Paradise lost

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
This is Diego Garcia, one of the Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It sounds remote, but the story of what happened here 30 years ago, when a tropical paradise was turned into a military base (inset), is one of the most shameful chapters in Britain's colonial history. And only now can that story be told in full

LE CAUDAN, a flashy new waterfront development on the island of Mauritius, is a magnet for jaded tourists who have had their fill of the Indian Ocean's sparkling seas and sun-kissed beaches. It has cappuccino bars, restaurants and expensive craft shops, as well as a 24-hour casino with a nautical theme.

But just half a mile away, tucked out of sight off the main highway, is a place that could be three worlds away. In Cassis, a dismal slum on the fringes of the island's capital Port Louis, families sleep five to a room in sweltering tin shacks and cook their scraps of food on wood fires. Ragged children kick a football around patches of waste ground, dodging the rubbish tips and rusting cars.

It is a desolate scene, one that would shock the British holidaymakers who flock to Mauritius every year in their tens of thousands. Yet the people of Cassis are, strange to say, British subjects. Stranger still, they do not belong in Mauritius. They were dumped there nearly 30 years ago by the British government - which uprooted them from their homes 1,200 miles away to make way for an American military base.

Until recently, little was known about this shameful chapter in Britain's colonial history, or about its victims: the Chagos Islanders, natives of a remote archipelago of tropical islands and atolls scattered in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Now, thanks to a landmark legal challenge that will cause acute discomfort to Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, the story of the Chagossians - or the Ilois, as they call themselves - is about to be told for the first time in all its scandalous detail.

The case has been brought by Olivier Bancoult, an Ilois community leader who was given leave by the High Court in London in March to contest a law that prohibits him from even setting foot in his birthplace. The judicial review is expected to be heard early next year and the Ilois, whose yearning to return home has not dimmed with the decades, are pinning their hopes on a favourable outcome.

The murky origins of this case lie buried deep in the 1960s, when Cold War paranoia was at its height and Britain was in the process of divesting itself of the last remnants of its empire.

The United States was convinced that the Indian Ocean was awash with communists

and wanted to build a strategic base in the region. It expressed an interest in Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands, then part of Mauritius, which was a British colony.

Harold Wilson's Labour government was anxious to oblige. In 1965, it blackmailed Mauritius into handing over the Chagos in exchange for independence, renaming them the British Indian Ocean Territory (Biot). The following year, without even a perfunctory debate in parliament, it signed a treaty leasing the islands to the United States.

There was just one snag. Diego Garcia, like Salomon, Peros Banhos and several of the other 65 Chagos Islands, was home to a thriving community of Ilois, mixed-blood descendants of African slaves from Madagascar. The Ilois, who were also British subjects, being citizens of a Crown colony, lived simple but contented lives, fishing the rich waters, plucking fruit off the trees and working on the coconut plantations.

The Pentagon made clear that it did not want a "population problem", not even on the outlying islands, the nearest of which was 127 miles from Diego Garcia. So over the next seven years, Britain systematically emptied the archipelago of every one of its 2,000 residents. The Ilois themselves were never consulted. They were shipped off to Mauritius (and to the Seychelles) in overcrowded vessels and abandoned at the quayside, bewildered and frightened.

Among them was Raphael Louis, now a mournful-looking man of 69. He recalls being summoned to a meeting on Diego Garcia at which the colonial administrator told the residents that they had to pack up and leave because the island now belonged to the Americans.

On Diego, as elsewhere, it was made plain to the gentle Ilois that they had no choice. And, in effect, they had none. The ship that used to bring food supplies to the Chagos no longer called. There were no jobs; Biot had bought the coconut plantations and closed them down. There was no health service either; the doctors and nurses had gone. As a US senator exclaimed in 1975, on being told during a Congressional hearing that no coercion was used in the removal of the Ilois: "No coercion was used when you cut off their jobs? What other kind of coercion do you need?"

Mr Louis, a maintenance foreman, held out until 1972. "I didn't want to leave; I am a deportee," he says, speaking in his native Creole. "I still regard Diego as my home. If I went back, even after this very long absence, I would be able to close my eyes and recognise every place where I roamed as a child. It makes me unbearably sad, not being able to return."

Britain also used more subtle tactics to clear the islands. Chagossians used to pay regular visits to Mauritius, for holidays and shopping expeditions. After 1966, when they went to the shipping office in Port Louis to book their passage home, they were told that there were now no boats back. They were, quite literally, marooned.

Rita Baptiste was pregnant in 1967, so she decided against accompanying her husband Isnard on the three-day voyage from Salomon to Mauritius. She did not see him again until 1973 and could only guess at his fate. "The ship came back without any passengers," says Mrs Baptiste, now 51. "I was very worried. I was left alone with my three children."

