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Friday, 3 November, 2000, 13:26 GMT
Chagos islanders: 30 years of suffering
Diego Garcia
Most islanders have not seen their home for 30 years
By Africa correspondent Jane Standley

The High Court ruling allowing the Chagos islanders to return home in effect ends their 30 years of misery in exile.

Removed from their homes by Britain to allow the main island Diego Garcia to be leased to the United States as a military base, most have lived in slum conditions in Mauritius and the Seychelles.

The old songs of home have helped allay the pain of exile. The islanders have tried to keep old dances and traditional instruments of the Chagos Islands alive.

But many have turned to alcohol or even suicide to escape the misery of not belonging.

Misery of exile

The fathers and sons of the Chagos community while away the hours of unemployment nursing bottles on the steps of their tin shack homes.

Chagos islanders
The islanders were shipped out en masse
Many say they have experienced racism as well because they are blacker than many Mauritians.

Washing clothes on a stone in her muddy backyard is Rita Baptiste. A British subject and passport holder, she has not been home since America's military base was built there.

She and some of her 12 children were born on the main Chagos island of Diego Garcia, but says her years in exile have made her fear for the future.

"I'm embarrassed here," she says. "I didn't expect my children to grow up like this, I don't have the money to do much for them. And the future - I worry about the problems to come."

Grave injustice

Many Chagos islanders are angry over what has become of their former home. Raphael Louis, who has seen recent photographs of Diego Garcia, considers his people's fate a grave injustice.

B52 bombers at Diego Garcia airbase
The US airbase covers half of Diego Garcia
"I was very sad too to see how my country has become," he says.

"Seeing the workers from all over the world who've come to the American base - while me and my children from Diego Garcia don't have jobs."

The islanders want compensation for their suffering. Some has been paid in the past, but mainly to the Mauritian government, which had to take them in.

They also want the British government to provide health and education services as to any other British citizen.

Potential paradise

In return, Louis Bancoult, chairman of the Chagos Refugee Group, is confident that his islanders could make the Chagos a going concern.

Louis Bancoult
Louis Bancoult celebrates his legal victory over the British government
"We have tourism opportunity and there could be fishing - it's much better than what's available in Mauritius," he says.

The palm-fringed beaches and coconut palms of the Chagos Islands clearly show potential.

But to develop a tropical paradise takes money, and despite interest from tour operators, the islanders are likely to face further hurdles.

America is likely to object over the future of its strategically important military base on Diego Garcia, while Mauritius also has claims of sovereignty over the islands.

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See also:

24 Aug 00 | South Asia
Hope for Indian Ocean islanders
16 Jul 00 | UK
Memories of paradise lost
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