Thursday, February 29

‘Life was lovely’: Chagossian women head home 50 years after forced exile | Chagos Islands

ROsemonde Bertin was only 17 when British officials arrived on Salomon Atoll in 1972. Everyone was ordered to gather at the manager’s office on the coconut plantation. She does not remember any advance warning.

The commissioner of the British Indian Ocean territory (BIOT) told them they had to leave their homes because Americans were coming to the Chagos archipelago to set up a military base.

For Bertin, who used to clean the house of the plantation manager, Mr Doffay, and look after a baby, it was the moment her island life vanished for ever. “It had been wonderful,” she said. “There were about 300 people and we lived as one big family.”

On Wednesday, 50 years later, the 67-year-old was below deck in her pitching cabin reminiscing about her youth and heading back on a Mauritian-chartered vessel towards Salomon Atoll. By the weekend she should be able to set foot on her homeland once more.

In the early 1970s, the islanders survived by fishing and working on the plantation; regular boats to Mauritius had stopped years earlier.

“The authorities put pressure on people to say that we needed to go or otherwise we wouldn’t survive,” she said. “The provisions in the store on the island had been run down. There was only one bag of sugar. I can’t understand how someone who lived freely could be removed by these officials.”

All the Salomon islanders were taken on board a transport ship, the Nordvaer, chartered by the British government. Half of them were taken to Mauritius, half to a neighboring island, Peros Banhos. Reports at the time recorded that the islanders’ pets were killed after they left.

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“I felt very sad, without knowing where I was going,” Bertin said. “There were no cabins on the boat. They put mattresses on the decks. It was in a very bad state: the vessel normally carried animals and guano – fertilizer for the plantations. Conditions were so bad one lady gave birth prematurely.”

Bertin has lived in Mauritius ever since. She has been permitted “heritage” return visits twice before, in 2006 and 2009, under the close supervision of UK officials. Now she is delighted to be going home unmonitored. “I can’t accept being a visitor,” she said. “I’m a native.”

Lisbey Elyse was 20 when she was taken off Peros Banhos in 1973. Now 73, she is also onboard the Bleu De Nîmes, the former British minesweeper chartered by the Mauritian government that is heading to the Chagos Islands for a marine survey.

Lisbey Elyse
Lisbey Elyse is bound for the Chagos Islands again.

“Life was lovely. We ate what we grew. There was fish and fresh fruit,” she said. “We had a garden and cultivated tomatoes, aubergine, pumpkins and lettuce.”

She worked on the plantation until “two men turned up, the commissioner and a director of the company. They said we couldn’t stay and that we would all be removed from the island and taken to Mauritius. They told us we would have houses and gardens there just like we had on Peros Banhos.”

That promise never materialized, she said. “I felt very sad, heartbroken. There was no choice about leaving. I’m so proud of being from Chagos. I want to go back and live there again. It was paradise. There used to be 1,200 people on my island.”

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Ownership of the islands is disputed. A UN court has ruled that the UK should hand the archipelago back to Mauritius. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) says the decision was only advisory.

Responding to the Mauritian expedition, which will measure reefs in the Chagos Islands, the FCDO adopted a conciliatory tone, saying: “Mauritius notified the UK about its plans to conduct a scientific survey close to the Chagos Islands. The UK shares this interest in environmental protection and gave assurances to Mauritius that it would not interrupt the survey.” It did not subtract the UK’s assertion of sovereignty.

Chagossian Voices, an organization representing some of the exiled Chagossian community who live in the UK, was more critical of the Mauritian government initiative. “This is an obscenely expensive vanity expedition carried out without proper consultation with the Chagossian community,” read a statement from the group.

“Many Chagossians are appalled that such a huge sum of money can be spent at a time of economic crisis and when Chagossians remain on the margins of Mauritian society. Chagossians are filled with dread at the prospect of the islands being handed to Mauritius.”

Henry Smith, the Conservative MP for Crawley, where most of the Chagossian community in the UK live, told the Daily Telegraph: “This is clearly a political statement by the Mauritian government with regards to its claims on the Chagos and nothing to do with conservation.” The Mauritian government has not said the voyage is about environmental matters: it was agreed to carry out measurements in relation to claims to the seabed.

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During the day, the Mauritian ambassador to the UN, Jagdish Koonjul, who is also on the Bleu De Nîmes, raised his country’s flag on a yardarm. Amid heavy rain and with a following wind, the ship was steaming due east towards the Chagos Islands, rolling gently in moderate seas.

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