Exiled Chagos Islanders cautiously celebrate UN verdict

“The English would never have believed that one day, the people of Chagos would have overthrown them,”
Chagosians disembark at Peros Banos Island 10 April 2006. Some 102 Chagosians who were evicted from the idyllic Indian Ocean archipelago by Britain in the 1960’s and 1970’s, arrived on April 4 for a brief trip which took them to three islands, Diego Garcia, Peros Banos and Salomon, in the chain which has been the subject of bitter diplomatic and legal disputes since Britain claimed it in 1965. About 2,000 Chagosians were expelled and sent to live mainly in Mauritius and the Seychelles where only about 850 island-born natives are still alive. However, they and their descendents now number about 7,000. AFP PHOTO STR (Photo by ALI SOOBYE / AFP)

Exiled as children, people from the Chagos Islands celebrated on Tuesday the news that the United Nations’ top court had told Britain to give up control of the Indian Ocean archipelago.

“The English would never have believed that one day, the people of Chagos would have overthrown them,” said Emilienne Louis, describing how she arrived in Mauritius at the age of four – and has never been able to return.

“We have been waiting for this good news for a long time,” said Louis, who celebrated the decision along with other — many now elderly — exiled Chagossians in Mauritius, where they have made their home ever since.

Louis dreams of being able to die on the island where she was born.

The UN’s International Court of Justice in The Hague said in a legal opinion on Monday that Britain had illegally split the islands from Mauritius before independence in 1968, after which the entire population of islanders was evicted.

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It is a major development in a decades-old row with Mauritius over an archipelago that is now home to a huge US airbase. The court’s opinion is non-binding but carries heavy symbolic and political weight.

The islanders danced in the streets waving the flag of the country they were barred from — horizontal strips of orange, black and blue — when they heard the news.

But others sounded a note of caution that their decades long fight was far from over.

“The Chagossians have not yet really understood what happened,” said Rosemond Saminaden, aged 83, and one of the elders urging people to wait for the leaders who were in The Hague at the court hearing to return and explain the decision.

‘Who will compensate us?’

Colonial power Britain split off the islands from Mauritius — which lies around 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometres) away — three years before Port Louis gained independence in 1968. It also paid Mauritius three million pounds.

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Between 1968 and 1973 around 2,000 Chagos islanders were evicted and sent to Britain, Mauritius and the Seychelles, to make way for a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands.

Britain has defended its hold on the islands, saying the military base, which is leased to the United States and has been used to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan, protected people around the world.

“We know the road will be long,” Saminaden said, pointing out that there was now nothing to go home to. “We will not be able to return to the island without the basic infrastructure on the island.”

Alain Volfrin, sitting in the street in front of his house, a neighbourhood where many of the Chagos islanders now live, said that the court had finally shown what they had been saying for decades: Britain had been acting illegally.

“Our grandparents, our parents and ourselves have suffered during all these years,” said Volfrin, who works as a rubbish collector. “Who will compensate us for all these harms suffered during all these years? “

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But he is also resigned to the fact that it will be unlikely he and his fellow Chagossians will return to the island anytime soon.

“We do not know yet how the Chagossians will benefit,” he said gloomily. “Because it is clear that the return of the Chagossians in the archipelago is not for tomorrow.”

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