There are times when one single story makes us understand evil. This is about how a whole population was forced to live 1,600 km away while their island was turned into a secret military base. It’s about how all their dogs were killed and the population threatened with the same fate if they didn’t leave. At this point you may think this is an article about some brutal dictator like Pol Pot. Think again. The perpetrators were the UK and the US. Neither did it happen in the dark days of colonialism, but in 1971. The victims: the people of Diego Garcia.
Diego Garcia, a small Overseas Territory belonging to the UK, once a paradise–like coral island, lies in the Indian Ocean midway between Africa and Asia. Secret encounters between the US and the UK in the 60s led to a deal making Diego Garcia a top-secret US military base. All of the 2,000 inhabitants, the Chagossians, had to be deported as part of this deal.
In response to the unwillingness of the inhabitants to leave voluntarily, they were first deprived of basic supplies. Then in 1971 all of the pet dogs on the island, about one thousand of them, were gassed to death. The Chagossians threatened with the same faith, had to board the ship Nordvaer with only one suitcase per person. When they arrived in the Seychelles they were imprisoned before leaving again to their final destination, Mauritius, 1,600 km west of Diego Garcia. In files later discovered, the Chagossians were described by top UK Officials as, “people with little aptitude for anything other than growing coconuts”.
When they arrived in Mauritius not surprisingly cases of suicide, abysmal poverty and prostitution abounded. In 1981 each evicted islander got USD 4,000 from the British Government. Their homes on Diego Garcia, for a great part are now overtaken by the jungle.
Today, Diego Garcia is seen by the US as an ‘indispensable platform for policing the world’. It was pivotal in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Diego Garcia there are about 2,000 US Troops, 30 ships, including nuclear-armed aircraft carriers ready to jump into action.
The British High Court in 2000 ruled that the Chagossians were wrongly evicted. But four years later this decision was nullified by the Queen. In November 2016, a UK-US deal was struck to keep the secret military base, named Camp Justice, until 2036. In 2019, the UN affirmed an earlier 13-1 verdict at the International Court of Justice that found Britain’s rule in Diego Garcia unlawful. The subsequent UN resolution ordered Britain to withdraw within six months. Still, the UK and the US look set to ignore the eviction orders.
No protests on any streets in the world. No Je suis Diego Garcia t-shirts. No mention of these people in the Pope’s sermon. All the Chagossians want is to go back home. The world looks on as injustice prevails.