Diego Garcia - the story so far

With the US-UK lease for Diego Garcia expiring in 2016, many of the exiled islanders might think that a return home will become possible. But not without a change of policy from the UK government.
Alex Morrison
19 July 2010

The dock on Diego Garcia is rotting away.

From this simple jetty, hundreds of men, women and children boarded boats and left their peaceful Indian Ocean home for the slums of a foreign city.

Between 1965 and 1971 the British Government depopulated the island, along with the rest of the Chagos archipelago, following a secret Anglo-American deal to build a US naval base.

Refused basic rights by a government which denied their very existence, almost 2,000 islanders were forcibly exiled, mostly to Mauritius.

But almost half a century on, the victims of this mass kidnapping still have hope.

“Things are changing on Diego Garcia,” says former islander Allen Vincatassin, who champions his people’s rights in the UK. “That dock is now rotting, almost gone. The same wharf we embarked from will be no more in a couple of years. This is a sign of changes in our homeland and across the world.”

Mr Vincatassin hopes time will bring a shift in British Government policy and that “one day children will grow up on Diego Garcia once more.”

Allen Vincatassin in his office in Crawley, West Sussex

Expulsion and life in Mauritius

As England lifted the 1966 World Cup, Selmour Chery was on an ocean voyage from Diego Garcia to Mauritius.

Islanders depended on their much larger neighbour for trade, supplies and, in this case, medical care.

“My wife was pregnant and there was no doctor on Diego so I had to go,” said Mr Chery, who was unaware he would not see his home again for 42 years. “After she gave birth we tried to go home but officials said we could not go back. They had been told no-one was to travel to Diego.”

Britain used a mixture of tricks and intimidation to remove what one official called “a few Tarzans and Man Fridays”, apparently unconcerned about the wretched conditions most would find in Mauritius.

“It was difficult for people who had no formal education to get a good job,” said Mr Chery, now 70. “I had to leave my family for work during the first year and the child my wife gave birth to in Mauritius died. I was lucky to be young and strong so I got a job as a docker and I stayed there until 1997.

“Most of the Diego Garcians didn’t have a chance like I did. Those who were over 50 could not get a good job so they lived in poverty and debt. They couldn’t afford for their children to go to school.

“There was one man I knew called Israel Boye who had never been to Mauritius before they took him off Diego Garcia and he lived for less than a year once he got there. He died aged 60. He was in shock because he had never left his homeland before.”

Despite his job, Mr Chery lived in a slum alongside many other islanders until 1982, when compensation paid by the British Government finally reached them.

This allowed him to buy a home for his wife and six children, though selling the house only just covered the cost of the family’s flights to the UK, after many islanders were granted British citizenship in 2002.

Selmour Chery at the dock from which islanders left Diego Garcia. This picture was taken during a 2008 visit

The road to Crawley

In September 2002, 19 islanders arrived in the brightly-lit south terminal at Gatwick Airport, where they lived for three days before the local council came to their rescue with an offer of housing.

The group became the first to begin new lives in nearby Crawley, where almost 2,000 islanders and their descendants – about half the worldwide population – now live.

The West Sussex town has been home to a resurgence of hope for Diego Garcians.

“I had a dream in my heart that I wanted to go and live in the UK and this dream came to pass,” said Mr Vincatassin, who was a small child when he left Diego Garcia. “The first thing I had to do was forgive this country.”

Though he believes his people were wronged by Britain, Mr Vincatassin says some of the damage was repaired when UK citizenship was granted.

Despite speaking Chagossian Creole, a form of French similar to that spoken in Mauritius, islanders’ lives have improved significantly in England.

“The difference is people are able to get a better education so they can improve themselves,” said Mr Vincatassin. “The amount of money they are getting from jobs allows them to eat and buy clothes, whereas in Mauritius they could not make ends meet. Now they can work and even support their family who may still be in Mauritius.

“The rules of this society are applied to everybody without any favour. We can exert our rights as British citizens and we are free to express ourselves here.”

Building a presence on Diego Garcia

Standing in the remains of the home she left almost 40 years ago, Marie-Ange Modliar remembered her childhood.

“It was an amazing experience just to stand there in silence,” said the 52-year-old, one of seven islanders who visited Diego Garcia earlier this year. “I will never forget this visit until I die. When I arrived in Diego Garcia I was so happy. I visited my house and I can remember life there when I was a child.

“I was one of the last islanders to leave and I still get visions of my house in Diego Garcia. I want to go and live there and when I die I would like to be buried there.”

“Marie Ange was a child when she left so it was an emotional visit for her,” said Mr Vincatassin, who helped organise January’s trip.

“It was very strange because it was as if she had been sleeping when she was a child and had woken up in her 50s. She was running around and saying she remembered certain things around the house. You could see she still sees the place through the eyes of a child.”

