A Tiny Archipelago in the Indian Ocean Is at the Heart of a Major Political Struggle

Chagossians are fighting to find a way home to their native islands, but are divided over how to go about it

A Tiny Archipelago in the Indian Ocean Is at the Heart of a Major Political Struggle
(Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines)

It was the dead of night when the Atlas Air flight carrying Jean-Francois Nellan and his U.S. military chaperones finally touched down in his ancestral homeland. He had heard so much from his grandparents about the Chagos archipelago — the chain of tropical atolls they and their families had called home for generations — that his long-awaited first glimpse was a bit of an anticlimax.

The next morning, he woke to a bright, sunny day on Diego Garcia, the largest island in Chagos, and home to a U.S. naval base nicknamed the “Footprint of Freedom,” both for the atoll’s shape — like a foot in profile — and its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, about 1,000 miles south of the Indian subcontinent, within striking distance of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Nellan was given a tour of the uninhabited parts of the island and at last saw his grandparents’ old house, nestled among coconut plantations grown wild in the five decades since those who tended them were expelled to make way for the base.

It came as a punch to the gut.

“They always told the stories,” he said. “But then you see the house. That’s where your family were living, but someone took them out of their house to be somewhere else. And then, when you come back into that house, just to have a look, it’s very emotional,” he said, trailing off, lost in thought for a moment.

The United Kingdom, which oversaw Chagos — sometimes called the British Indian Ocean Territory or BIOT — had secured the land for the base in 1965, just as the U.S. was in the midst of a Cold War drive to expand its military presence in strategic locations. Leasing Diego Garcia to the U.S. took the heat off after London’s refusal to commit troops to the Vietnam War effort and came with a discount on much-needed Polaris missiles for the U.K.’s own arsenal. But to build the base, first the roughly 1,500 residents of the island, Nellan’s grandparents included, would need to be relocated. It was a brutal, untidy affair.

To avoid breaching international law, Britain labeled the Chagossians as transient “contract workers” — covering up their ancestral links going back to the late 18th century — as a way to justify evicting them from their lands. Some of the islands’ residents found themselves barred from returning home after making routine trips to Mauritius or the Seychelles for personal visits or medical treatment. The rest were loaded onto boats, crammed below deck “kuma eslav” (like slaves) they would say, and sent the 1,200 miles southwest to Mauritius. About 200 others were expelled to the Seychelles.

Nellan’s grandparents found themselves trapped in Mauritius, a bleak place of exile. There was no plan for these destitute, traumatized refugees, who wound up living in shantytowns not far from the capital, eking out a living in low-paid jobs on the docks, in the cane plantations or doing domestic work. Many fell into prostitution, alcoholism and drug addiction. There are stories of people committing suicide or simply dying of what Chagossians call “sagren” (sadness). Compensation was scant. Chagossians in Mauritius received about $4,000 each in the late 1970s and ’80s, according to testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch. The largely illiterate population was forced to sign away their right of return. Chagossians in the Seychelles, meanwhile, received nothing.

Nellan’s heritage visit, organized by Britain’s Foreign Office in 2020, had a deep effect on him. He returned home to Britain, where many Chagossians had resettled after obtaining citizenship rights in 2002, with decades of injustice seared on his mind. He’d grown up in Mauritius but had always been reluctant to consider himself Mauritian; despite the nation’s multicultural society, racial prejudice against the descendants of slaves was rife. Attending Eden College in the capital, Port Louis, he told his economics teacher he wanted to study accounting and finance but was told to go play a ravanne, a percussion instrument used in traditional sega music. The following year, he was expelled for reporting a teacher who had come to class drunk, trying to pick a fight with him. He felt he had no future in Mauritius.

He eventually made it to Britain in 2006, a country about which he also felt deeply conflicted but that offered the chance of something better. There, he earned his degree and landed a job as an accountant at Rolls-Royce in the town of Derby. After the heritage visit, he started turning political, joining forces with Chagossians in Manchester and Crawley, a town near Gatwick Airport with a 3,000-strong community, to form a platform called Chagossian Voices that would rally his people in their fight for reparations and self-determination.

