are times when one tragedy, one crime tells us how a whole system
works behind its democratic facade and helps us to understand how
much of the world is run for the benefit of the powerful and how
governments lie. To understand the catastrophe of Iraq, and all
the other Iraqs along imperial history’s trail of blood and tears,
one need look no further than Diego Garcia.
story of Diego Garcia is shocking, almost incredible. A British
colony lying midway between Africa and Asia in the Indian Ocean,
the island is one of 64 unique coral islands that form the Chagos
Archipelago, a phenomenon of natural beauty, and once of peace.
Newsreaders refer to it in passing: "American B-52 and Stealth
bombers last night took off from the uninhabited British island
of Diego Garcia to bomb Iraq (or Afghanistan)." It is the word
"uninhabited" that turns the key on the horror of what
was done there. In the 1970s, the Ministry of Defence in London
produced this epic lie: "There is nothing in our files about
a population and an evacuation."
Garcia was first settled in the late 18th century. At least 2,000
people lived there: a gentle creole nation with thriving villages,
a school, a hospital, a church, a prison, a railway, docks, a copra
plantation. Watching a film shot by missionaries in the 1960s, I
can understand why every Chagos islander I have met calls it paradise;
there is a grainy sequence where the islanders’ beloved dogs are
swimming in the sheltered, palm-fringed lagoon, catching fish.
this began to end when an American rear-admiral stepped ashore in
1961 and Diego Garcia was marked as the site of what is today one
of the biggest American bases in the world. There are now more than
2,000 troops, anchorage for 30 warships, a nuclear dump, a satellite
spy station, shopping malls, bars and a golf course. "Camp
Justice" the Americans call it.
the 1960s, in high secrecy, the Labour government of Harold Wilson
conspired with two American administrations to "sweep"
and "sanitise" the islands: the words used in American
documents. Files found in the National Archives in Washington and
the Public Record Office in London provide an astonishing narrative
of official lying all too familiar to those who have chronicled
the lies over Iraq.
get rid of the population, the Foreign Office invented the fiction
that the islanders were merely transient contract workers who could
be "returned" to Mauritius, 1,000 miles away. In fact,
many islanders traced their ancestry back five generations, as their
cemeteries bore witness. The aim, wrote a Foreign Office official
in January 1966, "is to convert all the existing residents
… into short-term, temporary residents."
the files also reveal is an imperious attitude of brutality. In
August 1966, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, permanent under-secretary at the
Foreign Office, wrote: "We must surely be very tough about
this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks that will
remain ours. There will be no indigenous population except seagulls."
At the end of this is a handwritten note by DH Greenhill, later
Baron Greenhill: "Along with the Birds go some Tarzans or Men
Fridays …" Under the heading, "Maintaining the fiction",
another official urges his colleagues to reclassify the islanders
as "a floating population" and to "make up the rules
as we go along".
is not a word of concern for their victims. Only one official appeared
to worry about being caught, writing that it was "fairly unsatisfactory"
that "we propose to certify the people, more or less fraudulently,
as belonging somewhere else". The documents leave no doubt
that the cover-up was approved by the prime minister and at least
three cabinet ministers.
first, the islanders were tricked and intimidated into leaving;
those who had gone to Mauritius for urgent medical treatment were
prevented from returning. As the Americans began to arrive and build
the base, Sir Bruce Greatbatch, the governor of the Seychelles,
who had been put in charge of the "sanitising", ordered
all the pet dogs on Diego Garcia to be killed. Almost 1,000 pets
were rounded up and gassed, using the exhaust fumes from American
military vehicles. "They put the dogs in a furnace where the
people worked," says Lizette Tallatte, now in her 60s,"
… and when their dogs were taken away in front of them, our children
screamed and cried."
islanders took this as a warning; and the remaining population were
loaded on to ships, allowed to take only one suitcase. They left
behind their homes and furniture, and their lives. On one journey
in rough seas, the copra company’s horses occupied the deck, while
women and children were forced to sleep on a cargo of bird fertiliser.
Arriving in the Seychelles, they were marched up the hill to a prison
where they were held until they were transported to Mauritius. There,
they were dumped on the docks.
the first months of their exile, as they fought to survive, suicides
and child deaths were common. Lizette lost two children. "The
doctor said he cannot treat sadness," she recalls. Rita Bancoult,
now 79, lost two daughters and a son; she told me that when her
husband was told the family could never return home, he suffered
a stroke and died. Unemployment, drugs and prostitution, all of
which had been alien to their society, ravaged them. Only after
more than a decade did they receive any compensation from the British
government: less than £3,000 each, which did not cover their
behaviour of the Blair government is, in many respects, the worst.
In 2000, the islanders won a historic victory in the high court,
which ruled their expulsion illegal. Within hours of the judgment,
the Foreign Office announced that it would not be possible for them
to return to Diego Garcia because of a "treaty" with Washington — in truth, a deal concealed from parliament and the US Congress.
As for the other islands in the group, a "feasibility study"
would determine whether these could be resettled. This has been
described by Professor David Stoddart, a world authority on the
Chagos, as "worthless" and "an elaborate charade".
The "study" consulted not a single islander; it found
that the islands were "sinking", which was news to the
Americans who are building more and more base facilities; the US
navy describes the living conditions as so outstanding that they
2003, in a now notorious follow-up high court case, the islanders
were denied compensation, with government counsel allowed by the
judge to attack and humiliate them in the witness box, and with
Justice Ousley referring to "we" as if the court and the
Foreign Office were on the same side. Last June, the government
invoked the archaic royal prerogative in order to crush the 2000
judgment. A decree was issued that the islanders were banned forever
from returning home. These were the same totalitarian powers used
to expel them in secret 40 years ago; Blair used them to authorise
his illegal attack on Iraq.
by a remarkable man, Olivier Bancoult, an electrician, and supported
by a tenacious and valiant London lawyer, Richard Gifford, the islanders
are going to the European court of human rights, and perhaps beyond.
Article 7 of the statute of the international criminal court describes
the "deportation or forcible transfer of population … by
expulsion or other coercive acts" as a crime against humanity.
As Bush’s bombers take off from their paradise, the Chagos islanders,
says Bancoult, "will not let this great crime stand. The world
is changing; we will win."
Pilger was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs, is
published by Jonathan Cape next month. This article was first published
in the Guardian.
John Pilger 2004