Many know of the forced displacement of the people of the Bikini Islands, who were removed from their land to make room for US Army and Navy joint testing of nuclear weapons in the 1940s. While the islanders were told that they would only have to leave “temporarily” so that the US could test atomic bombs “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars,” many of the Bikini islanders have yet to return home to this day, siting fears of nuclear contamination, despite US assurances of the land’s safety.
Of course, it is not just a home that is lost when colonial powers forcibly remove a people from their land – it is a history, a community, a cultural heritage. The Bikini islanders are not the only people who have been displaced for American military hegemony. Lesser known but all-too relevant is the story of the Chagos Islands and the Chagossian people. The Chagos Archipelago consists of over 50 small islands in the Indian Ocean. No Chagossians now inhabit the island, which once was home to 1,500-2,000 indigenous peoples, mostly of African, Malagasy, and Indian origin brought to the islands as slaves to work on coconut plantations in the 18th century. Today, the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago is home to “The Footprint of Freedom” – or the Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia – one of the most strategically important US military bases in the world.
The campaign of terror to forcibly remove the Chagossians began in the 1960s, during the British period of decolonization. In 1960, a US Navy admiral visited Diego Garcia to survey the land for a huge military base. At the time, the Chagos islands belonged to the UK and were governed from Mauritius. When Mauritius gained independence from Britain in 1968, it was under the condition that Mauritius would not claim Diego Garcia and the Chagos islands. This agreement – in direct contradiction with UN resolution 1514 and international law which stated that colonies being decolonized had to be done as a whole – not carved up for profit – was hidden from both the British Parliament and US Congress.
Following the (illegal) agreement, the US/UK-backed terrorism campaign went into full swing to have the island “swept and sanitized” of the Chagossian people. It began with an embargo aimed at starving the population out. Cut off from basic supplies like milk, dairy, salt, sugar, and medication, many on the island left. Those remaining didn’t last long. They were told that if they didn’t leave, the island would be bombed. Then, in the Spring of 1971, US military officials gave the order to round up all of the pet dogs on the island and have them killed. About 1,000 pet dogs were taken – some straight from screaming children – and gassed with exhaust fumes from American military vehicles. The Chagossians were told that if they didn’t comply, the same would be done to them. The remaining Chagossians were rounded up and placed onto a ship – The Nordvaer – allowed to take only once suitcase. The horses were given precedence and were put on deck. The women and children were forced to sleep in the hull on bird fertilizer – bird shit. Marie Lisette Talate, a Chagossian, recalled,
“All of us Chagossians, women, children, it was ourselves who were the animals on the Nordvaer.”
From there, they were taken to the Seychelles islands to a prison – where they were kept in cells until finally being transported to Mauritius, where most of the Chagossians now remain. There they were left – without money, adequate housing, jobs, water, food, electricity, or any institutional support in a country unknown to them.
Not surprisingly, the Chagossian islanders began to die, some from malnutrition and disease, some from drugs, but many, as the islanders say, from sadness. In an interview with David Vine, anthropologist at American University, Marie Rita Elysée Bancoult, one of the Chagossian people, recounted her life after the forced relocation. After learning that they would never be returning home, her husband, Julien, suffered a stroke shortly afterwards and five years later, died. In the years that followed, her sons Alex, 38, Eddy, 36, and Rénault, 11, also died.
“My life has been buried,” she said.
“It’s as if I was pulled from my paradise to put me in hell. Everything here you need to buy. I don’t have the means to buy them. My children go without eating. How am I supposed to bear this life?”
Today, the island is used as a central military base for US operations in its ironically named War on Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East and is home to 3-5,000 US troops. While the islands are officially controlled by the United Kingdom (part of the British Indian Ocean Territory or BIOT), it is effectively a US military base that houses an astonishing number of military weapons – including two dozen cargo ships, billions of dollars in bombers, NASA facilities, intelligence and surveillance equipment, and nuclear weapons. There are also allegations of military “black sites” or secret prisons, housing detainees – possibly subjected to torture techniques like water-boarding – and of rendition operations on the island.
For years, the exiled Chagossian people – removed from their land in what the Washington Post called “an act of mass kidnapping” in a 1975 article – have been fighting for reparations and for the right of return. Thus far, both the UK and US government have failed to take responsibility for the forced exile – mass kidnapping – of the Chagossian people, despite numerous lawsuits and petitions. The cries of the people have been ignored or derided. In 1975, Michel Ventacassen, a Chagossian, brought the case to the High Court in London. In 1982, the case was settled and 1,344 Chagossians living in Mauritius received GBP 2,976 each in compensation – roughly $4,500 for a campaign of state-sponsored terrorism that took from the people of Chagos their homes, their communities, their culture, and their lives. Many people did not take the compensation and staged hunger strikes in response. For those that took the funds, they were required to sign a renunciation form of their right to return written in English – a language many of them did not understand.
Now, this case is being used against the Chagossians in their quest for justice. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found the Chagos Island v. the United Kingdom inadmissible, siting that since some Chagossians had received compensation in the 1982 ruling, they had no claim to “victim status”. So even though many of them had never received any compensation, even though Chagossians in the Seychelles did not even participate in the 1975 case, even though the amount of money paid to the Chagossians that took it was laughably small, and even though many of the people who signed the document to take the money were sometimes illiterate, spoke Creole or were unaware of what they were signing away – victim status was not afforded to them. These people – considered expendable still today by the governments of the UK and the US – have been kidnapped from their land, forced into abject poverty, and allowed no audience from the courts. Justice, it seems, is only for the few.
But the Chagos people are still fighting for their right to return. In 2009, Wikileaks released classified US embassy cables detailing UK plans to turn the islands of Chagos into a Marine Protected Area, stating that it would make it near impossible for the Chagossians to win the right of return. The “former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve,” stressing that the UK’s “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossian’s advocates.”
Since then, the Chagos Islands have been granted Marine Protection status, making it the largest no-take marine reserve in the world. No take, of course, holds no jurisdiction over the inhabitants of Diego Garcia – the thousands of soldiers living there. In 2010, military personnel on the base took more than 28 tonnes of fish from the waters. While the Wikileaks document is itself inadmissible in US and UK courts, it has served as a powerful tool to put fear into the government, and confirms the conspiratorial nature of the US/UK fight to keep Chagossians from their rightful return home.
In the meantime, Chagossians push on, fighting for reparations, their right of return, and football. The Chagos Island team plays in the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) with other nations, dependencies, unrecognized states, and stateless peoples who are not welcomed into FIFA. They have launched an Indiegogo campaign to help fund a trip for the Chagossian team to play their first game outside of the UK against CONIFA member, Szekelyföld LE, a Hungarian-speaking minority group in Transylvania. An immediate return to Chagos may be too much to hope for, but at least, with the help of donors, they can play some football.