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.

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.

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!"

Prior to their exile, the Chagossians and their ancestors had lived in the previously uninhabited archipelago since the late 18th century, when Franco-Mauritians created coconut plantations on the islands and imported enslaved and indentured laborers from Africa and India. Over the next two centuries, this diverse workforce developed into a distinct, emancipated society and a people known initially as the Ilois—the Islanders. By 1961, a British colonial governor remarked that Diego Garcia had the "look of a French coastal village miraculously transferred whole to this shore."

While far from luxurious and still a plantation society, Chagos provided a secure life, generally free of want. Everyone who wanted a job had one, and everyone had their own land, housing, free education, and basic health care on islands described by many as idyllic. "Life there paid little money, a very little," Rita told me. "But it was the sweet life."

In the late 1950s, however, US officials identified Diego Garcia as a prime location for entrenching American forces in the Middle East and surrounding regions. Following secret negotiations with Britain, they secured a 1966 agreement whereby, without notifying Congress, they would reportedly erase $14 million in British research and development debt related to the Polaris missile system. In turn, the Brits promised to remove the natives and grant the Americans 50 to 70 years of basing rights.

Beginning in 1967, British officials barred families like the Bancoults from returning to Chagos after they'd traveled to Mauritius for medical treatment or regular vacations, abruptly marooning them far from their lands, families, and possessions. From 1971 through 1973, British agents herded the remaining islanders onto overcrowded cargo ships and deported them to Mauritius and the Seychelles. A plantation manager told me, and later testified, that British agents and US Navy personnel, on orders to rid the island of strays, had gassed and burned dogs in front of their traumatized owners during the final deportations. Upon arrival in exile, the Chagossians got little or no resettlement assistance and promptly found themselves homeless, jobless, and living in poverty.

Eventually, Mimose's family found something of a home in a tiny, single-room tin shack in a Mauritian slum, far removed from the island's tourist beaches and luxury hotels. The family had one bed and no other furniture. Mimose and her older siblings slept on the ground, she recalls. There were insects and rats, and the air smelled of cow dung. When it rained, water covered the floor. Often, she and her brothers went to sleep with nothing to eat. Sometimes they ate stale bread their mother found in the trash.

The hardships seemed to take their toll on people's health. Within months, Mimose's father, Julien, suffered a stroke, his body growing rigid and increasingly paralyzed. Before their first year of exile was over, Rita spent several weeks in a psychiatric hospital and was treated with electroconvulsive therapy, or electroshock.

Eight years after the stroke, Julien died. Mimose says he died of sagren. The Kreol word translates as "profound sorrow," but for Chagossians it has come to connote all the sadness, impoverishment, and misery of living in exile. "If the islands hadn't been sold," Mimose told me, "my father wouldn't be dead already. He would still be living." Her father had always worked in Chagos, she added, but in Mauritius "he didn't have work. He suffered from sagren because before he'd always cooked for us, providing us with food," she said. "When the day came that my father didn't have food to give us, he felt this sagren. I saw my father suffering from sagren. I saw him crying."

In the years after Julien's death, Mimose's brother Alex lost his job as a dockworker and died at 38 addicted to drugs and alcohol. Another brother Eddy died of a heroin overdose at 36. Yet another brother, Rénault, died suddenly at 11, for reasons still mysterious to the family, after falling ill one night with a headache, fever, and flu symptoms.

"I will always have sagren," Mimose told me. "I think about my childhood, and how I was in Chagos, how I lived. How now my child doesn't live the same as I lived, understand? I feel sagren that my child hasn't lived the same. Yes, after—I have deep sagren."

Brutal as it sounds, her story is typical. In 1975, one of the few Western reporters to directly observe the people's conditions noted in England's Sunday Times how many of them had "to go begging to survive, and live in shacks which are little more than chicken coops." That same year, a Mauritian support group counted at least 44 dead "because of unhappiness, poverty, and lack of medical care." At least 11 others were reported to have taken their own lives. Just one-quarter of household heads had full-time work.

Conditions have improved little over time. In 2003, only less than half of the able-bodied first generation, and only 60 percent of the second generation, were working, most as low-wage laborers. Median monthly income among the exiles and their grown children was less than $5 a day—far below the median among their Mauritian and Seychellois neighbors. Nearly 20 percent openly admitted to having a drug or alcohol problem, and the actual rate is probably far higher.

