Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Plight of the Unpeople: Britain Happily Colludes in the Great State Crimes of Other Western Governments. Take the Law Lords' Betrayal of the Chagos Islanders

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Plight of the Unpeople: Britain Happily Colludes in the Great State Crimes of Other Western Governments. Take the Law Lords' Betrayal of the Chagos Islanders

Article excerpt

I went to the Houses of Parliament on 22 October to join a disconsolate group of shivering people who had arrived from a faraway tropical place and were being prevented from place and were being prevented from entering the Public Gallery to hear their fate. This was not headline news; the BBC reporter seemed almost embarrassed. Crimes of such magnitude are not news when they are ours, and neither is injustice or corruption at the apex of British power.

Lizette Talatte was there, her tiny frail self swallowed by the cavernous stone grey of Westminster Hall. I first saw her in a Colonial Office film from the 1950s which described her homeland, the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as a paradise long settled by people "born and brought up in conditions most tranquil and benign". Lizette was then 14 years old. She remembers the producer saying to her and her friends, "Keep smiling, girls!" When we met in Mauritius, four years ago, she said: "We didn't need to be told to smile. I was a happy child, because my roots were deep in Diego Garcia. My great-grandmother was born there, and I made six children there. Maybe only the English can make a film that showed we were an established community, then deny their own evidence and invent the lie that we were transient workers."

During the 19690s and 1970s British governments, Labour and Tory, tricked and expelled the entire population of the Chagos Archipelago, more than 2,000 British citizens, so that Diego Garcia could be given to the United States as he site for a military base. It was an act of mass kidnapping carried out in high secrecy. As unclssified official files now show, Foreign Office officials conspired to lie, coaching each other to "maintain" and "argue" the "fiction" that the Chagossians existed only as "floating population". On 28 July 1965, a senior Foreign Office official, TCD Jerrom, wrote to the British representative at the United Nations, instructing him to lie to the General Assembly that the Chagos Archipelago was "uninhabited when the United Kingdom government first acquired it". Nine years later, the Ministry of Defence went further, lying that "there is nothing in our files about inhabitants [of the Chagos] or about an evacuation".

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"To get us out of our homes," Lizette told me, "they spread rumours we would be bombed, then they turned on our dogs. The American soldiers who had arrived to build the base backed several of their big vehicles against a brick shed, and hundreds of dogs were rounded up and imprisoned there, and they gassed them through a tube from the trucks' exhaust. You could hear them crying. Then they burned them on a pyre, many still alive."

Lizette and her family were finally forced on to a rusting freighter and made to lie on a cargo of bird fertiliser during a voyage, through stormy seas, to the slums of Port Louis, Mauritius. Within months, she had lost Jollice, aged eight, and Regis, aged ten months. …

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