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Professor’s Book Reveals U.S.’s Dark Secret

By Jessica Tabak

Chagossian Protest

Courtesy of David Vine

David Vine's new book is getting a lot of attention. Since Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia was released in April, the anthropology professor has discussed it on news programs on three continents. He has speaking engagements lined up in major U.S. and U.K. cities this summer. And the New York Review of Books devoted the front page of its May 28 edition to an in-depth review of the work, declaring it a "meticulously researched, coldly furious book."

This is all good news for Vine, who wrote the book primarily to raise awareness of the United States and British governments' calculated, forcible expulsion of the Chagossian people from their homes and country. "This story has remained almost completely unknown stateside," says Vine. "I hope that the U.S. government will finally accept and act on its responsibility toward the Chagossians and all they have suffered in exile."  

"They Could Never Go Home Again"

The unsettling story of the Chagossian exile began in the late 1950s, when the U.S. Navy identified the Chagos Islands—a British-controlled archipelago located in the Indian Ocean—as a strategically ideal location for a new military base. "People in the U.S. military at that point were anticipating that they would get kicked out of a lot of their military bases as colonies became independent," Vine explains. The archipelago's isolation and proximity to strategically important areas from the Middle East to Southeast Asia made it an ideal location for a new base. The U.S. government consulted its British allies, and the two governments conceived a plan to forcibly remove the island's almost 2000 residents and transform the archipelago's largest island, Diego Garcia, into a U.S. naval base.

This systematic exile began in 1968, when Chagossians who had traveled off-island for medical treatments and vacations were suddenly denied permission to return home. "They were told that their islands had been sold, and that they could never go home again," says Vine. As the 1960s drew to a close, the British government began restricting food and medical supplies to the island in order to drive its citizens away. In 1971, the British government rounded up and killed the pet dogs of the remaining citizens before loading them on cargo boats and deporting them to Mauritius and the Seychelles, British-controlled islands over 1000 miles away.

While on Chagos, virtually all of its citizens lived and worked on a coconut plantation that had been established in the late 18th century by Franco-Mauritians. "While it wasn't a luxurious life they were living, it was an incredibly secure one where they didn't lack for anything," says Vine. "They had universal employment and an array of social service benefits, including free health care, free education, and home ownership."

But upon arrival in Mauritius and the Seychelles, their jobs, property, and benefits were gone, and there was no resettlement program in place. "Just like other peoples around the world who have been forcibly displaced [without resettlement assistance], the Chagossian people became impoverished," says Vine. "And they have remained impoverished as they have remained in exile."

The Struggle Continues

Today, the Chagossian people continue their struggle to return to their homeland and gain compensation for their losses. In the late 1990s, a bevy of information related to the Chagossian exile became available to the public under Britain's 30-year rule for automatically declassifying documents, allowing the Chagossian people to pursue legal action against the British government. The British High Court has ruled in their favor three times over the past decade, only to be overturned last October by Britain's highest court, the House of Lords. The suit now awaits an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights.

Vine became involved in the Chagossians' struggle in 2001. Michael Tiger, then a professor at Washington College of Law, asked him to serve as an expert witness in a case they were filing against the U.S. government. Vine joined Tiger and WCL's UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic in researching the case. His anthropological work on the impact of the exile on the Chagossian people involved researching archived documents in the U.S. and Britain, conducting extensive interviews with U.S. government officials involved in the expulsion, and living with Chagossian exiles in Mauritius and Seychelles for more than 7 months over the course of several years.

The case was dismissed in 2004, and the Chagossians' team of lawyers is currently exploring alternative legal angles from which to approach it.

As the Chagossians' struggle for reparations continues, Vine hopes that sharing their story helps call into question the militaristic foreign policy that has characterized the United States for the better part of the 20th century. "These policies have inflicted terrible costs on people from around the world," Vine says. "It is my hope that the book will be part of efforts to create a new kind of U.S. foreign policy based less on military force and more on diplomatic, social, and economic forms of engagement."