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THE ISLAND OF DIEGO GARCIA, B 52'S AND YOU AND ME


By Lindsey Collen*

16thOctober

Dear people of Britain and the USA,
I write from Mauritius. You may not remember quite where that is. Although, then again "The Overcrowded Baracoon" by V.S. Naipaul, especially since he has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, may just stir a memory, if ever you came across his bitingly accurate travelogue where Mauritius is depicted as a lousy hell-hole of a place. His story was banned by the Mauritian government at the time.

Or the word "Mauritius" may evoke the equally accurate tourist brochures showing luscious green islands, where it never rains of course, a place so perfect for visitors to holiday in, that there are no people actually living there. No factory workers on piece rates, no sugar cane workers in that hot sun, no computer workers linked to satellite, not even hotel workers as human beings. Maybe just as stage props for dreams.

But there are people living here. In all the contradictions. And some of us have a link with you. Through our shared history.

That's how it is that I come to write to you, who vote in and are citizens of Britain or the US? I, who vote here and am a citizen of Mauritius.

It's all because of an island.

It's a particular island that you, over there, and us, over here, share responsibility for. Only maybe you don't know that you share this responsibility. And while we know we do, we can't do enough about it so long as we are on our own.

This island is being used for waging war.

In Mauritius, it is hard to find anyone who agrees to the island, part of our country after all, being used for B-52's to set off from to go bombard the cities of Afghanistan. Our hearts ache to see the children in the rubble the next morning. Maybe there is someone here who agrees, but I haven't met the person yet.

The Mauritius Foreign Affairs Minister did publicly "give assent". So he agrees. But he only says it in his formal speeches as representative of the state. At a political party rally, he would certainly not try it. The people are too angry with "America".

I'll share the story with you, the story about the island. It is a "small story". But it is one that will perhaps help understand the deepness of the rage felt in so many places against the powers that be in your countries. A rage often wrongly projected on to "Americans" as a whole. A rage that sometimes makes it hard for people world-wide to pardon the ignorance amongst ordinary folk in the US and Britain about the role of their elected governments in "the rest of the world". (The rest of the world is such a big place.)

And this rage here, and I would think elsewhere in the rest of the world, too, has somehow got mixed up with the horror that spread on the day of the attack on the World Trade Centre, an attack by missiles made up of passengers and aimed at the level of the hearts of the Twin Towers. Causing collapse. And the terrible emptiness left at Ground Zero. Giant in rubble. Enough to cause everyone on the planet insomnia. And yet somehow the recurring image, no matter how much I try to wipe it from my mind, is that of Goliath being felled by the hand-made sling of the new millennium, a carpet-cutter.

And then? As if bombarding Kabul from B-52's could rout out young men with carpet cutters.

But, I am speaking today, in particular, of an island. The island of Diego Garcia. And the role of the Diego Garcia military base on it. A US base it is, in the Indian Ocean. In the Republic of Mauritius, more specifically. And curiously, just one week before the 11th September came and changed everything, the Bush administration announced that Diego Garcia was being expanded to take in all the hardware and troops from US bases in Europe that, they added, would from then on be gradually phased out.

The story I will tell is so evocative that you may not have believed it, were it not for all the articles in November last year on the High Court in London's stinging judgment against the British state in a case brought by people from here. The time had come around for a court action for the right of inhabitants to return to the island, when all the relevant facts, after a 30-year period of being held under secrecy laws, were "declassified" in Britain, in 1998.

The story is another story of a terrible emptiness.

In 1965, in the preparation for the Independence of Mauritius, the Harold Wilson Labour Government in Britain decided to act illegally and to cut out a part of Mauritius and hold on to it, as a condition for Independence, which was to be "granted" in 1968. This kind of blackmail is against the UN Charter. A colonizing power cannot impose conditions on a part of itself, that is to say, on one of its colonies, in exchange for Independence.

Britain then tagged on some of the Seychelles Islands (Seychelles was still a colony too), and made up a new fiction of a "colony" on 8th November 1965 and called it the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Seychelles government has since fought and got its islands back. But Britain has continued to hold on to the "goods" stolen from Mauritius.

The British State, at the time, conducted this maneuver under pressure from its big-brother ally, the United States. The US state badly wanted what they called a "de-populated" island for a military base. Their words are sometimes too accurate to bear. They needed it, they said, for the Cold War.

