Four times a year Olivier Bancoult, 43, walks the 600 yards or so from his house in Mauritius’ capital Port Louis to St George’s Catholic cemetery.
There he visits the graves of his father, two of his older brothers and his younger sister, Noellue.
Bancoult says a prayer at each of the graves before returning home. “It began with Noellue,” he explains of his long campaign to achieve justice for the islanders forcibly expelled from their homeland by the British authorities between 1965 and 1971.
They were moved to make way for the American military base on Diego Garcia.
The Chagossians’ ancestors had first arrived on the Chagos Islands, 1200 miles north of Mauritius, in the late eighteenth century. They were brought as slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and Senegal by the French to work on the coconut and sugar plantations.
An additional wave of migrants in the form of indentured labourers from south India were brought in by the British once slavery was abolished (the islands changed hands in 1835 after the Napoleonic Wars).
Over time the Chagossians created a distinctive culture. The Bancoult family lived on the island of Peros Banhos, one of the larger islands in the Chagos group. Like their compatriots, they led a simple and carefree life.
“I was only four when I left so I cannot remember much,” says Bancoult. “But according to my parents everyone had their own house and a job. After work people would go fishing; the catch was shared – it was like living in one big family.”
The image is in sharp contrast to the desperate lives most of the islanders now lead in the crowded slums of Port Louis.
There they are firmly lodged at the bottom of the Indian Ocean island’s social pyramid – Bancoult claims that around 70% of Chagossians of working age are unemployed compared to a national rate of 9%. “It may be paradise for the tourists who come here but not for our people,” he says.
These facts go some way to explain his ongoing fight to allow the Chagossians to return to the archipelago.
In 1968 Olivier’s sister, Noellue, was seriously injured in a collision with a donkey and cart and so the whole family of eleven members journeyed to Mauritius for medical help. Unfortunately, it was too late for the little girl and she died.
When her grieving family tried to return home there was no boat to take them back. They were informed by the British authorities the Chagos Islands had been sold.
Puzzled, distraught and with very little money the Bancoult family moved to Cassis, an area of densely packed corrugated iron shacks built on the outskirts of the Mauritian capital, where some other exiled Chagossians had already sought refuge.
A year later, probably due to the stress of exile, Bancoult’s father suffered a massive heart attack and stroke which left him incapacitated until his death in 1976.
Supporting the family fell to Bancoult’s mother, Rita, who held down three different jobs as a domestic.
Life was hard and the Bancoult family were affected by further tragedies. “Two of my brothers died, one succumbed to alcohol in 1990 and the other to heroin in 1995,” recalls Bancoult. “And the same was true of many other Chagossian families.”
In fact, the effect on the Chagossians in those early days were often catastrophic. Left to rot on the margins of Mauritian society, out 1,500 people, fifteen died of starvation; several committed suicide.
Many other islanders turned to theft, drink, drugs and prostitution as a way of coping – a social pattern that unfortunately persists to this day.
Olivier Bancoult fared differently from many Chagossians of his generation. The bright boy of the family he was encouraged by his mother and one of his teachers who provided him with extra free tuition.
He did well at school getting top marks in his exams, went on to train as an electrician and now works for the municipality of Port Louis.
“I was very lucky to get help,” he says modestly. And he is very careful not to blame his fellow Chagossians for not achieving more. “I do not criticise them in any way. They have had to cope with unbelievable pressures and they have done the best they could in very difficult circumstances.” He pauses and adds: “What you have to remember is that the British have tried their best to destroy Chagossian culture.”
In any event, Bancoult has put his talents to good use. “We set up the Chagos Refugee Group in 1983 so that the young people would not forget where they came from. We wanted them to know something about their culture and to help them get a better education as well,” he explains.
Bancoult also forged links with a London-based legal team including Richard Gifford and Sir Sidney Kentridge, 84, an expert on Commonwealth law, who first came to prominence when he was part of Nelson Mandela’s defence team.
Bancoult is full of praise for their efforts: “They are all very special lawyers who believe in a respect for human rights. The Chagossians are very proud of every one of them and it has been a special privilege to have Sir Sydney Kentridge on our side.”
The combination worked to good effect. In November 2000, Bancoult and his lawyers won a spectacular victory in the High Court which quashed all previous government orders excluding the Chagossians from their homeland.
After some hesitation then foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, stated: “The government will not be appealing.” He declared that he was not prepared to defend “what was done or said 30 years ago”.
It was a brave statement and may well have contributed to Cook’s removal from his position as foreign secretary.
Certainly all of his successors – Straw, Beckett and now David Miliband – have been careful not to get on the wrong side of Washington on the Chagossian issue.
The American airbase on Diego Garcia is regarded by the US as key to military missions in the Middle East and elsewhere.
But the political docility in London has come at a high price for the Chagos islanders forcing Bancoult and his legal team to earn a further victory in the High Court in 2006, a judgement which was upheld in the Court of Appeal in 2007. The government has now lodged an appeal and the case will go to the House of Lords for a final ruling. So much for Robin Cook’s stance.
On 23 January Olivier Bancoult appears before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee where he has been invited to give oral evidence about the forced removal of the Chagossians from their islands more than 40 years ago.
Is this a sign of progress at long last?
“Well, I am an optimist,” says Bancoult. “I am looking forward to the opportunity to put our case before the committee members. Of course, we are sad – very sad – about those who have passed away without returning to Chagos.
“The British government should put an end to all this. It has gone on too long – it is time for us to go home.”
Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (Cronem), University of Surrey.