Nellan’s trip to Diego Garcia also came at a unique inflection point in the long-running geopolitical saga of Chagos. In 2019, Mauritius won a landmark battle for sovereignty over the archipelago at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Britain, which had excised Chagos during Mauritius’s own independence negotiations. The archipelago belonged to Mauritius by right, said a panel of judges. In a subsequent U.N. resolution, 116 member states concurred, giving Britain six months to hand the islands back. In late 2022, Britain finally agreed to negotiate a handover, the details of which are still being finalized.

Though Chagos is a mere drop in the ocean in terms of area — the total land mass of the entire archipelago, some 60 islands, is less than 22 square miles spread out over 250,000 square miles — its location has grown only more strategic in an era of Chinese expansionism, making the handover, and the fate of the U.S. base there, a matter of geopolitical significance on five continents. In the decades since the base was built, the U.K. had never collected rent for Diego Garcia, but Mauritius, which has pledged to renew and extend America’s lease when it expires in 13 years, is eyeing rent payments expected to exceed the $63 million America pays annually for a smaller base in Djibouti. As the U.S. and U.K. attempt to keep their footholds in a territory that has long served as a stage for competing Chinese and Indian influence campaigns, the fate of the Chagossians themselves has been largely relegated to the margins.

After five decades of exile, an estimated 10,000 Chagossian natives and their descendants are scattered across Mauritius, the Seychelles and Britain. Fragmentation had always worked in favor of the U.K. and America, making it easier to deny Chagossians status, reparations, apologies and a say over their destiny. Now, with the imminent handover, Nellan feared it would work in favor of Mauritius, too. His own past made him wary of his future being placed in the hands of a country where he’d never felt at home, a country that would now reap profits from his ancestral land.

Not all Chagossians shared his feelings. Port Louis had the backing of the Mauritius-based Chagos Refugees Group, a long-established voice of the community, which had overcome decades of mistrust in the Mauritian government to back its sovereignty bid at the ICJ. Having aligned the two causes, Mauritius had pledged to grant “Mauritians of Chagossian origin” something the British had always denied them: the opportunity to resettle in their homeland.

Nellan and his fellow activists in Britain had watched as five of their fellow Chagossians from Mauritius joined an official expedition to the archipelago in early 2022, images of the Mauritian flag being planted on the Peros Banhos atoll broadcast to the world.

A new narrative of freedom from colonial rule was being told. But, to Nellan, it looked like colonialism in another form.

By late September of this year, British and Mauritian negotiators were about to embark on a sixth round of talks, having missed their New Year’s 2023 deadline. The holdup appeared to be over arrangements for Diego Garcia. The prospect of a delayed timetable for transferring sovereignty over the strategically valuable island had been floated — at least until the expiration of America’s lease in 2036. But it seemed unlikely Mauritius would be buying that solution. As one Mauritian source told New Lines, Port Louis was not only seeking sovereignty over the entire territory, including Diego Garcia, from the moment of the handoff, it also intended to charge back rent for the island dating from 1965.

As the future of their homeland was being hammered out in the backrooms of Port Louis and London, Chagossians had found themselves sidelined. In February, Human Rights Watch had come out with a report that summed up every twist and turn in their hypercomplex transnational trajectory, charging America and Britain with crimes against humanity. It demanded that Chagossians be regarded as an Indigenous people with rights of self-determination — a status denied them by both Britain and Mauritius. The report also called for wrongs to be righted with proper reparations, and for the Chagossian people to be at the very center of the talks. Instead, the talks have had a centrifugal effect, leaving the Chagossians in Mauritius, the Seychelles and Britain hostage to different political forces.

The main split in the movement was clearly between the Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius and Chagossian Voices in Britain. New Lines heard accusations on either side of the equator that both were being used by government powers, adjectives like “brainwashed” and “manipulated” cropping up regularly. The truth was more complex.

