Few Americans likely noticed when a new website, Let Them Return.com
, run by the Chagossian Refugee Committee, launched two weeks ago. With scant coverage from the blogs or press, the site received about as much attention in the U.S. as the story of the Chagossians themselves, a group of indigenous people who were expelled from the island of Diego Garcia in the 1960s and 1970s by the U.S. and British governments.
"The story is almost entirely overlooked by the U.S. media," says David Vine, an assistant professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. who is writing a book on the plight of the Chagossian people. "People may know there is a U.S. military base there, but they don't know the history of Diego Garcia."
Once home to about 2,000 Chagossians, Diego Garcia, a V-shaped, 13-mile-long island situated between Africa and Indonesia in the Indian Ocean, is now solely used as a U.S. military installation. The base has been instrumental in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and according to a New York Times story
, it was also used as a fueling stopover for at least one prisoner bound for Guantanomo Bay in Cuba.
Since their removal, the Chagossians, most of whom are scattered in Mauritius and Seychelles, have sued for the right to return home to their island. Twice they have won in Britain's lower courts, and last May they won once again in the Court of Appeals. Yet the British government has continued to file appeals, and in June, the case will be heard by the High Court, Britain's version of the Supreme Court. (A similar case was brought against the U.S. government, but ultimately dismissed
"What they have done to us is illegal," says Oliver Bancoult, the London-based spokesman for the group who has led the legal battle. "Since 1997, we have been fighting with the British government to get back our rights." With some of the funds raised through the website, Bancoult plans to bring 2,500 Chagossians from Mauritius to London in June, hoping that their physical presence will impact the court decision.
According to Vine, a series of covert deals between the United States and Britain starting in the 1960s helped secure the island as a U.S. base. Beginning in 1968, any Chagossians who left the island and traveled to Mauritius for medical treatment or vacation were forcibly barred from returning home. Three years later, the U.S. had stepped up its conversion of the island into a military base. As Vine wrote for the Washington Post:
"In 1971 the U.S. Navy began construction on Diego Garcia and ordered the British to complete the removals. First British agents and U.S. soldiers on Diego Garcia herded the Chagossians' pet dogs into sealed sheds and gassed and burned them in front of their traumatized owners awaiting deportation. Then, between 1971 and 1973, British agents forced the islanders to board overcrowded cargo ships and left them on the docks in Mauritius and the Seychelles."
The conditions in Mauritius were a stark contrast to life on Diego Garcia. A 2004 UK film, Stealing a Nation
, shows the tenement-like structures the Chagosssians were now forced to live in. According to Vine, the islanders had come from a life that wasn't rich in material terms, but comfortable and secure. "On the island, they had jobs, food, health care, retirement benefits, their own land," he says. "And then they were dumped in a place where there was no security, no jobs, and no health care."
As a result, the effects of expulsion have lasted generations, says Vine. "They are still deeply impoverished," he notes. "There has been some improvements, but they are still the poorest of the poor."
The U.S. military base takes up only about one third of the island, so it's entirely feasible that the Chagossians could return. Ironically, the U.S. allows other area islanders to come and work at the base, but the former inhabitants remain barred from entering.
The military also bars civilians from entering the island, Vine says, which makes it hard to pitch the Diego Garcia story to the media. "Editors will tell me, 'Well, we can't send a reporter there,'" says Vine, whose book Island of Shame
will published next year by Princeton University Press. Additionally, he believes that the U.S. media has little interest in covering the story because of its location. "This is a story about a small group of people in the Indian Ocean," he says. "It's very far away."
Diego Garcia may be far away, but Propeller member Berkeley
certainly noticed the story on the AntiWar.com site
(where Vine's story appeared), one of many web sites that he reads every few days. "It's a story that gives an excellent brief summary of the military take-over, " he writes in email. "And it [covers] the crime of removing the inhabitants, and the CIA prison."
As for Bancoult, he is currently in the midst of a two-week tour in America, hoping to raise awareness about the Chagossian people and their story. "I know I have to do a lot of work to let people know," says Bancoult. "But before [their expulsion], people were living in peace on Diego Garcia."