Mystery Solved: The Dreadful History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia
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Mystery Solved: The Dreadful History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia


That story is probably not great for bedtime, though there’s everything to make it like that: the uninhabited coral island of Chagos Archipelago somewhere in the Indian Ocean – a phenomenon of natural beauty and peace, a shining sun and palm trees. It is the word “uninhabited” that turns the key on the horror of what was done there. This is a story of the Chagossian people – the little-known victims of two colonial powers, the UK and the United States, whose governments manipulated diplomatic rules and colluded to remove the Chagossians from their Indian Ocean homeland to create a major U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia. The two governments have gotten away with this injustice for the past 50 years despite the Chagossians’ valiant efforts to return home.

Stealing a nation

The truth about the U.S. military base on the British-controlled Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia is often hard to believe. It would be easy enough to confuse the real story with fictional accounts of the island found in the Transformers movies. While the grim saga of the Diego Garcia frequently reads like fiction, it has proven to be all too real for the people involved.

It’s the story of a U.S. military base built on a series of real-life fictions told by U.S. and British officials over more than half a century. It all started at the height of the Cold War when Americans began their search for a new military base location capable of facilitating control of the main Indian Ocean shipping lanes and the approaches to the Persian and Arabian Gulfs.

The location of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Via Bing Maps/

Americans were free to pick out the right place for their aim as if they were in a gallery named “Chagos Archipelago” until in 1961 the search brought Rear Admiral Grantham of the U.S. Navy to Diego Garcia to survey its suitability. Until 1965 the archipelago was part of the self-governing British colony of Mauritius, when in ignorance of the US/UK negotiations, Mauritius agreed to sell the archipelago to the UK. The Americans demanded that the islands be “swept” and “sanitized”. Unknown to Parliament and to the U.S. Congress, the British government plotted with Washington to expel the entire population – in secrecy and in breach of the United Nations Charter. The authorities soon ordered the remaining Chagossians — generally allowed no more than a single box of belongings and a sleeping mat — onto overcrowded cargo ships destined for Mauritius and the Seychelles. By 1973, the last Chagossians were gone.

“Absolutely must go,” the memo, condemning Chagossians to exile in 1971, said. By 1973, the entire indigenous population of the Chagos Islands had been forcibly deported to the island of Mauritius over 1,000 miles away, to make way for a US military base. That process was described in a British diplomatic cable at the time as the removal of “some few Tarzans and Man Fridays.” Citing security reasons, the British authorities have since banned all visits to the islands without special authorization, making it impossible for Chagossians to return.

Residents of Diego Garcia Island, in the Indian Ocean Chagos Archipelago, receiving news in 1971 that they will all be deported/ Marco Longari

Meanwhile, in the official documentation it was reported that the U.S. built its base on an “uninhabited” island. In fact, before the Americans came, more than 2,000 people lived on the islands, many with roots back to the late 18th century. There were thriving villages, a school, a hospital, a church, a railway and an undisturbed way of life. Although their ancestors had lived there since the time of the American Revolution, Anglo-American officials decided, as one wrote, to “maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos [were] not a permanent or semi-permanent population,” but just “transient contract workers” who could be “returned” to Mauritius.

John Pilger, who produced an award-winning 2004 documentary “Stealing a Nation”, described the attitude of British officialdom throughout the period as one of “imperious brutality and contempt” for the Chagossians.

“The doctor said he cannot treat sadness”

The Islanders were subject to what amounted to an officially sanctioned campaign of psychological warfare. Among the many pressures brought to bear on a population, a few stand out in their utter callousness.

As the Americans began to arrive and build the base, Sir Bruce Greatbatch, the governor of the Seychelles, who had been put in charge of the “sanitizing,” ordered all the pet dogs on Diego Garcia to be killed. The Islanders were required to deliver their pet dogs (some 1,500 in total) to a large building with no explanation of the reason. Once delivered they were sealed in and gassed with the exhaust fumes from two U.S. military jeeps and under the supervision of American and British officers.

