Paradise lost, air base gained

As the United States moves its military toward a possible war with Afghanistan, bombers are gathering on a lush island south of India that has a dark history.

Diego Garcia, a U-shaped island 37 miles long that was once a British coconut plantation, was secretly emptied of its native population by the British from 1966 to 1971 so the United States could build a military base there.


The British government, which owns the island, transplanted thousands of natives more than 1,200 miles, dumping them in the slums of Mauritius, an island east of Africa.

It was a paradise lost for the Ilois people of Diego Garcia. Accustomed to picking coconuts and fishing in their tropical home, they failed to adjust to their new urban environment, and for the past 30 years have suffered from poverty and unemployment, according to advocates for the Ilois people.


The plight of the Ilois could easily have been overlooked as an obscure footnote to the Cold War. U.S. officials at the time demanded secrecy for the construction of a military base they said was crucial to combat a Soviet threat in the Indian Ocean.

But after years of fighting in the British court system, the displaced islanders won a stunning victory in November that is proving to be an irritant to U.S. and British officials.

The British High Court ruled that the natives had been illegally banished from Diego Garcia and some of the 51 other islands of the Chagos archipelago, and should be allowed to return.

The court also exposed a cover-up by the British and U.S. governments, which publicly claimed in the 1970s that Diego Garcia was perfect for a base because it had no permanent inhabitants.

Secret British government documents presented during the trial revealed this claim as a deception designed to avoid protests by human rights advocates at the United Nations.

"There is a civilian population, even though it is small," one British official acknowledged in a memo dated Nov. 15, 1965. "In practice, however, I would advise a policy of 'quiet disregard' - in other words, let's forget about this one until the United Nations challenges us on it."

According to records that were part of the court decision, a British undersecretary described the relocation of the Ilois people this way in 1966: "There will be no indigenous population except seagulls."

Despite the court decision, U.S. and British officials remain opposed to the resettlement of about 4,000 Ilois people on Diego Garcia, which they say requires tight security as one of the United State's few military bases near the Persian Gulf and its only base between Africa and Australia.


"There are no immediate plans to change anything on the island," said U.S. Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Cate Mueller. "It's an important area for the Navy, a site for aircraft take-off and a logistical hub."

Diego Garcia played a key role in the early 1990s in military strikes against Iraq, with the island's airstrip a launching point for U.S. bombers.

The island could prove useful again if the United States decides to bomb or move supplies to Afghanistan, military experts predict. B-52 and B-1 bombers are being readied on the island.

But Diego Garcia's role in any strikes against suspected terrorist bases could be secondary to that of U.S. aircraft carriers moving to the area, according to analysts.

"The U.S. would be seriously affected if we had to leave the island," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It is extraordinarily important to us, because it allows us to keep a lot of ammunition and ground equipment near the Persian Gulf."

In the aftermath of the British court decision, the government there is studying the cost and feasibility of moving the displaced people from Mauritius to the outer islands of the Chagos chain, said Peter Reid, spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington. But the British have no plans to resettle them on Diego Garcia, Reid said.


Reid said the court's decision did not strike down a 1965 treaty that allows the United States to use Diego Garcia as a military base until at least 2036. "The court decision will have no impact on the military operations on the island of Diego Garcia," said Reid.

An attorney for the Ilois people, Michael Tigar, a law professor at American University in Washington, disputes the British Embassy's assessment of the meaning of the court decision.

The Ilois do not want the base on Diego Garcia closed, Tigar said. But they do want to return to Diego Garcia to live and work at the base, Tigar said. And the Ilois want to explore the possibility of developing part of the island as a tourist resort.

The Ilois plan to file a lawsuit against the United States to obtain "a substantial amount" of financial compensation, Tigar said. They claim they have been discriminated against by U.S. contractors who run the base but refuse to hire Ilois people, who are also known as Chagosans, Tigar said.

"Despite the judgment of the British court that the expulsion was wrongful, the British government is still boarding and searching boats headed toward the islands and wrongfully expelling Chagosans," said Tigar. "The Chagosans had lived there at least since the early 1800s, and they want to return."

Tigar refused to name the figure his clients are seeking from the United States. But the Times of London reported last year that the displaced islanders want as much as $1 million each.


The British have twice set aside money to help the Ilois resettle on Mauritius.

In the 1970s, the British paid 650,000 pounds - about $1.4 million then - to the Mauritian government, and in 1982, the British gave 4 million pounds to a trust fund for the Ilois people. But the Ilois say that almost none of the money made its way to them from the Mauritian government.

Diego Garcia is the largest of the islands in the Chagos archipelago, which is scattered over 10,000 miles in the heart of the Indian Ocean, between Africa and Indonesia.

The name Diego Garcia is said to be that of a Portuguese explorer who stumbled across the island centuries ago. But the islands were French territory until ceded to Great Britain in 1814.

For much of its history, Diego Garcia held a coconut plantation run by a British company. Workers of African and Indian descent lived on the island, and supplemented their meager income by fishing.

After the United States built an airport and military base on the island in 1971, little was left to hint at the island's history other than an abandoned plantation house and dozens of empty huts.