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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

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.)

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