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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Chagossian exiles celebrate emotional return as UK tries to justify control | Chagos Islands

Standing in the hospital room where she gave birth to her first child, Rosemonde Bertin looked around in despair. The roof had collapsed, trees grew through the floor and a rusting, enamelled bedpan lay half concealed by ferns.

“I had my baby here,” Bertin said. “He was born in 1972.” That was shortly before everyone on Salomon atoll was forcibly deported by the British to Mauritius and Seychelles.

Beside the hospital stood St Bridget’s chapel. Creepers and roots penetrated the walls; decaying coconuts littered the floor. Two coloured glass panes remained in one window but the roof had disappeared.

Orange and black, coconut crabs lurked in crevices. “My church is abandoned,” wailed Bertin, 67. “I was baptised here. I made my first communion here. All the families came to church every Sunday.”

Rosemonde Bertin in front of the chapel
Rosemonde Bertin in front of the chapel: ‘I was baptised here.’ Photograph: –

On a previous occasion, escorted by British officials on a “heritage” visit, she had not been able to explore her former community. This time she had returned on a Mauritian-chartered cruise ship. “Now I feel I can show you around,” she said.

A torrential downpour, frequent in the afternoons once the equatorial sun heats the seas around the Chagos Islands, required 10 minutes’ shelter under the trees

Down a sodden track through overgrown coconut palms, Bertin led the way to the island’s cemetery. Predatory frigate birds drifted overhead. Graves were covered in moss with few legible inscriptions. Rusting iron rails surrounded a few tombs.

The temporary return of exiled Chagossians, however, was not the only narrative being played out during the five-day visit this week.

Rosemonde Bertin in Salomon Atoll cemetery
Rosemonde Bertin in Salomon Atoll cemetery. Photograph: –

Mauritian officials planted their national flag on Salomon, Peros Banhos atoll and even a sandbank that emerged on a low spring tide at Blenheim reef on the northernmost edge of the archipelago. The national anthem was sung and a statement broadcast by the prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth, celebrating Mauritian sovereignty. A metal plaque, recording that the islands are inalienably part of Mauritius, was cemented into place.

As the Bleu De Nîmes, hired by Mauritius for its first formal expedition to the archipelago, sailed away, Britain’s control over what it terms British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) appeared significantly weakened.

The formal challenge to UK sovereignty was initially met by Whitehall evasion: the presence of a foreign survey vessel in territorial waters explained as cooperation with a “scientific survey”.

But the distrust lurking behind diplomatic niceties was evident in the presence of a British fisheries protection vessel, Grampian Frontier, which shadowed the Bleu De Nîmes, keeping a constant distance.

In the face of Mauritian allegations of “crimes against humanity”, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) eventually reasserted UK sovereignty and pointed to grants made to Chagossian exiles. It also denied interfering with the cruise ship’s wifi, which mysteriously failed.

But the legal balance shifted decisively in favour of Mauritian arguments for sovereignty after decisions at the international court of justice, the UN general assembly and the international tribunal of the law of the sea (Itlos) in 2019 and last year. The UK was found to have unlawfully separated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius before it granted independence in 1968.

This week’s visit was the logical consequence of Mauritius seeking to enforce that internationally ratified authority. The government in Port Louis is now contemplating further legal action to enforce the Itlos ruling.

The Mauritian ambassador to the United Nations, Jagdish Koonjul, led the expedition. It had accomplished four objectives, he said. “We completed the survey on Blenheim reef [for a forthcoming ITLOS hearing]. We brought Chagossians back to the islands where they were born.

“We were able to exercise our sovereignty, raising the flag of Mauritius as we were travelling through the northernmost part of our territory. And we have [explained] to the world [through the media] all the lies and deceits hidden for so long by certain powers.”

The UK justifies its refusal to hand back the territory to Mauritius by pointing out that the initial ICJ judgment, on which other decisions relied, was advisory not binding.

Back in Salomon and Peros Banhos, wandering through derelict homes, it is difficult to understand why the UK should have abandoned such strategic settlements. The Chagossians’ ancestors may have been transported as enslaved people from Africa by the first, French, colonial overseers, but their freed descendants had established thriving communities that survived by trading coconut oil. Neighbouring Maldives now hosts a lucrative tourist industry.

The Americans, who rent a strategic military base from the UK on another island, Diego Garcia, supported the mass deportations in the early 1970s. The main rationale for evacuation, however, was the consequence of a 1960 UN resolution on the right of self-determination: the UK realised it could only establish a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory, if no one lived there.

Ever since, the plight of the exiled Chagossians has been the emotional battleground over which legitimacy of ownership has been fought. They UK, by forcibly deporting them, denying them UK citizenship, preventing them from returning, and insulting them in FCO memorandums (where they were dismissed as “Men Fridays”), has repeatedly forfeited international sympathy.

The media battle this week to persuade the world that Britain is the retreating colonial power and Mauritius is claiming its rightful inheritance is the latest round in a long international campaign.

The incongruity of Chagossian exiles returning on a large cruise ship, replete with Jacuzzis and a deck-top bar, may have diluted the Mauritian message of colonial expropriation (and it certainly provoked criticism from the Chagossian diaspora in Crawley, Sussex.)

But a vessel that size, carrying tenders for surveying a large reef, was required. It had originally been intended to accommodate the Mauritian prime minister.

Four hundred miles out from the Seychelles – cutting through the deep sea’s heavy swell in an area regularly swept by cyclones – the need for a robust, ocean-going ship was easy to appreciate.

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