Image courtesy of the author

The Stolen Islands of Chagos

The story of how the US and UK conspired to steal an archipelago, and the oceanographer who is trying to win it back for her people.

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Oct 11 2015, 6:10pm

Image courtesy of the author

"Chagos was paradise," Anne-Marie Gendron recalls, closing her eyes as though trying to conjure up the shady palms, white sand, iridescent blue lagoons, and abundant reefs that offered the Chagossian people a good, simple place to live. "Then they said we had to leave—to make room for the U.S. military. But I was baptized in the church, generations of families were buried in the graveyards. We had no other home."

It's been half a century since the U.K. and U.S. governments removed some 2,000 Chagossians from their homeland in the middle of the Indian Ocean, but the group, called the Chagossian Committee in the Seychelles, still meets regularly. At one such gathering, not far from the pier where the Chagossians had originally been dumped, I met several committee members over coffee. Gendron, the committee's former chair, says at first the meetings were social—an opportunity for the displaced Chagossians to comfort and assist each other—and then they became political. "I think [the U.S. and U.K.] were waiting for us to die off, but now our children have joined the fight," Gendron says. "We're not giving up."

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Details on the images have been lost, but they show Chagossian life on the archipelago; courtesy of the Gendorn family

The Chagos archipelago, now known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) is a huge region that encompasses 210,426 square miles, six atolls, and over 1,000 islands. Settled in the 16th century when the Dutch and French brought slaves to the islands to tend coconut plantations, the area had no indigenous population. In 1814 the islands were relinquished to the British under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Slavery was abolished, but the islanders stayed, building several small towns and working in the plantations or fishing. "The islands had stores, a hospital, and a little crèche (school)," Gendron recalls.

Gendron's world was idyllic. The atolls were bountiful enough that there was plenty to eat, as well as lumber for boat building and coral-stone for construction. There were pet dogs and live stock. Other than basic supplies like milk, flour, sugar, and medication, which were delivered by ship from Mauritius, life was pleasantly sustainable. Then things changed. At the peak of the Cold War, the U.S. government began to search for a strategic location for a military base in the Indian Ocean. In 1961 the island of Diego Garcia was surveyed as a possibility. For the U.S. military, its location was perfect: remote, but well situated for access to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

While the site was ideal—there was one problem: the Chagossians. So the U.S. and U.K. entered into a series of secret negotiations aimed at getting rid of the population with the least amount of international fallout. Claiming the inhabitants of Chagos were transient "contract laborers," the U.S. and U.K. were able to remove the Chagossians without U.N. oversight. But documents from the time show a different reality. In one memo the U.K. foreign office asserted: "We must surely be very tough about this...There will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee (the Status of Women Committee does not cover the rights of birds)...The United States Government will require the removal of the entire population of the atoll by July."

Using tactics a U.K. High Court once described as "outrageous, unlawful, and a breach of accepted moral standards," the people were evicted from the islands in the late 1960s through early 1970s. When public questioning began, a memo from the U.K.'s Foreign Office noted that it was important "to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population." Instead they were simply "a few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure." When the deal was done the U.S. had negotiated a 50-year lease on Diego Garcia set at $1 per year, the U.K. had received a £14 million discount on the Polaris missile system and the Chagossians were homeless.

It was important 'to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population.'

Gendron, who lived on Ile Boddam in Salomon Atoll, along with her mother, father, and older sister, says she was among the last of the residents to leave in 1973. "Some of the people didn't believe it was happening. They didn't even pack." The people were forced onto boats and taken hundreds of miles to either the Seychelles or Mauritius where they were deserted on the docks. "Some families got separated," Gendron recalls. And they stayed separated because they were too poor to afford the fare for the 1,000 mile passage between the Seychelles and Mauritius.

From left: Anne-Marie Gendron with her parents at her baptism; Anne-Marie Gendorn with her mother and her older sister Georgette; courtesy of the Gendorn family

Homeless and bewildered, it took some Chagossians weeks just to find temporary housing. Christianne Camile, who recalls the cosy little coral house she and her family left behind in Diego Garcia, said her family squatted in a cow shed on the pier in Victoria, Seychelles for days while her father searched for a place to live. Even after they settled, Camile, like many of the exiles, later learned she didn't have a birth certificate, or even a nationality.

The vulnerable Chagossian population fared poorly in exile. Offered limited compensation to resettle, they found themselves in foreign countries with few resources. Because they spoke a unique French-based dialect and the adult population was largely illiterate, they had trouble finding employment. Accustomed to fishing for dinner and growing their own produce, most displaced Chagossians ended up in crowded slums and many (some say several hundred) died from the effects of poverty and a condition they called "sadness."

In recent years some politicians in the U.S. and U.K. have agreed that the Chagossians should never have been removed. But when it came to returning them to Chagos, there was simply no political will. A decade ago Bill Rammell, former foreign secretary in the U.K., told an interviewer that return wasn't possible. "They haven't lived in the islands for almost 40 years. There is nothing there," he said. "And we would be entering into a financial commitment that would be extremely expensive." Meanwhile, the U.S. claimed it would be both dangerous and a security risk to have local people living near a military base, despite having thousands of foreign-born civilian workers already at Diego Garcia.

As Gilberte Gendron grew up she heard stories from her mother Anne-Marie about the lush islands surrounded with turquoise water, replete with towering breadfruit trees and little towns. Every so often a court case ruled in the Chagossians' favor, and people would get their hopes up believing they'd be allowed to return to the small islands where the gardens flourished and the coconut crabs were big enough to feed a family. In 2000 there was a judgement giving a qualified right of return—excluding Diego Garcia. In 2006, there was a High Court Judgement that affirmed their full right of return. But each time it seemed they'd be going home, the U.K. enacted new maneuvers to keep them out of the archipelago.

