There are times when one single story makes us understand how much of this world is evil. This is an account of how a whole population was forced to go live 1,600 km away while their island was turned into a secret military base. This is the story of how these people’s dogs were killed and threatened with the same fate if they did not abandon their island. At this point, you may be thinking that this article is about some ghastly dictator like Pol Pot or Idi Amin. Think again. This heinous crime was committed by Britain and the U.S. Neither did it happen in the dark days of colonialism, but in 1971. The victims are the people of the island of Diego Garcia. If you haven’t heard of them, it is not surprising. Diego Garcia is on nobody’s agenda.
Diego Garcia is, just like Curaçao, one of the 25 Overseas Countries and Territories (OCT). It belongs to the United Kingdom and is just a little bit smaller in size than Sint Maarten. Diego Garcia, once a paradise–like coral island, lies in the Indian Ocean midway between Africa and Asia. In the 60s, many secret encounters took place between Britain and the U.S., and apparently hidden from Congress and Parliament, a deal was struck to make Diego Garcia a top-secret U.S. military base. All of the 2,000 inhabitants of Diego Garcia, the Chagossians, had to be deported as part of this deal. In response to the unwillingness of the inhabitants to leave voluntarily, the Chagossians were deprived of basic supplies and forced to leave. According to the Australian journalist John Pilger, during the first half of 1971, all of the pet dogs on the island, about one thousand of them, were rounded up and gassed to death using exhaust fumes from U.S. military vehicles. The Chagossians threatened with the same faith, were shortly afterward forced to leave their homeland. They were put on the general cargo ship Nordvaer, given one mattress per family (no matter the number of family members), and allowed to take only one suite case per person. When they arrived in Seychelles, they were put in prison before taking off to their final destination, Mauritius, an island that lies 1,000 miles to the west of Diego Garcia. In files discovered by Mr. Pilgers, the Chagossians were described by a top Government Official in London as “people with little aptitude for anything other than growing coconuts.” Is it me, or does this sound all too familiar to some very dark periods we have known in our human history? Eerily so, it does. When these people arrived in Mauritius, not surprisingly, cases of suicide, abysmal poverty, and prostitution abounded. In 1981 each evicted islander got U.S. $ 4,000 from the British Government.
Today, Diego Garcia is seen in the eyes of the Pentagon as an ‘indispensable platform for policing the world.’ It was pivotal in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and continues to be. On Diego Garcia, there are about 2,000 American Troops and 30 ships, including nuclear-armed aircraft carriers, ready to jump into action against whatever Washington D.C. might categorize as ‘evil in the world.’ The houses of the Chagossians, for a great part now overtaken by the jungle, still can be seen with lots of furniture and personal belongings of those forced into exile.
In the year 2000, the British High Court ruled that the Chagossians were wrongly evicted. But four years later, the government used the royal prerogative in the Queen’s name and nullified the decision. These totally reprehensible actions have not been reversed, and Diego Garcia continues to be a secret U.S. military base, whilst the Chagossians are being denied to get their island back.
In my 10 years as Minister and Member of Parliament, I have raised the issue of Diego Garcia with every U.S. or British ambassador I met, including the current Prime Minister of the Netherlands. As if perfectly rehearsed, all of them told me that they knew nothing about the case, some of them even frowning incredulously as if they had never before heard about the existence of Diego Garcia. But all of them told me that they “would inform me as soon as they heard something.” I guess they have yet to hear something.
I was full of hope this year since the current lease of Diego Garcia to the U.S. was to come to an end. I was hopeful that the meeting announced in early 2016 between Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama would result in letting the Chagossians return to their homeland. No such luck, however. Last month, in November 2016, it was announced in London that the U.S., in a deal with Great Britain, will be allowed to continue to use Diego Garcia as a secret military base until the end of 2036. No protests anywhere. No ‘Je suis Diego Garcia campaign‘ on social media. No mention of these people in the Pope’s Christmas sermon. The Chargossians yearn to see their country again, but they can’t. They want to go back to their homes, beaches, and loved ones who are buried there. Unfortunately for these inhabitants, their home, the island of Diego Garcia, is on no one’s agenda. Wait, I have to correct myself. Diego Garcia was mentioned two years ago in connection with the conspiracy theory that somehow lost Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 may have landed there.
Without any other decision, thousands of Chagossians will remain expelled from their land for at least another generation. Meanwhile, this tiny island will continue to provide the world with a secret military base called Camp Justice in the war against the bad guys in the world – while at the same time sheltering a long history of flagrant human rights committed by Britain and the U.S.