The Chagossians fate

On Wednesday the law lords will deliver their verdict on the Chagossians right to return home. Sean

It was 25 years ago and I was stood outside 25 Jean Baptiste Lamusse in Cassis, a slum area in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital.

I wanted to find out what had happened to the Chagossians, the descendants of African slaves and indentured Indian labourers, forced out of their home in the Chagos islands (part of the British Indian Ocean Territory) by the British authorities.

Between 1965 and 1973, they were dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles so the US could set up a military base on Diego Garcia.

In 1982, the British government made a payment of £4 million in an attempt to buy off the islanders and assuage international condemnation. A financial package of a little over £2000 was paid to 1344 people in "full and final settlement of all claims… with no admission of responsibility."

But what impact was the compensation having on the lives of the islanders and did it in any way make up for the loss of their homeland?

I spoke to a woman named Rita David. Barefoot and dressed in a tattered blue floral dress, she looked much older than her 35 years. As we talked she leant against the peeling, pink-painted front of her wood and corrugated iron shack looking tired and depressed.

"Life in Diego was easy," said Rita in a story that has been repeated to me countless times over the years by other Chagossian exiles. "In Diego, whether I was jobless or not, it made no difference because there was a lot to eat - we had fish, vegetables, coconut. Everything was there for you. Here in Mauritius from the beginning of the morning until last thing at night you have to dip your hand in your pocket."

She told me that she found it very difficult to bring up a family of five children. "There are no jobs in Mauritius and if you don't have a job, you don't have a living."

She added that things were considerably worse since her husband had recently deserted her and the children.

How was she coping financially? "Ah, that's where the problem is," she replied. "Before, I was getting a little social security because of my family but now that I have had part of my compensation they have cut it." She looked even more depressed. "I just have to try my best. What else can I do?"

The following day I visited another Chagossian camp at Roche Bois, another slum area of Port Louis. Conditions were even worse here. There were 20 one-room shacks in a quadrangle. The toilet was communal - a hole in the ground a little distance away from the settlement. It was just as well. The stench was overpowering.

Some of the older men squatted outside their shacks, drinking cheap rum and smoking cigarettes on credit from the local Chinese-owned store, while their wives and daughters did the washing and prepared the food.

I asked one of the men if he grew vegetables. He looked at me in disbelief, laughed and pointed to the ground. It was rock hard.

I visited Francois and Therese, a young couple living in a rented shack. They told me that most of the initial money they had received from the British government had been spent paying off debts to the loan sharks who had moved in once talk of compensation surfaced. They looked perplexed. They told me that they did not know what their future would be as their money was running out fast.

But the compensation package craftily put together by the foreign office has come back to haunt Britain. When the islanders signed the documents which gave them some much-needed money (although many state that they have never received any) they had no idea that they were also signing away their rights to return to their homeland.

It was the catalyst that brought their political struggle to life.

Olivier Bancoult, a Chagossian who observed the impact of the British government’s action on his fellow exiles, set up the Chagos Refugee Group in 1983. He later forged links with a London-based legal team including Richard Gifford and Sir Sidney Kentridge, who first came to prominence when he was part of Nelson Mandela’s defence team.

Since 2000 it has proved to be a formidable partnership achieving a series of victories in the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

While other Indian Ocean communities have benefited from economic growth, the Chagossian community has been left behind - their lives blighted by high unemployment, poor housing and education, and significant levels of alcohol and drug misuse. Predictably these things have taken their toll - only around 750 of the original 2000 islanders are still alive.

On Wednesday the law lords have to make a decision. Is it justifiable for British citizens to be removed from a British overseas territory without consultation and against their wishes, to be thrown into abject poverty in the name of the defence interests of Britain and the United States?

I know what my judgement would be. But then I'm not a law lord.

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