Montserrat fears Britain's hidden agenda

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The Independent Online
The 4,000 people still on the volcano-stricken island of Montserrat are upset, but defiant. They think Britain may force them to flee their homeland in the next two months. Britain denies it but, as our correspondent reports, the mother country's word is not what it was.

Stepping off the Montserrat ferry onto the tiny Heritage Quay jetty on the popular tourist island of Antigua, the contrast hits you in the face. On the other side of the jetty was the magnificent sailing ship Mandalay, ready to take Americans and Europeans on a luxury cruise.

The ferry MV Deluxe had made a stomach-churning two hour trip. But it was the only way to get off the volcano island of Montserrat, where there are no cruise ships, no hotels, no tourists, only a handful of makeshift shops, just 4,000 refugees and stubborn residents.

Some passengers, all Montserratians, were simply going to shop for Christmas presents - there is virtually nothing to buy on the island - intending to return on the afternoon ferry. Others were headed for a new life in England, taking up a British government offer of a one-way ticket. .

On Montserrat, almost everyone believed the latest rumour: Britain has decided that the volcano is still threatening and plans to announce a forced evacuation of the remaining residents by February. "Leave we must?" asked a banner headline on the local newssheet the Montserrat Reporter.

The fear that Britain had a "hidden agenda" to evacuate the island had been prevalent for months, at least since the Soufriere Hills' volcano's major eruptions in the summer which wiped out the capital, Plymouth. But the belief that an evacuation had been decided and was imminent peaked after a story in the Sunday Times earlier this month, which quoted British volcanologists as saying the island may soon be uninhabitable.

The British government denied any such plan. The Montserratian government said it had heard of no such thing. And the scientists quoted in the Sunday Times later denied talking to the newspaper or said they had been badly misquoted. What is sure is that the volcanologists have drawn up a new report and that the British government is studying this and considering the options.

"The preliminary scientific briefing indicates that the risk to the northern part of Montserrat is currently very low," said a joint statement by British governor Anthony Abbott and Montserratian Chief (Prime) Minister David Brandt.

The 4,000 remaining residents are living in the northern third of the island, most of them refugees from the south now living with relatives, in shelters or in new simple dwellings recently built by British aid. Before the volcano first erupted in 1995, there were 11,000 islanders, mostly in the harbour resort of Plymouth - now abandoned and destroyed.

Mr Abbott recently angered islanders by describing some of them as a "mob" when they marched to his residence to protect the evacuation of the village of Salem, which had become the de facto capital but was deemed too close to the volcano.

Islanders are living in an area of only a few square miles. There are only two grocery stores, a handful of bars, and two banks operating from private houses. Many, if not most residents feel Britain is deliberately trying to squeeze them out.

"People are beginning to see this as a spiritual ethnic cleansing," local businessman Don Romeo said. "I think the scientists are under pressure to come up with bad news to get us out."

The island's chief immigration officer, Sgt Kenneth Winspeare agreed. "This is our home. And there's no place like home," he said.

Mike Emmanuel, an American businessman and resident, said: "The British government's unexplainable delays and inability to make decisions makes it seem like they have a hidden agenda. If we don't have enough anxiety, the British are doing a lot to make it worse."

John Wilson, a local businessman, said: "In time, Montserrat will be claimed by the people," he said. "The people, descendants of Africans, enslaved and now still manipulated, will take what their parents suffered and died for. The land is ours and someday we will liberate it. In time, Montserrat will be free and independent despite the devious plans and schemes to take the land and keep the people subservient."