Salomon Atoll; courtesy of the author

As recently as 2010, the efforts to stop their return continued. While the U.K. was lauded for turning the BIOT into the largest Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the world, a U.S. cable released by Wikileaks revealed the U.S. and U.K. had carefully negotiated the details of the marine park to keep the Chagossians out. Officials said, "Establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents".

Unsure how one small group of displaced people was supposed to take on two of the most powerful countries in the world, Gendron's mother and the other Chagossian parents saw education as their best hope, "I thought if my children were educated, what happened to me could never happen to them." Thanks to her mother's sacrifices, Gilberte Gendron started pursuing her masters in oceanography in Quebec. Other Chagossian descendants studied topics including international relations, tourism, and law. The plan was that, when the court cases finally settled, they'd be prepared to run their islands.

Gendron wasn't sure if she would ever even see the homeland of her mother and grandparents, but oceanography gave her the best chance to combine her love of the sea with a future in Chagos. When the opportunity came up to take over the chair of the Chagossian Committee in the Seychelles two years ago, Gendron says she took it, but had no idea what she was getting into. Two years ago it seemed that the most the Chagossians could hope for was an occasional escorted trip to Chagos—a few hours on shore to put flowers on abandoned graves and snap a few photos. Maybe, if all went well, there would be an apology and some compensation.

Oceanography gave her the best chance to combine her love of the sea with a future in Chagos.

But then a U.N. tribunal raised questions over the U.K.'s claim to sovereignty in the region and the resettlement study commissioned in January 2015 was released. Gendron's role as chair was suddenly much more complex. It was up to her and the rest of the Chagossian committee to explain the resettlement study to the Chagossian community as a whole and solicit their opinions by the end of October 2015. According to committee member Pierre Prosper, this is new territory for them, "All the decisions about us have been made for us," he says. "We've never been asked what we want."

The graveyard at Ile Boddam; courtesy of the author

Even with the feasibility study, questions about how—or if­—the Chagossians should be permitted back remain contentious. The lease for the base at Diego Garcia is set to be renewed in the coming months, and that agreement had always stipulated the islands be uninhabited. Meanwhile, Mauritius is arguing that the U.K. illegally detached the Chagos archipelago from their territory in 1965, and they're more concerned with fishing rights than a displaced population.

At the same time some environmental groups point out that the MPA has been hugely successful and that adding back a human population could offset the delicate environmental balance. Then there's the fact that global warming is causing the sea level to rise—and Chagos, like the neighbouring Maldives, is so low-lying there's uncertainty about whether the islands will even be habitable in the decades to come.

There are also problems with the study itself. There are restrictions on the Chagossian return that concern the community. Indications are there will be no support systems in place for children and elders during the trial period—making them ineligible for return. And even if the Chagossians do make a full return it's not clear if they'll have property rights or any form of sovereignty.

However, political will seems to be tipping in favor of the Chagossian people. In a recent interview for NPR, David Snoxell, a former senior official in the British Foreign Office and coordinator of a parliamentary committee for the Chagos Islands, said there weren't any real obstacles left for resettlement. "The Americans would never have allowed the U.K. to do a feasibility study which included Diego Garcia if they were against it," he said.

There were three main town sites in the Chagos archipelago 50 years ago: Diego Garcia, Peros Banos, and Ile Boddam. Today the old settlements are in various states of disrepair. Some of Diego Garcia's settlement remains intact, but in Peros Banos—where the last resident is a lonely town donkey—all that's left are ruins of the big plantation house and the graveyard, where time has rubbed away most of the engravings. In Ile Boddam, the church roof is gone, the jail is crumbling, and the hospital has been reabsorbed by the jungle. Visiting ocean-crossing cruising sailboats still use Boddam's wells for laundry, and occasionally the feral chickens are spotted—but nothing is left of the towering breadfruit trees and thriving gardens.

The church on Ile Boddam is in ruins but is still a beloved building for the Chagossians; courtesy of the author

Still the BIOT feasibility study indicates that if enough Chagossians are interested in returning, and costs can be managed, repatriation is possible starting as soon as 2016. But there's a hitch: Any repopulation of the islands would require the cooperation of the U.S. government. But in a 40-year-long game of pass-the-buck, the U.S. State Department and U.S. courts have always claimed that they have no jurisdiction, or role, when it comes to the Chagossian problem.

The relocation plan proposes a pilot program—followed by gradual resettlement over several years—and may eventually allow as many as 1,500 Chagossians to return to live on the archipelago. Initially, the pilot program would be restricted to employable people in good health over the age of 18. Suggested jobs include civilian support workers for Diego Garcia—positions that currently pay an average of $350 per month and don't allow for spouses, children, or even visitors.

More appealing is the resettlement of Ile Boddam and Peros Banos, islands which are 100 miles north of Diego Garcia and hundreds of miles from the nearest civilian grocery store and hospital. There, "management of a limited tourist industry in the outer islands could be implemented on a trial basis," the BIOT paper suggests. "This would be likely, at least initially, to involve supporting and guiding an increased level of yacht visits rather than permanent new infrastructure such as hotels." It's here that Gendron hopes to build her life, working to protect the now pristine ocean environment.

For deported Chagossians, Chagos is known as the motherland—the place that completes them. And for 50 years they've waited for completion. "Everyone but us gets to decide if we go back," Prosper says. "But we want to be clear: We want to go home."