Diego Garcia's sordid tale

by Latha Jishnu

Diego Garcia used to be in the news in the 1970s when India and a handful of like-minded countries would periodically protest against the US military build-up in the India Ocean island. There was nothing much that could be done when Britain allowed its colonial possession to be used as a staging post by the Americans. No one, simply no one, spoke about the fate of the islanders, known as Chagossians, who were summarily deported from their island haven to slums in Mauritius without any compensation or warning.

One morning they were told that they could no longer stay on their idyllic Diego Garcia because it had been sold; other Chagossians, who were elsewhere, were simply told they could not return. The Chagossians numbered a little over 2,000 and they did not have the means then to make their cause public. The few who were allowed to enter the UK did menial jobs around Crawley airport, while their fellow islanders in Mauritius suffered from abject poverty and from sagren—deep melancholy caused by homesickness and displacement that took quite a few lives.

The horrors of the forcible expulsion of the indigenous people in the late 1960s have now been exposed in this painstaking book by anthropologist David Vine, who teaches at American University in Washington. Vine’s scholarship is infused with a world view that was partly shaped by his experiences of life with the Chagossians. The academic, funded by lawyers who are now fighting a class action suit in the US, spent seven months living with the exiles in their shanty homes in Mauritius and Seychelles, learnt their dialects and pieced together their stories of exile and tragedy. In the US, he spoke to dozens of serving and retired officials from the departments of Defence and State and the US Navy to complete this sordid tale of neo-imperialism.

It is the story of the old colonial power, Britain, handing over one of its remote territories to the new in complete disregard of humanitarian considerations in order to hang on to the coattails of its richer and powerful ally. In return for a write-off of $14 million it owed Washington for the Polaris missile, London handed over Diego Garcia to the US in the state it wanted: empty of all human habitation. To this end, the UK stopped supplies of food and medicine to the islanders, making their expulsion a fait accompli. And to hush the demands of Mauritius, which was claiming the Chagos archipelago—a group of 64 small coral islands in the remotest depths of the Indian Ocean—as their own, Britain offered it a $3-million sweetener and a difficult choice: give up the islands or independence. Mauritius accepted, and thus was the birthright of the Chagossians sold without their knowledge. And, consequently, an idyllic island turned into a deadly military base.

For the US, it is the single most important military facility from which it controls half of Africa, southern side of Asia and Eurasia. It is critical to controlling not just the Persian Gulf but the world, as American military expert John Pike states. It bristles with formidable hardware ranging from an armada of two dozen massive cargo ships to stealth bombers and nuclear bombers, which were used to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.

It also houses a top-secret CIA prison where terror suspects are interrogated and tortured, according to former US army generals and a report of the Council of Europe. Diego Garcia is admittedly more secretive than Guantanamo Bay and is strictly off-limits to journalists and all international observers, including the ICRC. In such a context, how do the lives of a few thousand indigenous people matter?

Island of Shame is not just a gut-wrenching account of how a tropical paradise of powder-white beaches and palm fronds was turned into a massive launch pad for America’s military expansionist programme. A large chunk of the book is devoted to how the Chagossians came to build their complex but happy society in the islands and the resulting tragedy of their displacement. Above all, Vine is a top flight researcher. He manages to trace the story to Stuart Barber, a US Navy planner behind America’s plan to set up bases in remote islands as part of, what he calls, its Strategic Island Concept.

The book also busts the myth that the US, unlike the imperialists of yore, does not use brute force for conquest of land or to dispossess people. Here’s one small incident from the occupation of Diego Garcia. “Just before the last deportations, British Agents and US troops on Diego Garcia herded the Chagossians’ pet dogs into sealed sheds and gassed and burned them in front of their traumatised owners…”

We owe Vine a great debt for shining his light on this island of horrors.

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