So the British government proceeded, with full US government knowledge, with the "depopulation" of the Archipelagoes concerned.

All the people were spirited off all the Chagos Islands: Diego Garcia, Peros Banos, and Salomon.

These were forcible removals.

The families who had been living there for generations were shoved into ships' holds against their will and transported to Port Louis and dumped on the quayside. Homeless and lost, mothers and fathers and grannies and children and grandfathers wandered into the slums of the Mauritian capital. By the thousand. The poor of Port Louis took them in. But many people from Diego Garcia died. Others ended up in prison. Children ate green mangoes and salt. That is rock-bottom poverty in Mauritius. Emptiness in their hearts.

"This act of mass kidnapping" is how an editorial in the Washington Post described the forcible removals. The editorial was published in 1975 on a strangely eerie date, 11th September.

And there were heroic struggles here, mainly by the women from the Chagos, fighting to put Diego Garcia on the agenda. Petitions and meetings. Night vigils. Marches. Hunger strikes and street demonstrations. Hand-to-hand fights with the riot police. Arrests and trials. I was myself one of the eight women arrested and put to trial for illegal demonstration in 1981.

So, Diego Garcia had become a US base. The British government leases it to the US government. Maybe for a lot of money. At the time, in exchange for bargain prices on Polaris missiles. But whatever the price, the US Government is the receiver of the stolen goods.

We want to close this base down.

We want the terrible emptiness of the tarmac runways out! And the concrete docks out! We want the emptiness of all the military hardware out, too. We want to regenerate the coral around these islands. And the palms. Living life. We want Diego Garcia to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site immediately on the closure of the base.

But, more than anything, we want to heal the terrible emptiness in the hearts of a people forcibly removed. We want to heal the tearing apart of a country. We want people to be free to go back home.

There have been UN resolutions, year after year, for the reunification of Mauritius through the return of Diego Garcia and the whole of Chagos. Only the US and UK governments voted against. But these two votes have, so far, been enough.

The 1995 UN "Pelindaba Treaty for a Nuclear-Weapons Free Africa" was signed by all the countries concerned, but on the insistence of the representatives of your two countries, there were the infamous "dotted lines" scribbled in around Diego Garcia.

So Diego Garcia is not "nuclear free". And nor are Pakistan and India.

Which is all the more reason for all of us to say "no" to war. And "yes" to the closing down of the base.

I write to ask if perhaps you could start by writing to your MBPS and Congressmen to inform them that the theft of the islands and the receiving of stolen goods was done without the knowledge of the people of your lands, that the forcible removals of our people were done behind your backs, that your people would never have condoned this ultimate violence, that you want the people of Diego Garcia to return to their homes, that a Court judgment has granted them the right to return, that the base is illegal and must be closed down.

That the base must be closed down in any case.

We ask this to be included as part of the movement towards ending the war. As part of the movement for peace.

And as we all know, peace only comes with justice. And justice only comes when we find out about injustices being committed near and far, and all over the rest of the world, so we can put a stop to them. It is these injustices that sometimes breed the ideas that sometimes breed terrorism. At other times, the injustices breed rioting. In Los Angeles and in Mauritius. In Harare and in Northern Towns in Britain. In Algeria and in Indonesia. And whether it is terrorism or rioting, it brings in its wake, repression.

So, we need coherent, conscious movements against the war, and for justice worldwide.

And justice, as we all know in our hearts, is only born in the movement towards equality. The e-word. You are not allowed to say it in good company anymore. It is only permissible in reference to past revolutions. But it is, curiously, precisely the e-technology that may help now.

We live in a world of sufficient technological advancement to permit a much better form of democracy than we ever dared dream of before. Democracy at the work place. Democratic control over finance. Where democracy will be much more than casting a vote to choose between two political parties, both financed by private companies, once every five years, where you live or where I do.

Democracy in which human rights in all spheres - political, civil, economic, social, cultural - gain broader and broader definitions through our struggles, wherever we are.

Democracy where human beings gain in dignity. Democracies from which guns and land-mines are not exported to prop up dictatorships in countries unknown, nor to make profits from warring factions in countries elsewhere in the world. We have to inform ourselves and act. Together.

So that dog stops eating dog. And horse, horse.

Lindsey Collen, LALIT, Mauritius 16thOctober

lalmel@intnet.mu



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