Marie Ange Modliar at her former home on Diego Garcia and her current one in Crawley

In October 2008, six islanders were allowed to visit Diego Garcia, the first to set foot on their homeland since 1971.

“When you are on the beach you feel the atmosphere, as if people are present there and children are playing,” Mr Vincatassin added. “Before I went I thought I would be crying a lot because I used to cry about my homeland. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what to do. I just contemplated my homeland and it healed me.”

Mr Vincatassin has been the driving force behind two visits to Diego Garcia and Mrs Modliar was among the second group, which made the trip in January this year.

But their hunger has not been satisfied.

“We will take every opportunity to build a presence on Diego Garcia,” said Mr Vincatassin. “Each time we visit we have a clear objective to help us reconnect with our homeland. On the first visit, our objective was simply to connect to that part of our heritage again, as well as taking photos and bringing back some artefacts.

“On the second visit we managed to open a souvenir stand at the airport, which includes the address of our online shop. That gives us at least a small, permanent presence on Diego Garcia.”

Mr Vincatassin wants to see Diego Garcians represented among the 300 civilian contractors working on the island and hopes some can also join the British customs team and various conservation projects.

Mauritian control

The Chagos Islands were part of the British colony of Mauritius until 1965, when they were separated and renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory – an act Port Louis insists was illegal.

Since Mauritian independence in 1968, the country has fought for control, even threatening to leave the Commonwealth over the issue in 2004.

But despite Britain’s betrayal of the islanders and decades of indifference to their suffering, many remain fiercely pro-British.

“We are British Indian Ocean Territory citizens, which we are proud to be, and we believe we are part of this country,” said Mr Vincatassin, whose small office above a Crawley alcohol treatment centre is adorned with two union flags.

“The British Government has signalled its intention to cede the territory to Mauritius when Diego Garcia ceases to be a military base, whenever that may be. Our community does not want this. We were second-class citizens in Mauritius and if they govern the islands, we will be second-class citizens in our own land. We want to be given our right to self determination.

“Falkland Islanders had their rights protected by this country. The people of Gibraltar were given the right to decide on their future. We want the same right. In a normal situation the people would come first but it seems the state of Mauritius comes before the rights of our people.”

Protecting Chagos

Britain’s latest initiative is to make the Chagos Islands the world’s largest Marine Protected Area, a decision confirmed by David Miliband shortly before the election.

The Government’s consultation document said waters around the Chagos Islands are “among the richest on the planet” in terms of preservation and biodiversity.

This touching interest in sea life strikes an odd note when compared with what the House of Lords called a “callous disregard” for the people of the islands (though the Lords made the statement while overturning two High Court decisions allowing islanders to return).

Being treated as less important than the warty sea slug is, however, a familiar feeling for Diego Garcians.

The US Navy website page on Diego Garcia fails to mention the pre-1965 human population, though military personnel are warned they face “heavy fines” if they disturb local wildlife including crabs, birds, lizards, geckos and donkeys.

Somehow, Diego Garcians remain defiantly optimistic.

In fact, Mr Vincatassin welcomes protection of the islands, though he believes opening discussion on the basis his people have “no right of abode in the territory” is unfair.

“We support the MPA and we believe the issue is separate from resettlement,” he said. “We are interested in the preservation of our homeland and we are backing the British Government on this. Without protection, Diego Garcia and the outer islands would have continued to be vulnerable to the effects of commercial fishing and the island’s natural resources would be threatened. Protection will help us maintain our cultural and ancestral heritage, as well as benefiting millions of people who rely on the western Indian Ocean for their daily needs.”

Diego Garcia as seen on a visit by islanders in January 2010

The end of exile?

The current US-UK lease for Diego Garcia expires in 2016, although the terms include an option for another 20 years if both countries agree. Some islanders would return to their native lands if allowed, while others would continue their lives in Britain.

“It is a big personal decision that each individual would have to think carefully about,” said Mr Vincatassin. “10 years ago when we were living in Mauritius, it wouldn’t have been difficult but we have a better life now in Britain. It’s so important to us because the islands are the only ancestral and cultural heritage we have. Without them I think we are non-existent as a people.

“We want to engage in the democratic process by creating an elected administration in waiting. By creating that administration we can prove we are willing to work with the British and American governments. Civilian populations live alongside military bases around the world and this is no different. I believe we can return and live alongside the base without threatening it.”The decaying dock on Diego Garcia is a symbol of the people’s plight. As the tide has slowly destroyed it, knowledge of what happened there has grown and a swell of international opinion has come to condemn it.

The island’s other dock is the result of that villainy. Incongruously called “Camp Justice”, the US base has been a staging post for bombing Iraq and Afghanistan, a stop-off point for victims of American torture and a home to nuclear weapons, threatening Africa’s non-atomic status. The Indian Ocean may take longer than 50 years to wash all that away.

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