Islanders Pushed Out For U.S. Base Hope For End To 40-Year Exile : Parallels Britain forced thousands off Diego Garcia, a remote Indian Ocean island, in the '70s to make way for a U.S. military base. For 40 years residents have fought to return. Now they have a growing chance.

Islanders Pushed Out For U.S. Base Hope For End To 40-Year Exile

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One of the most important American military bases in the world sits on a British territory - an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia. The United States only moved in after the British government forced thousands of local people to leave against their will. For more than 40 years, islanders have been fighting to return, and now it seems they might have a real chance. NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: On the Chagos Islands, families trained their dogs to catch fish for the village. Luis Clifford Volfrin lived on the largest island, Diego Garcia, until he was 10. He only speaks the local language, Chagossian Patois.

LUIS CLIFFORD VOLFRIN: (Speaking Chagossian Patois).

SHAPIRO: "Our dog would never catch small fish," he says - "only the big ones. He would catch two and bring one for us." In the 1970s, British officials told U.S. troops to round up the dogs. The Chagossian dogs were gassed to death. The Chagossian people were then shipped more than a thousand miles away to Mauritius, where they lived in abject poverty. This was all to make way for an American military base. Jeremy Corbyn is a member of British Parliament who's worked on the issue for decades.

JEREMY CORBYN: It was a secret deal done between two governments which resulted in islanders being hoodwinked out of their homes and from their islands. And they've sought, ever since, their right of return.

SABRINA JEAN: When I been on the island, we said, we are on our motherland.

SHAPIRO: Sabrina Jean chairs the U.K. Chagos Refugees Group in London.

JEAN: Especially when you wake up in the morning, when the elderly told to you about the singing of the bird, about the sea - the blue sea - everything. It was - for me, it a paradise island.

SHAPIRO: Today, it's difficult to find anyone who will defend the decision to expel the islanders. Many people who represented the British government over the last 40 years now side with the Chaggosians. Take David Snoxell. He was Britain's top man in Mauritius in the early 2000s. Now he leads a group working to help the islanders return.

DAVID SNOXELL: When I was High Commissioner of Mauritius, I sympathized greatly with the Chaggosians. I met them on many occasions. They did not know it, however, that I sympathized with them. And they did not know that my telegrams to London took their side.

SHAPIRO: Snoxell says he nearly got fired as a result. He believes the reason the issue has not been resolved today is simple bureaucratic inertia. No one in government can be bothered, he says. People are not defending the expulsion, even in private. In 2004, things were different. Back then, Bill Rammell, who was then foreign secretary, defended the decision.


BILL RAMMELL: I haven't lived in the islands for almost 40 years. There is nothing there. And we would be entering in to a financial commitment that would be extremely expensive.

SHAPIRO: Besides the question of cost, there were security concerns about resettlement. The U.S. warned that it could be dangerous to have local people living near the military base. But Jeremy Corbyn, the member of Parliament, says that rationale doesn't make sense.

CORBYN: Indeed, every other U.S. base anywhere in the world - there's an awful lot of them - does have communities living quite nearby. What's the problem here?

SHAPIRO: After 40 years, it now seems that the walls to resettlement are beginning to fall. A U.N. tribunal just issued a ruling that may help the Chaggosians return. And an independent study commissioned by the British government suggests specific ways that resettlement could happen. We'll hear more about those opportunities, including reaction from the British and American government, tonight on All Things Considered. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

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