, Chagos­sians are pris­on­ers of their own mis­for­tune, their bad luck be­ing to have lived on is­lands made strate­gic by the Cold War.

‘An ig­no­ble black­mail’

As its colo­nial em­pire col­lapsed, Bri­tain pur­chased the Cha­gos Is­lands from Mau­ri­tius. “The Mau­ri­tian au­thor­i­ties in 1965 suf­fered an ig­no­ble black­mail, but gave way. From their point of view at the time, it was a choice be­tween in­de­pen­dence or not,” said Paul Berenger, an op­po­si­tion leader and for­mer prime min­is­ter of Mau­ri­tius. A year later Bri­tain leased the Cha­gos Is­lands to the US for 50 years-un­til De­cem­ber 2016 — with a pos­si­ble ex­ten­sion up to 2036. Be­tween 1968 and 1973 around 2,000 Cha­gos Is­landers were up­rooted, a process blithely de­scribed in a Bri­tish diplomatic ca­ble of the time as the re­moval of “some few Tarzans and Man Fri­days”.

Most were shipped to Mau­ri­tius and the Sey­chelles. The strate­gic na­ture of the re­mote and iso­lated Diego Gar­cia base be­came in­creas­ingly important through the 1970s as the fall of Saigon, the Kh­mer Rouge takeover of Cam­bo­dia and an as­sertive Soviet navy ex­tended com­mu­nist in­flu­ence in the In­dian Ocean. Later, it be­came a stag­ing ground for the US bomb­ing cam­paigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Faced with the joint power and com­mon in­ter­ests of the US and UK, the state­less Chagos­sians hold lit­tle sway, yet they con­tinue to fight, with the as­sis­tance of the Mau­ri­tian govern­ment which claims sovereignty over the is­lands.

In Septem­ber, Mau­ri­tius Prime Min­is­ter Sir Anerood Jug­nauth pleaded the Chagos­sians’ cause at the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly and new Bri­tish-Mau­ri­tian dis­cus­sions are sched­uled, with Mau­ri­tius re­serv­ing the right to re­fer the mat­ter to the In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice. To help push their case, pro-Chagos­sians have re­cently sought to dis­as­so­ci­ate the pres­ence of the US base from the cause of their return. “For us, the strug­gle is for in­de­pen­dence. Mau­ri­tius does not dis­pute the ex­is­tence of a base in Diego Gar­cia these days,” said Berenger. Ban­coult, how­ever, rails against the in­jus­tice whereby em­ploy­ees of the base are al­lowed to live on Diego Gar­cia but Chagos­sians are not. “Why is Diego Gar­cia ac­ces­si­ble to Filipinos, Sin­ga­pore­ans, Sri Lankans, the Bri­tish, the Amer­i­cans and not the Chagos­sians?” he fumed.

De­spite the prom­ise of talks, many Chagos­sians be­lieve Bri­tain is play­ing an un­der­hand game. In 2010 the UK de­clared the is­lands part of a ‘Marine Pro­tected Area’, ar­gu­ing that peo­ple should not be per­mit­ted to live there, but the move back­fired as a UN tri­bunal de­clared the move il­le­gal in 2015. “It’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore Mau­ri­tius re­gains sovereignty over the is­lands,” said Berenger.

To­day, around 10,000 Chagos­sians and their de­scen­dants are di­vided among Mau­ri­tius, the Sey­chelles and Bri­tain. Many still hope to return to live in the ar­chi­pel­ago or at least be able to visit, like Claudie, the adult daugh­ter of Rose­mond, who was just four years old when the fam­ily left Peros Ban­hos. She has no mem­ory of the place but her fa­ther’s vivid sto­ries have kept the is­lands alive for her. “We of­ten ask papa to tell us sto­ries. Some­times even the grand­chil­dren laugh. So many mem­o­ries. It’s beau­ti­ful, and sad at the same time.” At her side, Rose­mond si­lently stares, lost in mem­o­ries of Peros Ban­hos. —AFP

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