“They put the dogs in a furnace where the people worked,” says Lizette Tallatte, now in her 60s. “...And when the dogs were taken away in front of them, our children screamed and cried.” The islanders took this as a warning.

Anyone who embarked on a visit to Mauritius for medical treatment or other necessities was forcibly barred from returning. The regular supply ship bringing post, fresh milk, dairy products, sugar, salt, oil, medications and other basic supplies was barred from docking at the islands. The remaining population were loaded on to ships, allowed to take only one suitcase. They left behind their homes, their furniture, and their lives.

“We were like animals, slaves in this boat,” Liseby Elysé, who was four months pregnant at that time, said.

Internationalist 360°

In the first months of their exile, as they fought to survive, suicides and child deaths were common. “The doctor said he cannot treat sadness,” Aurélie Lisette Talate, who lost two children, recalled. Rita Bancoult, now 79, lost two daughters and a son; she told that when her husband was told the family could never return home, he suffered a stroke and died. Unemployment, drugs and prostitution, all of which had been alien to their society, ravaged them. At their destinations, most of the Chagossians were literally left on the docks, homeless, jobless, and with little money. In 1977, four years after the last removals, a Washington Post reporter found them living in “abject poverty.”

Struggling for justice

In 1975 Chagos islanders living in Mauritius launched legal proceedings against their expulsion, resulting in a 1982 payment of 4 million pounds in compensation, along with land valued at 1 million pounds. There were no reparations for islanders settled in the Seychelles.

In 30 years this compensation would become the main explanation for European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR) dismissal of Chagossians’ case: acceptance of small amounts of compensation in 1980s by some Chagossians means the entire people have no grounds to sue. The Court has held that “[w]here applicants accept a sum of compensation in settlement of civil claims and renounce further use of local remedies, . . . they will generally no longer be able to claim to be a victim in respect of those matters.” It overlooked the fact that only 471 out of the 1,786 applicants received compensation in 1982 and, moreover, there were no those who were exiled to Seychelles among them.

“The Chagossians do not own any territory ... They have no property rights on the islands at all. What is being asserted is a right of mass trespass,” said Jonathan Crow QC, “one of the leading barristers of his generation”.

In 2000, the islanders won a historic victory in the high court, which ruled their expulsion illegal. The Foreign Secretary Robin Cook gave the islanders permission to return to the islands, but that decision was reversed following the September 11th attacks as the islands assumed a new strategic importance for the U.S.

The Foreign Office announced that it would not be possible for them to return to Diego Garcia because of a “treaty” with Washington – in truth, a deal concealed from parliament and the U.S. Congress.

Chagos Islanders pictured after winning the right to return home after a high court battle in 2000/Stefan Rousseau

In 2007, a British appeals court paved the way for Chagossians to return home but its decision was annulled by the upper House of Lords the following year.

In 2008, with the onset of the global financial crisis, and after a tough fight for UK passports, many Chagossians came to the U.K. which made them homeless, looking for a better life. However, instead of starting new lives with a degree of some comfort, the refugees had to work long hours in minimum wages jobs, struggling to pay their rent, while their elderly relatives spend most time indoors, unsure how to navigate their new surroundings.

December, 2016. Chagossians took to the streets to claim their land/

In 2016, the deal with the U.S. was extended to 2036.

Today, around 3,000 Chagossians and their descendants are divided among Mauritius, the Seychelles and Britain. Here is the timeline of Chagossians’ struggle.

While the British at least call that cruel story “a black mark on Britain’s history” and apologised for the “shameful” way it evicted islanders from the Chagos archipelago, Americans seem to not care at all.

Though it would be more correct to say that the American elite has simply forgotten about their crime against the entire population. The same can not be said of ordinary Americans who even created a website dedicated to Chagossians to help them return to their homeland.

