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Chagos refugees continue the decades-long fight for justice


One of the most important U.S. military bases in the world sits on an island in the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia. It's one island in the Chagos Archipelago. Thousands of Indigenous people who live there on the Chagos Islands were forced from their homeland 50 years ago to make way for that base. Ever since, they've been fighting for the right to return. Olivier Bancoult is a leader in that fight. He and his family were sent more than a thousand miles away to Mauritius when he was just 4 years old. His parents used to tell him stories about life on the islands.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: Life was beautiful. And we lived in peace and harmony, where we have our culture and we have our tradition. We all live as one family. This is the most important thing.

SHAPIRO: Today, Bancoult leads the Chagos Refugee Group, and he joined me in studio on a rare visit to the U.S. He told me about another rare trip - to the Chagos Islands last year. There, he found his grandfather's grave in an abandoned and unkempt cemetery.

BANCOULT: I just take this opportunity to clean the grave because, as I told you, it was abandoned, you know?


BANCOULT: And no one can accept that. And comparing to what have - we have been seeing on Diego Garcia, where we have a U.S. military dog cemetery which are well-maintained comparing to Chagossian grave, you see - this is...

SHAPIRO: U.S. military dogs' graves...


SHAPIRO: ...Are cared for better than the grave of your grandfather. I want to get into the politics and diplomacy of Diego Garcia. And it's complicated because the British government removed your people from the islands to make way for a U.S. military base, and Americans played a role in that removal. Since you are here in Washington, D.C., I will ask, what do you want from the U.S. government?

BANCOULT: My message on behalf of my people is to ask the U.S. government, the Biden administration, to apology for what they did to our people.

SHAPIRO: Is an apology enough?

BANCOULT: Not only that. We think also about reparation because what we had suffered, you know - they don't have a price for that. It's something that happened to 3,000 people. And even one-third of Diego Garcia was used for U.S. military base where two-third was unoccupied. Even there, they forced people to remove from the place, to uproot from their place and to go living in exile, mostly in Mauritius, in Seychelles and elsewhere.

SHAPIRO: Even people living on a part of the island that was not needed for the base - those people were also forced to move.

BANCOULT: Yeah. Everyone was asked to leave, you know? They were forced to leave. The reason why - we say that because of security, because of piracy, because of terrorism. We are not terrorism. We were people who live. We have our culture like everyone in the world. You see? And the way of forcing us to leave our country - it's the - one of the most shameful way that a human being should never been given.

SHAPIRO: Many Chagossians now live in Mauritius. When you talk to people in that community, do all of them want to return? If they were given the opportunity, would they?

BANCOULT: Of course. Of course. It's something that - it's very important, you know? Everyone in this world want to know where they come from. We, as Chagossians - our children, our generation - want to know the place. They always heard about how life was on Chagos but never been there. It is unacceptable for us to accept that other people can live and work on our birthplace whereas we are ignoring and we are recognized as persona non grata. This is not fair.

SHAPIRO: I was going to ask about this. The U.S. base has staffers from all over the world. People on the base come from the Middle East, South Asia, all over, but not Chagossians. What reason have you been given that you, of all people, are not allowed to work on that base?

BANCOULT: You know, that's what we cannot accept, you know? We were all as human being. Everywhere where we have a U.S. military base outside the United States, we have local people. Local people is being given priority but except in our case.

SHAPIRO: And have you been given a reason?

BANCOULT: We had been given by a recruitment agent to say that - to get instruction not to employ any Chagossian - you see? - because...

SHAPIRO: But they won't tell you why.

BANCOULT: Maybe because, at the end of their contract, they might not return. And I, myself - I've been applied for more than nine times. I've never been selected. And the reason why - because of my...

SHAPIRO: To work on that base.

BANCOULT: Yeah, because of my birthplace.

SHAPIRO: We asked the U.S. State Department why the Chagossian people have not been allowed back onto Diego Garcia. And a spokesman provided a statement saying, quote, "the manner in which Chagossians were removed is regrettable" and then basically - I'm paraphrasing here - said, this is a matter for the U.K. to resolve.

BANCOULT: It's both. They're both concerned because of the U.S. military base. The base is for America. You see? I think that they both need to shoulder the responsibility towards Chagossian, you know? It's something that - everyone know it now. They always say that they have regret, but they never come out with a solution to put an end to our suffering.

SHAPIRO: As best I can tell, every official organization that has looked closely at this case has agreed with you. In 2006, a British court called the Chagossian eviction illegal, repugnant and a breach of accepted moral standards. In 2019, the International Court of Justice issued an opinion siding with you, and the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in support of that. This year Human Rights Watch called your displacement a crime against humanity. And I would like to offer the counterargument, but in all honesty, I have not been able to find one. So as best you can understand, what is the holdup?

BANCOULT: Yeah. You know, everyone just knew about it, as you mentioned - about the decision of the International Court of Justice, about latest one. The report of Human Rights Watch said clearly it's a crimes against humanity. No human being can can face this kind of problem because, you know, we should understand if that place was inaccessible. No one could have access. But we cannot accept that other people can live and work whereas we need to have priority. I give you one example. Everywhere where we have U.S. military base outside the United States, we have cohabitation. And we always say that we agree to have cohabitation with the base like other people coming from...

SHAPIRO: You can, like, live in base dormitories...


SHAPIRO: ...You're saying. Yeah.

BANCOULT: Yeah. But, you know, this opportunity have not been given to us. This is why we claim - we ask for that. It's now. Now is time to put an end and just start to give this opportunity to Chagossian. Most of our children - and, you know, we still have people born on Chagos who want to end their life on Chagos. I give you the example of my mom, but unfortunately, she passed away.

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry. You described seeing your grandfather's grave on the Chagos Islands, and I know that your mother has passed away. Do you believe that when you die, you will be able to be buried on the Chagos Islands?

BANCOULT: I personally am very hopeful on that. I say that next year Chagossian will be on Chagos because, based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we say that everyone has a right to live on his birthplace.

SHAPIRO: Olivier Bancoult, head of the Chagos Refugee Group, on a visit to the United States from Mauritius. Thank you so much.

BANCOULT: It's a pleasure. Thank you on behalf of my community.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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