Diego Garcia Islanders Displaced In U.K. Failure Hope To Return Home
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to pick up now on a story we began on Morning Edition today. It's about an incident that's been called one of the most shameful chapters in British postwar history, and it directly involves the United States. In the 1970s, British troops forced thousands of indigenous people to leave their homes on a cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean. Britain cleared the land to make way for a U.S. military base that still operates today on the island of Diego Garcia. Well, now the islanders have new hope of returning. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro with the second part of our story.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Each year, the U.S. government allows 15 elders who were expelled from their homeland to return to the Chagos Islands for one brief visit. Bernard Nourrice was on that trip a few years ago. He saw his relatives' graves, the church where his cousins were baptized, all overshadowed by a huge U.S. military base that employs workers from around the world.
BERNARD NOURRICE: So many foreigners, like Indonesian, Indian, Mauritian, working with the American base, and there were none Chagossians.
SHAPIRO: Nourrice and his family are Chagossian. They were forced to leave the Chagos Islands to make way for the base on Diego Garcia, the largest island. Today, his people are not allowed to live and work in their homeland.
NOURRICE: It's heartbreaking. Also, I feel so ashamed to see there were no Chagossians gaining their living from the land of their birth on which foreigners are living happily.
SHAPIRO: I'd like to read you a statement from a U.S. State Department official and hear your reaction to it. Quote, (reading) "the agreement between the United States and United Kingdom on Diego Garcia remains in force until December 30, 2036 unless it is terminated by either party. The United States has no intention of terminating the agreement and we have no indication that the U.K. will pursue termination." Where does that leave you?
NOURRICE: If the British and the American are talking as they are the champion of human rights, where does the rights of the Chagossian people goes? Where does the justice lies?
SHAPIRO: So, the U.S. military base is not going to shut down. But there are growing signs that the U.S. might be willing to let some Chagossians return to the land that was taken from them. A new report commissioned by the British government offers specific proposals for how the Chagossians could return to the islands.
DAVID SNOXELL: In view of the study, which showed that there were no real obstacles to resettlement, I think the most likely scenario is that there will be a pilot resettlement, or an experimental resettlement, on Diego Garcia.
SHAPIRO: David Snoxell has spent decades on this issue, first as a senior official in the British Foreign Office and now as coordinator of a parliamentary committee working on the Chagos Islands issue.
SNOXELL: The Americans would never have allowed the U.K. to do a feasibility study which included Diego Garcia if they were against it.
SHAPIRO: The British government first promised to reach a decision on resettlement by last month, then backtracked. In a statement, the Foreign Office told us that the study, quote, "showed that there are still fundamental uncertainties around how any resettlement could work and the potential costs." The statement goes on, "further work is underway to address these uncertainties to enable a decision on the way ahead as soon as possible in the next Parliament." That'll be sometime after next month's British elections. Momentum does seem to be building in the Islanders' favor, though. Last month, a U.N. tribunal said the U.K. does not have the right to make unilateral decisions about a marine preserve on the Islands. That gives hope to people like Bernard Nourrice, who left the Islands when he was 5.
Do you expect that you will live on the Chagos Islands again?
NOURRICE: That's my hope. Chagos Island - it's a paradise.
SHAPIRO: Until then, he waits. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.
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