Sitting in a torn armchair in his corrugated iron shack in Cassis, in a room illuminated by one naked lightbulb, Mr Baptiste speaks quietly of his grief at being unable to tend his ancestors' graves in Salomon. He says he wants to return to "our lost paradise". "We were happy there," he says. "We lived in harmony."

Like the rest of the community, the Baptistes barely manage to scratch a living. Banished from their country, and sentenced to an exile of poverty and squalor, the Ilois feel marginalised, unable to integrate into a society that spurns them as the lowest of the low. Few of them have jobs. They suffer high rates of depression, alcoholism and suicide.

The early years were the hardest. The Ilois, unaccustomed to urban ways or to a cash economy, were left to fend for themselves. Some died of starvation or disease. It was not until 1978 that they received any resettlement money from Britain, and then it was a paltry pounds 650 each.

In 1982, Britain gave Mauritius another pounds 4m to distribute to the community, but only after a group of Ilois women went on hunger strike outside the British High Commission in Port Louis. Some people used their share - pounds 2,700 each - to buy land, but many were in debt. The money came with strings too. In order to qualify, the Ilois had to sign a declaration renouncing their right to return to the Chagos "in perpetuity".

The extent to which that compensation was too little and too late may be seen in the township of Grande Riviere, a little way down the coast from Port Louis. In the hovel that Vivienne Souciant calls home, 27 people live in five rooms. They sleep on ancient mattresses, surrounded by bowls and buckets to catch the rain that comes in through the leaking roof. The family's water supply was cut off long ago, their electricity too; they could not afford to pay the bills. They pick edible grasses from the banks of the nearby river and boil them up to eat with rice. Their latrine is in the backyard, a hole in the ground surrounded by buzzing flies.

The train of events that brought the Ilois people to Cassis and Grande Riviere took place not in the last century but in the Seventies, and was engineered by senior civil servants in Whitehall. How did they get away with it? By insisting that the Ilois were migrant workers with only a casual connection to the Chagos and no rights of residence.

Perhaps some officials genuinely believed this to be the case at first. But documents seen by The Independent reflect their dawning realisation that the islands had a permanent, settled population - and their determination to cover up that awkward fact. A telegram from the Foreign Office to the British mission at the United Nations in November 1965 states: "We recognise that we are in a difficult position as regards references to people at present on the detached islands. They can all be classified as Mauritians or Seychellois, but we know that a few were born on Diego Garcia and perhaps some of the other islands and so were their parents before them. In these circumstances, we think it would be best to avoid all references to `permanent inhabitants'."

It was absurd to suggest that the Ilois were anything else. Their families had lived in the Chagos for five generations. They had developed a distinctive identity and culture, and spoke their own version of Creole. On the islands, which France ceded to Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, there were cemeteries with 19th-century headstones bearing Ilois names. In a film shot in the 1950s, the Colonial Office observed that the islands were "populated mostly by men and women who have been born and brought up on these fragments of land".

Over the decades, the fate of the Ilois has been highlighted by politicians and human rights campaigners. Robin Cook, when he was in Opposition, spoke up passionately on their behalf. That was then, though, and this is now, and Mr Cook - against whom Olivier Bancoult's case has been brought - plans to defend the status quo robustly because, as a Foreign Office spokesman puts it, "there are no good grounds for challenging the validity of the legislation or the reasonableness of the policy applied underneath it".

As far as Britain is concerned, the Ilois are Mauritius's problem. "It's not that we are not sympathetic," says Chris Tunnicliffe, press officer at the British High Commission in Port Louis. "But clearly we look to the Mauritian government to help them in their day to day problems."

Unfortunately for the Ilois, as far as Mauritius is concerned, they are Britain's problem. Kailash Puyrrag, the Mauritian deputy prime minister, says: "The British government has washed its hands of the Ilois. It doesn't seem to care that they are living in poverty. Mr Cook has changed his position since he became Secretary of State."

Olivier Bancoult was just four when he came to Mauritius in 1968 with his family to seek medical treatment for his little sister, Noellie. He is 35 now, with three children of his own and a burning desire to return to his birthplace, Peros Banhos.

If Mr Bancoult wins his case, the Ilois would still find it difficult to return to the Chagos. Diego Garcia is a huge military base from which missile strikes were launched on Iraq during the Gulf War. The other islands lie neglected and overgrown.

But in this curious and tragic tale, logistics are a side issue. What the Ilois want more than anything else is for the wrong done to them over the years to be recognised.

Three decades ago a Labour government carried out what one observer described as "a mass kidnapping of its own citizens". Is the current Labour government prepared to acknowledge that terrible injustice, or will it condemn another generation of Ilois to a lifetime of exile?