For the United States, meanwhile, Diego Garcia has grown into a multibillion-dollar base, which the military likes to call the "footprint of freedom." About 4,000 miles closer to the Persian Gulf than homeland bases, it has played an increasingly important role in US attempts to control Middle Eastern oil and natural gas supplies. During both Gulf wars, the island has been used as a launch pad for long-range bombers and prepositioned weaponry and supplies destined for Iraq. Air Force personnel flying from Camp Justice, a new facility built after 9/11, dropped more ordnance on Afghanistan than any other units during the 2001 invasion. Over the last two years, the Bush administration has upgraded a submarine base and added extra wartime supplies—with the motive, some journalists have speculated, of preparing for a possible strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

After years of denying reports that the base has been a secret prison for captured terrorist suspects, a British official recently conceded that "contrary to earlier explicit assurances," Diego Garcia was part of the CIA's rendition program. The British human rights group Reprieve has also raised allegations that the US may have kept detainees aboard prison ships anchored in the area. (US officials refused to comment on the claim, but denied that US ships have been used as prisons.)

The Chagossians' 2008 court hearing was a long time in the making. From their earliest days of exile, the islanders have protested, petitioned, and held hunger strikes in their bid to return to their homes and gain proper compensation. In 1978 and 1982, the British government made some modest payments, but conditions improved only marginally. Since 1997, the islanders have sued both the United States and British governments for compensation and right of return.

American courts have dismissed the case against the US government, its officials, and base contractors, waiving them of liability for what one judge called the "improper misplacement of the plaintiffs." The suit ran afoul of the "political question doctrine," the court ruled, which leaves the judiciary powerless to overrule the executive branch on matters of foreign and military policy. In Britain, by contrast, the courts have ruled the islanders' exile illegal on three separate occasions since 2000, calling it "repugnant" and an "abuse of power"—to date, the government has thwarted a Chagossian homecoming by issuing royal decrees, and by twice appealing its case.

At the recent hearing, government barrister Jonathan Crow told the lords that the government has forbidden the islanders' return for "good compelling reasons in the national interest." Government experts, he declared, had concerns about the feasibility of resettlement, and a repatriation would present an "unacceptable risk" for a base that has been "of the highest importance" for the protection of the West, especially since 9/11.

Responding for the Chagossians, Sir Sydney Kentridge, an eminent barrister known for having represented Nelson Mandela, countered that the ban was "unreasonable, irrational, conspicuously unfair, disproportionate, and an abuse of power." He derided the government's "defense interests" argument as "fanciful," "exaggerated," and unsupported by fact, and challenged its feasibility concerns and the "illogical" idea that any supposed "resettlement difficulties would justify removing the Chagossians' right of abode."

"The right not to be exiled is a basic right," Sir Sydney argued, citing law dating to the Magna Carta. The government, he continued, has "no power to move people thousands of miles like convicts from the 19th century."

Among those listening in the audience was a gray-suited US Embassy employee. As the embassy clearly realizes, a Chagossian victory could complicate the future of a base it considers pivotal to US military strategy in the Middle East. US officials would have to negotiate with locals as well as the British for use of the islands when their lease comes up for renewal in 2016. The Americans also know that if repatriated islanders gain the right to self-determination, they could one day evict the base. Finally, as many observers have noted, a Chagossian court victory would create an important precedent for other displaced groups claiming a right of return.

For now, at least, the islanders seek only a return to Chagos' outer islands, such as Mimose's Peros Banhos, more than 150 miles from Diego Garcia; the people hope to reconstruct their lives and societies around luxury tourism, fishing, and coconut industries. But many Chagossians also aspire to live and work on Diego Garcia proper, whose entire eastern arm remains unused by the Americans, and where they have been summarily barred from civilian jobs ever since the military began employing Filipinos, Mauritians, and others in the 1980s.

Just days after the close of the court proceedings, the Chagossians received encouraging news: The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee had rebuked the government's position, concluding, "There is a strong moral case for the UK permitting and supporting a return." If they win, the people's resettlement expert expects that a properly financed homecoming could begin within nine to twelve months. "The struggle will continue," said Mimose's younger brother and chair of the Chagos Refugees Group, Olivier Bancoult, "with the aim...that [like] all human beings, we have the right to live on our birthplace."

The lords' ruling is expected in October.

Photo of Diego Garcia from flickr user -just-jen- used under a Creative Commons license.