In his Nobel Prize lecture (2005), Harold Pinter spoke about “Art, Truth and Politics”, using the opportunity to castigate the anti-democratic nature of our great democracies. “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.” But misdeeds inevitably come back to haunt us.
The Chagos Archipelago is a group of seven atolls comprising more than 60 individual tropical islands in the Indian Ocean and situated some 500 kilometres due south of the Maldives. Officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Chagos were home to islanders for more than a century and a half until the United Kingdom evicted them in the early 1970s in order to allow the United States to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands.
In November 1965, the UK purchased the entire Chagos Archipelago from the then self-governing colony of Mauritius for £3 million pounds to create the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), intending to close the plantations to create an uninhabited territory from which the U.S. could conduct its military activities in the region. On 30 December 1966, the U.S. and the UK executed an Agreement through an Exchange of Notes which permit the United States Armed Forces to use any island of the BIOT for “defence” purposes for 50 years (through December 2016), followed by a 20 year optional extension (to 2036) to which both parties must agree by December 2014.
Between 1967 and 1973, the entire population was involuntarily removed from the islands. The plantation workers and their families were initially relocated to plantations on Peros Banhos and Salomon atolls in the northwest of the archipelago; others who requested it were transported to the Seychelles or Mauritius. The then independent Mauritian government refused to accept them without payment, and in 1973, the UK gave the Mauritian government an additional ₤650,000 to resettle the islanders. However despite this payment islanders often found themselves facing woefully inadequate housing and living conditions.
John Pilger, in his article “The war on democracy” published in the NewStatesman (19 January 2012), recounts the story of Lisette Talate, whose family was forcibly transported from Diego Garcia to Mauritius. Having described how the US military slaughtered hundreds of dogs on the island, many of them pets, Pilger notes:
“Lisette, her family and hundreds of the other islanders were forced on to a rusting steamer bound for Mauritius, a journey of a thousand miles. They were made to sleep in the hold on a cargo of fertiliser – bird shit. The weather was rough; everyone was ill; two of the women on board miscarried. Dumped on the docks at Port Louis, Lisette’s youngest children, Jollice and Regis, died within a week of each other. ‘They died of sadness,’ she said. ‘They had heard all the talk and seen the horror of what had happened to the dogs. They knew they were leaving their home for ever. The doctor in Mauritius said he could not treat sadness.’”
There are more than two sides to every story and in politics the jury is still out on the habitual plaints of inaction. Regardless, innocent people always suffer and their stories are easy to forget. Pilger goes on:
“Today, Diego Garcia is crucial to America’s and Britain’s war on democracy. The heaviest bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan was launched from its vast airstrips, beyond which the islanders’ abandoned cemetery and church stand like archaeological ruins. The terraced garden where Lisette [stood] is now a fortress housing the ‘bunker-busting’ bombs carried by bat-shaped B-2 aircraft to targets on two continents; an attack on Iran will start here. As if to complete the emblem of rampant, criminal power, the CIA added a Guantanamo-style prison for its ‘rendition’ victims and called it Camp Justice.”
Accepting his Nobel Peace Prize (1964), Martin Luther King Jr made his own position clear: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Let’s hope he was right.