ISLAND OF SHAME
The Right to Return
When the Chagossians finally return to Chagos, there will be jubilation but there will be no storybook ending. Too many have died in exile. Too many lives, like those of Julien, Alex, Eddy, and Renault Bancoult, have been cut short. Too many have suffered the sagren of expulsion for too long.
Still, taking in the whole of the history of the Chagossians as a people, the islanders' struggle represents a challenge not just to U.S. imperial power but to more than five centuries of injustice tied to the global expansion of European empires. In the words of their 1975 petition proclaiming, "Our ancestors were slaves on those islands, but we know that we are the heirs of those islands," the Chagossians' struggle says that the governments of Great Britain and the United States can't get away with just one of the most recent injustices befalling non-European peoples.
"We are reclaiming our rights, our rights like every other human being who lives on the Earth has rights," Olivier told me. "A right to liberty, a right - I was born on that land, my umbilical cord is buried on that land, I have a right to live on that land. It cannot be that a foreigner profits from all my wealth, profits from my sea, profits from my beaches, profits from my coconuts, profits from it all, while I'm left with nothing."
"Chagossians are not asking for charity" Olivier explained. "Chagossians are asking for our due for what has happened since we were deracinated.. . . For all the damages that we've suffered. To recognize, to give reparation. To give reparation for all the suffering that we have experienced during these years." But, he added, "We are not only asking for money. . . . We are also asking for our islands, our fundamental rights, and our dignity."
Although the task before us of restraining the power of the military and U.S. Empire may sound daunting; although guaranteeing fundamental rights for all human beings may sound difficult; although realizing the highest ideals of the United States may sound like blind idealism; although restoring the true meaning of freedom - freedom for all, not just for some - may sound like a dream, the Chagossians can give us hope: five thousand people. Five thousand abused people in the Indian Ocean, led by a group of determined women and one of their sons, every day taking on the distant power of the United States and Great Britain. And winning. Five thousand people.
"I will never give up the struggle!" Rita told me. "I've suffered, suffered, suffered so much. And I'm still suffering." But when they finally do win, she said, she'll write a sega so that everyone can remember the victory.
E P I L O G U E
In 1991, the Washington Post received the following strongly worded letter:
It seems to me to be a good time to review whether we should now take steps to redress the inexcusably inhuman wrongs inflicted by the British at our insistence on the former inhabitants of Diego Garcia and other Chagos group islands. The costs would be trivial compared with what we invested in construction and what we gained.... It is my firm opinion that there was never any good reason for evicting residents from the Northern Chagos, 100 miles or more from Diego Garcia. Probably the natives could even have been safely allowed to remain on the east side of Diego Garcia atoll.... It would be safe to let them go back, to North Chagos certainly. Such permission, for those who still want to return, together with resettlement assistance, would go a long way to reduce our deserved opprobrium. Substantial additional compensation for 18-25 past years of misery for all evictees is certainly in order. Even if that were to cost $100,000 per family, we would be talking of a maximum of $40-50 million, modest compared with our base investment there, with the value derived from it, and with the costs of Philippine bases. If we are too poor to pay it, perhaps the Japanese or Germans or Saudis might suggest they would like to allocate some of their Persian Gulf contributions to it.
The letter's author was Stu Barber.
During the course of my research I tried several times to find Stu but had no success. I suspected that he had died but could find no living relatives. A small reference to his having written a memoir about his Navy career encouraged me to keep looking. A week before I was to finish this book my research assistant, Naomi Jagers, found a 2007 obituary for an Anna Barber that we suspected was his wife. The article mentioned two surviving sons. An internet search produced a phone number and an address just two miles from my old apartment in Brooklyn. Although it was after 8 p.m. on a Friday night, I rushed to call.
With the sounds of dishes being washed in the background, I found Richard Barber. He said he was Stu's son. Trying to contain my excitement as well as nervousness about how he might react, I told him about the book. Richard remembered his late father's talking about the base and being "dismayed" to discover what had happened to the people after reading a copy of the Minority Rights Group's 1985 report, "Diego Garcia: A Contrast to the Falklands."'
Over the next two days Richard emailed several remarkable typewritten letters his father had written on the subject. After trying to interest the Washington Post in picking up the story again, Stu had written an admiral who was a former Navy superior, the British Embassy in Washington, and Human Rights Watch, to implore them to help return the Chagossians to Chagos. The "cessation of the Cold War," he wrote, "would certainly permit the return of those natives so desiring to at least the northern islands of the group, 100 miles from the U.S. base."
In another letter, he made an astonishingly honest admission: The expulsion, he said, "wasn't necessary militarily."
According to his son, Stu received no response to his requests for help. "As far as I know," Richard wrote in an email, "the after-the-fact concerns expressed by the guy who thought up the idea in the first place didn't have much impact. To me this is a poignant reminder of the extent to which many of us are more or less complicit in powerful organizations that act on imperatives ultimately beyond our individual control."
Indeed, beyond Stu Barber and the other officials in this story, aren't most of us complicit in the Chagossians' exile and the suffering they experience to this day? Don't we all share responsibility, beginning with the tax dollars that U.S. and British citizens paid to expel the islanders and build the base? Don't the people and governments of countries like Japan, Germany, and Saudi Arabia share responsibility through financial and other contributions that assist U.S. domination of Diego Garcia and the Persian Gulf? Don't we all share responsibility through our silence? And while the base has mostly brought militarization, war, and death to the region, has it not, through U.S. domination of oil supplies and the global economy, in some ways helped support the lives that so many of us enjoy? While culpable government actors must be held responsible for the crimes they commit, each of us must ask ourselves every time we pay our taxes, pump our gas, or return to the safety and comfort of our homes how we too are part of this story of empire and exile, and what we're going to do about it.
Well David Vine, I have not kept silent over this disgraceful matter. I have made your research and voice KNOWN to all who will read this blog around the world. I pray enough voices will eventually get those people back to their homeland and the better life they once had.
I will sign off on this matter by showing people the attitude of many "in power" - from your book pages 182,183.
"In the minds of many U.S. officials, whether consciously or not, removals were (and are) justified by what they saw as the limited impact of removing a small number of people, especially when weighed against the supposed gains to be realized from the base. Henry Kissinger once said of the inhabitants of ther Marshall Island. 'There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?'"
I never did like that guy from the word go. I always thought he was bombastic, vain, arrogant, pompous, egotistic, blustering, high and mighty. These words of his prove I was correct. Give a little power to some and they think they rule the universe.
You need to buy David Vine's book for your education and your children's education. And if you have a blog mention this book so more and more voices cry out the SHAME of it all - the Island of Shame.