Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tears for Diego Garcia

Really bad things happen to people and you never hear about it; their stories becoming footnotes in obscure daily papers, visceral images seared into your brain and never forgotten should you stumble upon their misfortune or demise. Bearing witness can become a burden suddenly, without mercy. That's how I felt about Diego Garcia. It was the end of our innocence. Sometimes I wish we'd never stumbled upon it.

Have you ever heard of Diego Garcia? Probably not. Not to be confused with Diego Rivera, the portly muralist who was questionably married to the tragic figure, painter Frieda Kahlo, Diego Garcia is a British colony lying midway between Africa and Asia in the Indian Ocean, one of 64 unique coral islands that form the Chagos Archipelago. You might have heard of it in passing: “American B52 and Stealth bombers took off from the uninhabited British island of Diego Garcia to bomb Iraq (or Afghanistan).” Uninhabited, they say.

As in when, in the 1970's the Ministry Defense in London fabricated: “There is nothing in our files about a population and an evacuation.” It was technically a British colony but they hadn't paid it much mind for over fifty years when its chief commodity--sugar?-- stopped being profitable. This freed up the indigenous population to have a happy life. All that changed when the admiral decided it was the perfect location for a military base.

First settled in the late 18th century, at one point at least 2,000 people lived there. With thriving villages, a school, a hospital, a church, a prison, a railway, docks, a copra plantation; it was a gentle Creole nation. Missionaries shot a film there in the 1960, and it reveals a grainy picture of the islanders' beloved dogs swimming in the sheltered, palm-fringed lagoon, catching fish. Chagos Islanders called it Paradise.

In 1961, an American rear admiral stepped foot on this little piece of paradise and marked Diego Garcia the site of what is today one of the biggest American bases in the world. Today there are more than 2,000 troops, anchorage for 30 warships, a nuclear dump, a satelite spy station, shopping malls, bars and a golf course. “Camp Justice,” the Americans call it

In the 1960's in high secrecy, Harold Wilson's Labor government conspired with two American administrations to sweep and sanitize the islands--the terms used in American documents. To purge 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. As their cemetaries testified, many islanders traced their ancestry back five generations, but, as one Foreign Office official wrote in 1966, the aim was to “convert all existing residents....into short term, temporary residents.”

Later that same year, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, the permanent undersecretary 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 D.H. Greenhill, later to become 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.”

The documents leave no doubt the cover up was approved by the prime minister and at least three cabinet members, and it appears only one official was even worried about being caught, writing that it was “fairly unsatisfactory” that “we propose to certify that people, more or less fraudulently, as belonging somewhere else.” No concern can be found for their victims.

At first the islanders were tricked or intimidated into leaving. Those who had gone to Mauritius for urgent medical treatment were not allowed to return. As the Americans began to arrive and build the base, Sir Bruce Greatbatch, the governor of Seychelles who had been put in charge of the “sanitizing,” 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 miltary vehicles.

“They put the dogs in a furnace where the people worked,” says Lizette Tallatte, now in her 60's, ... “and when their dogs were taken away in front of them, our children screamed and cried.”The 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 fertilizer. 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.

As they fought to survive the first few months of their exile, child deaths and suicides were common. Lizzette lost two of her children. “The doctor said he cannot treat sadness.” she recalled. Rita Bancoult's husband suffered a stroke and died when told his family could never return home, and she lost two daughters and a son. She did not want to discuss the details of their deaths. They were ravaged by unemployment, drugs and prostitution, maladies of a broken people that were alien to them before they were wrested from their homeland and deported/dumped. “and when their dogs were taken away in front of them, our children screamed and cried.”

From "Diego Garcia: Paradise Cleansed" by John Pilger

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