British Court Rules Indian Ocean Islanders Can Return Home
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Even as we follow the stories of immigrants who sought new homes, we're following the story of some people who want their old homes back.
A group of islanders forcibly removed from their homes to make way for a U.S. Air Base now have some hope of being allowed to return. The inhabitants of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean were driven out by the British 30 years ago so the U.S. base could be built on Diego Garcia.
Now, a British court has called their eviction illegal, repugnant, and a breech of accepted moral standards.
NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
(Soundbite of frying food)
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
In this cramped British kitchen, Jeanette Alexis savors the smell of Chagos Island spices in a dinner of fried fish prepared by her husband. She now lives on the outskirts of London close to Heathrow Airport. But Jeanette Alexis was born halfway around the world on the Island of Diego Garcia, the largest in the Chagos chain in the Indian Ocean. After more than 30 years of exile, the victory in a British court means Alexis can think about going home.
Ms. JEANETTE ALEXIS (Resident of Chagos Island): I want to think that, yes; I want to think that.
AMOS: In the 1970's, British authorities carried out an expulsion in the Chagos Island, an entire population, around 2,000 people, forced to leave in what critics call one of the most shameful episodes in British post-war history. Jeanette Alexis was 10 years old when her father, an assistant to the Island's administrator, told the family to pack.
Ms. ALEXIS: Then he came home and told my mother that, you know, we have to leave the Island because it's closing down. And I remember the surprise on my mother's face and, you know, the tension in house, as if there was sort of a death in the family.
AMOS: Court records show domestic animals were gassed, the inhabitants relocated more than a thousand miles away to the Island of Mauritius; most ended up living in slums.
Ms. ALEXIS: We didn't have money then, so we went to live an abandoned cow shed. People were not nice to us; they looked at us as though we were inferior people. They used to be horrible, call us all sort of names.
AMOS: The expulsion was part of a deal with the U.S. to lease the Diego Garcia at the height of the Cold War. It is now one of the largest and most important U.S. bases in the world, home to 2,000 military personnel, long-range bombers and surveillance aircraft. Many of the details of the deal have remained secret for more than 30 years. At American insistence, the British cleared the population to ensure maximum security.
In exchange, Britain got a discount on the Polaris nuclear missile defense system.
Mr. RICHARD GIFFORD (Counsel, Chagos Island Residents): And that was achieved in secrecy and by concealment and by a certain amount of dishonesty, as well.
AMOS: That's Richard Gifford. He is the islanders London lawyer. He won this final appeal with a case built on recently released secret documents that show the British attempt to deliberately mislead the United Nations in 1965.
Mr. GIFFORD: A fiction was created that there was no population, or least no permanent population.
AMOS: In 1966, the head of the British Diplomatic Service wrote there will be no indigenous population except seagulls. Unfortunately, along with the birds go a few Tarzans' whose origins are obscure.
Mr. GIFFORD: You can call that racism, but the overwhelming fact is that they've been treated inhumanely, and for reasons which don't cast any credit on either the U.K. or the U.S.
AMOS: For Jeanette Alexis, it meant leaving behind everything, her home, her church, her childhood.
Ms. ALEXIS: I do feel bitter. I will never forgive the authorities for what they have done to us.
(Soundbite of music)
AMOS: In this recording of a concert in London, the lead musician, Jeanette's husband Louis(ph), sings of a island paradise poisoned by a U.S. military base. Even last week's high court ruling is a bitter victory. The judge's opinion could open the way to resettlement on some of the 65 islands in the Chagos chain, but it is unlikely islanders will ever live on Diego Garcia again.
The U.S. government opposes any resettlement on security grounds. While the U.S. military recruits outsiders to work on Diego Garcia, former residents of the Chagos Islands are barred from applying for those jobs.
Deborah Amos, NPR News.