Moreover, for more than a decade, the UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic at the American University Washington College of Law (UNROW) has been part of a global effort to seek justice for the Chagossians. Seeking to hold the U.S. government accountable for its involvement in the forced removal of the Chagossians, it filed a lawsuit in 2002 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia based on claims of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; torture; deprivation of property; and discrimination. Citing the political question doctrine, which prohibits courts from reviewing certain executive and legislative decisions, the court quickly rejected the case and held that it could not review the actions of the Department of Defense, ruling that these questions should be left to the other branches of the government. UNROW lost on appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari.

UNROW’s advocacy campaign garnered the attention of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), an organization representing the black members of the U.S. Congress, because of the colonial nature of the Chagossians’ removal and because the Chagossians were primarily of African descent. For two years, UNROW met with legislators from the CBC with the aim of creating a congressional resolution that would establish a claims tribunal to review claims of Chagossians harmed in the course of their forced removal. UNROW made enormous progress with the help of former CBC chairman Representative Donald Payne, who became a champion for the Chagossians’ cause in Congress. Unfortunately, Representative Payne passed away shortly before he was set to present the resolution before Congress, and other representatives from the CBC, who had previously expressed interest, quickly dropped out seemingly due to the lack of political will and public support for assisting a population the United States had helped displace.

In 2012, UNROW filed an online “We the People” petition with the White House, asking the U.S. government to redress wrongs against the Chagossians. More than 30,000 people signed the petition within the thirty-day time limit, demanding that “the United States should provide relief to the Chagossians in the form of resettlement to the outer Chagos Islands, employment and compensation.” Yet, despite this overwhelming support for the Chagossians, the U.S. government waited until December 21, 2012, more than eight months, before responding to the petition. The response to the Chagossians’ petition almost immediately followed the European Court of Human Rights’ decision in Chagos Islanders v. the United Kingdom, issued December 20, 2012, that dismissed the Chagossians’ claims as inadmissible.

ECtHR decisions are influential in informing the international community on the development of human rights law, so it is likely not a coincidence that the U.S. government’s response to the petition followed the ECtHR’s decision so closely. Had the Court decided on the merits of the case in the Chagossians’ favor, the U.S. government may not have issued as dismissive a response due to a risk of political embarrassment.

In reaction to the ECtHR verdict and the U.S. response, Chagossians declared that they would take their case to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, or to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands.

Here’s the award-winning Australian journalist John Pilger talking about this injustice:

U.S. Military base or a new Guantanamo?

One of two major U.S. military airports at Diego Garcia in Indian Ocean/

After the last Chagossians were forcibly removed from their homeland, the giant American military base that was to take over their homeland and replace them was officially named “Camp Justice.” Justice? Exactly not for Chagossians (The U.S. military also called one of Chagossians’ former homes the “Footprint of Freedom,” as if mocking the exiled population.)

The base, in which the U.S. has invested more than $3bn, was of major strategic importance to Britain and the U.S. during the Cold War. It offered proximity to Asia as the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia diminished Washington’s military capabilities in the region, while an assertive Soviet navy was extending communist influence in the Indian Ocean. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the United States expanded the base to receive more warships and heavy bombers.

Today, Diego Garcia is America’s largest military base in the world, outside the U.S. There are more than 4,000 troops, two bomber runways, thirty warships and a satellite spy station. The Pentagon calls it an “indispensable platform” for policing the world. The U.S. military said that any return would compromise the security and pose an unacceptable risk at what is the largest installation of its kind outside of the USA.

After 9/11 the base was also used in the CIA rendition program, as Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Colin Powell at the U.S. state department, said. In an interview with Vice News, Wilkerson said three US intelligence sources had informed him that the CIA used Diego Garcia for what he described as “nefarious activities,” with prisoners being held for weeks at a time.

“If you wanted to do something and you wanted to do it out of the limelight, you used Diego Garcia,” Wilkerson said. “Oftentimes we would have to do things that we didn’t want to get in the public eye, whether it was transferring arms to some third-world would-be coup-maker, or whatever, and Diego Garcia would be a stopover point.” Several reports had also suggested that the CIA used Diego Garcia in its post 9/11 interrogation program.

