April 15, 2007 / 11:39 PM / in 11 years

Banned from the "Footprint of Freedom"

POINTE AUX SABLES, Mauritius (Reuters) - In the nearly 40 years since she was turned her out of her home on the Chagos Islands, 81-year-old Rita Isou has concluded: “The British can do anything they want with the law.”

Now a grandmother, she is one of a shrinking group of Indian Ocean islanders still fighting in the courts to relive the memories of plentiful fish and mangoes in the home she was forced out of to defend British and American military interests.

In the 1960s and 1970s Britain destroyed houses, slaughtered animals, and turfed out some 2,000 inhabitants from the Chagos islands to Mauritius and the Seychelles, to make way for a U.S. military base, on the island of Diego Garcia.

Isou had been visiting Mauritius with her mother in 1968 and when they tried to go home, were told their islands had been sold: “It was like getting a knife in the heart,” she said.

Described in 1975 by The Washington Post as an “act of mass kidnapping”, the stealthy explusion of the islanders by Britain -- then the colonial power -- has since been subject to legal wrangling so protracted that people like Isou may be dead before it is resolved.

“My heart is burning,” Isou said, as she waited for the latest judgment, this time from the British High Court, which held a hearing in February.

The base, which has been used to support the West’s Afghan campaign, became fully operational in 1986 and was intensely involved in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, according to an official U.S. navy Web site.

From tight-knit communities on the archipelago’s six atolls and hundreds of individual islands, many islanders were exiled to a life of crime and poverty in Mauritian suburbs, among barking dogs and the occasional burnt-out car.

“We were dumped in the slums of Port Louis, facing many problems like drugs, alcohol, joblessness, prostitution, bad education,” said Olivier Bancoult, Isou’s son and chairman of the Chagos Refugees Group.

The Chagossians won court cases against their former colonial power in 2000 and 2006, but British appeals and exceptional legal procedures have so far blocked their return.

Isou said she had lost at least two of her 11 other children to drugs: “We knew we would be miserable in Mauritius.”

“FOOTPRINT OF FREEDOM”

The British and American governments are fighting to protect the base, arguing Diego Garcia should remain totally out of sight and reach of any potentially prying civilian eyes.

"Diego Garcia became the only U.S. Navy base that launched offensive air operations during Operation Desert Storm and Diego Garcia remains a vital link in our defense structure," says the U.S. navy Web site, www.dg.navy.mil/web.

“From the air, Diego Garcia takes on the rough outline of a footprint on the ocean surface - thus its nickname ‘Footprint of Freedom’,” the Web site adds.

Chagossians visit Peros Banhos April 4, 2006. After longstanding demands by exiled islanders, Britain last year agreed to permit 100 former inhabitants to make a brief visit to Chagos as a "humanitarian" gesture. In a move described by some as a shameful moment in the history of British foreign policy, 2000 Chagossians were forcefully expelled by Britain in the 1960s and 1970s to pave the way for the U.S. base on Diego Garcia, one of the islands. REUTERS/Terry Boughton/Royal Marines

Describing the living coral atoll 35 miles long by 15 wide, with an enormous lagoon in the center left by an ancient volcano, the site says “all life forms, including live shell fish, are protected by British law”.

Some observers doubt whether the protection of Diego Garcia really requires the continued absence of Chagos islanders from other islands in the archipelago.

But defense analyst Paul Beaver told Reuters that hostile or terrorist groups might use the other islands as a base to attack the Americans, and from other islands it would be possible to see U.S. aircraft as they take off and land.

“It’s all to do with operational security,” he said. “It is a valid argument from that perspective.”

NEW GENERATION

Slideshow (2 Images)

Bancoult said the Chagossians are set to return immediately. They have a resettlement plan, technical support from ecologists and sociologists, and offers of support from non-governmental organizations: “If we win, we will start to move.”

But not everybody is so determined. The younger generation seems to have little attachment to the now almost fabled Indian Ocean archipelago.

Armando Lamb, 24, for example, buying crisps at a kiosk in Pointe Aux Sables on Mauritius, said he would like to see the Islands: but in 2000, Britain said Chagossians would be eligible for British passports, so he is preparing for a life in Britain.

“My brother and sister are there,” he said. His grandmother traveled to the Chagos islands last year on an officially sanctioned visit.

“She tells us about it, and there are videos,” he says. “But I don’t really have any impressions, no.”

A Chagossian woman selling coke and crisps by the beach is more explicitly doubtful: “What will we do there? There’s nothing,” she says. “The islands are finished.”

Michael Medor, 24, Chagossian and former Olympic boxer, once lived in the same Mauritian suburb as Rita Isou where jobs were badly paid and unemployment was rife.

He said one day, he might return to the Chagos islands -- but his children need healthcare, running water, and education.

For now he is living in Crawley in southern England and working hard as a cleaner at Gatwick Airport to support his mother, his Mauritian wife, and their children: “It’s a very nice country,” he said.

Bashir Khan -- who represents the Chagos Refugees Group in Britain and has been helping Medor negotiate the complications of immigration -- believes Britain’s legal delays are a deliberate part of the strategy.

“More and more elderly first generation Chagossians are dying,” he said. “In the next five to 10 years, how many will be left to go back?”

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