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Homesick for Camp Justice

Exiled to make way for a US military base, the islanders of Diego Garcia have convinced the British courts of their right to return. But the UK is fighting tooth and nail to keep them from coming back.

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

For once, it seemed, the former inhabitants of the British atoll of Diego Garcia might get a break. It was the last day of June, and the Chagossians, a Kreol-speaking people named for the island chain encompassing their homeland, were packed into Britain's highest court to challenge Her Majesty's government over their expulsion. On three previous occasions lower courts in Britain had found in favor of the islanders, who between 1968 and 1973 were cleared from Diego Garcia by the UK and US governments to make way for construction of what has become one of America's most important overseas military bases. The British government was down to its final appeal. After nearly 40 years of an exile that has garnered almost no attention from the US media, one hearing, and a handful of white-haired British law lords (the equivalent of US Supreme Court justices), would finally determine whether some 5,000 people would be allowed to go home.

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I was in the courtroom because I've been researching the Chagossians' exile and the history of the base on Diego Garcia since 2001, when lawyers representing the islanders in the United States asked me to document the effects of the expulsion on the people's lives. (While I have never been employed by the lawyers, they have covered some of my research expenses.) When I arrived at the House of Lords, about 40 Chagossians were waiting outside the crammed courtroom. More waited outside the Palace of Westminster with signs reading "Everyone has the right to live in his own country" and "We will return to Diego Garcia."

Unlike the US Supreme Court's hour-long oral arguments, brevity is not the English style. For the next four days the Chagossians sat patiently in the surprisingly modest courtroom and listened, in a language few understand, to 17 hours of arguments—spanning at least eight centuries of English jurisprudence—by the robe- and wig-wearing barristers. (Some of the islanders, naturally, fell asleep, as did I, and at least two of the lords.)

Among those eager to return is Mimose Bancoult Furcy, part of a Chagossian delegation that traveled more than 6,000 miles to London from Mauritius, the island far from their homeland where most remain exiled. Affectionately known as Aunt Mimose, she is a shy, short, and plump 53-year-old mother of six who was born in the Peros Banhos atoll, which, along with Diego Garcia, is part of the coconut-palm-covered Chagos Archipelago near the remote center of the Indian Ocean.

In 1968, when Mimose was 13, her family traveled to Mauritius seeking an operation for her three-year-old sister Noellie. When Noellie died from an infection, her mother, Rita, went to book the family's return voyage. When her mother returned, Mimose remembered, she was crying uncontrollably. For an hour she couldn't speak, her heart "swollen" with emotion. Finally Rita blurted out, "We won't be able to return home because it's been sold! The English have taken it and sold it to the Americans!"

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