What’s next?

Now Mauritius wants the Chagos Islands back, promising to allow Chagossians to return home, and — much more importantly as far as superpower politics is concerned — to let the US continue using its Diego Garcia base. From 3 to 6 September the four-days hearings were held at the Hague within the International Court of Justice (ICJ) investigation.

“No one did approach us as a community to ask what we want. We don’t know what Mauritius is going to do. They say they will resettle us back but the base is still going to be there, they don’t mind about that, and the Americans don’t want us there, so there are contradictions in that,” said Isabelle Charlot, the chairperson of the Chagos Islanders Movement. She’s worried that Mauritius intends to develop the islands for its own benefit, and that its promises to resettle islanders are insincere. “Mauritius, what are you going to do? When you get the island, are you going to sell the land? Are you going to keep the base there so we can’t rebuild our houses?”

Despite the publicity that the hearings have attracted, the decision of the ICJ is of limited legal value. Whether it finds in favor of Britain or Mauritius, its verdict is merely advisory — it is not legally binding. Now, when the hearings are over, all parties will be eagerly awaiting the ICJ’s advisory opinion which could take several months.

Sometimes one tragedy tells us how a whole system works behind its democratic facade and helps us to understand how much of the world is run for the benefit of the powerful and how governments lie. In the 1970s, the Ministry of Defense in London produced this epic lie that caused a half-century struggle for the whole nation: “There is nothing in our files about a population and an evacuation.”

“It is impossible to accept that other people can live in our birth place, but we are not able. We will not give up, Chagossians will be on Chagos very soon. It is our right. To live in peace and harmony as we did in the past,” says Olivier Bancoult, a refugee from Diego Garcia, and leader of the Chagos Refugees Group.



1) Tell others! Tell your friends, family, people at school or work, and everyone else about the Chagossians, their exile, and Organize a screening of one of the documentaries "Stealing a Nation," "Let Us Return," or "Camp Justice." It's a great way to spread the word and get others involved.

2) Help Get the Chagossians on TV! Why do so few people know about the Chagossians? We think these people would be perfect to tell the world about the Chagossians--and pressure the US and UK governments in the process. Click on the links below for sample tweets, emails, and posts, as well as full pitch letters.

Tweet at John Oliver! As a really funny and smart British comedian in the US, his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” would be the perfect vehicle for raising awareness about the Chagossians. Ask Oliver to tell the Chagossians’ story by tweeting @iamjohnoliver, @LastWeekTonight, and @timcarvell (executive producer).

Sample tweets: “Cover the Chagossian story on @lastweektonight #letusreturn #chagosonLWT” or Tell the world about #Chagos, help them return home #letusreturn #chagosonLWT” or “Dogs gassed, people exiled, no compensation, no justice. Tell #Chagossians story #letusreturn #chagosonLWT”

Tweet at Oprah! If anyone can tell the Chagossians' story, it's Oprah and her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Tweet, email, write, beg Oprah to put the Chagossians on the air.

Tweet at Ellen! Recently, Ellen DeGeneres had a member of the military stationed at Diego Garcia on her show. We assume Ellen had no idea about the terrible history behind the base, and that she would be outraged if she knew the full story. Help tell her about Diego Garcia and encourage her to put the Chagossians' story on the air.

3) Donate. Movements need money, and the Chagossians have very, very little. The easiest way to donate to the Chagossian struggle is through the Chagos Refugees Group. Support campaigns run by the Chagos Refugees Group and CRG UKand the UK Chagos Support Association.

4) Follow the Chagos Heritage Project.

5) Have other ideas? Do you know politicians who could support the Chagossians? Do you know grassroots organizations, civic associations, or religious groups that might want to support the Chagossians? Do you have contacts in the media? We can use any and all ideas, so please send them to

Author: USA Really