In Mauritius, Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, did not feel ill-served by the high-level talks. The 59-year-old electrician had fought successive battles for resettlement in the English courts, eventually reaching a legal dead end. The British government’s refusal to grant Chagossians that basic right of return all came down to “racism,” he told New Lines. So he turned to Mauritius, marrying the Chagossian cause to the battle for Mauritian sovereignty. Far from feeling marginalized, his group had taken center stage at the ICJ, providing vital testimony on Britain’s colonial brutality.

Among them was Liseby Elyse, 70, born on Peros Banhos, whose searing testimony over video link electrified the judges. In 1973, four months pregnant, she’d been crammed into a cabin in the bottom of an eviction ship; the trauma of the four-day journey led her to lose her baby two weeks after she arrived. “Nobody would like to be uprooted from the island where he was born, to be uprooted like animals,” she said in Creole. Her testimony was a turning point in the Mauritian battle for sovereignty, laying bare the horrors of colonialism, helping to swing international opinion in its favor.

In Britain, members of Chagossian Voices had balked at being described as “Mauritians of Chagossian origin” in court. “If Chagossians were treated well in Mauritius, do you think we’d have come here?” said Frankie Bontemps, son of a Diego Garcia native, who was leading the group in Crawley. “Our main objective is to get our land back,” he said. He feared that, under Mauritian rule, Chagossians returning home would end up working for a Mauritian ruling class, with no financial firepower to build their own future.

He was exasperated with the British government, which had offered two online consultations on talks in February and May of 2023, allowing Chagossians lined up in alphabetical order a few minutes each to have their say. The May session was framed by two talking points: environmental protection and Britain’s contribution to resettlement. The experience left participants feeling powerless, with U.K. officials dodging their questions and feigning helplessness in the face of the ICJ ruling’s finality. It seemed that participants were operating in a closed loop, on the margins of a much bigger geopolitical shift. Another session was held on Oct. 3.

“Bann angle ti al kokin partukote. Asterla zot pe dir zot pa kapav fer naryin!” said Bontemps. (“The English went round nicking all over the place. Now they’re saying they can’t do anything!”)

It was clear that going to the U.K. Foreign Office for answers was getting Chagossian Voices nowhere. But reconciliation with Mauritius did not seem to be an option either.

At a conference held at the University of Worcester last May, dedicated to the challenges and prospects of the archipelago, the conflicting aims and agendas of the rival Chagossian factions were laid bare. Guest speakers included academics, activists and lawyers, some of whom had devoted decades to the Chagossian cause. Bancoult spoke over the ether from Mauritius, blasting the British government for its paltry support packages and refusal to allow Chagossians the right of return. Weighing up what Britain and Mauritius were putting on the table, the latter had at least offered resettlement.

Chagossian Voices had declined an offer to speak at the conference. The group had written an email to the organizers, saying that it was tired of having the Chagossian story and culture “used by others to advance personal, political or career interests.” It was concerned at what it perceived to be the pro-Mauritian bias of the event. But more than anything else, the members of Chagossian Voices were incandescent at the event’s choice of keynote speaker: the British-French human rights lawyer Philippe Sands.

Former Mauritian Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam had hired Sands during the furor over a U.S. cable, released by Wikileaks in 2010, concerning Britain’s plans to create a marine-protected area that would conveniently prevent Chagossians — or “Man Fridays,” as they were called by a Foreign Office official cited in the cable — from returning home. Sands had clout, not only as a lawyer but also as a prizewinning author. His most recent book, “The Last Colony,” was an account of the legal battle to end Britain’s grip on Chagos, interwoven with the story of Liseby Elyse, whose testimony had proven so crucial to the Mauritian bid for sovereignty.

The mere mention of Sands’ name tended to provoke a sort of despair among the members of Chagossian Voices. Already aggrieved that their cause had been twinned with the fight for Mauritian sovereignty, they now looked on as the Mauritian government’s star hire won literary plaudits as a champion of Chagossian rights. “He says he’s fighting colonization with his right hand, but with his left hand, he’s passing it on to another country,” Nellan said.

Sands, who did not respond to New Lines’ request for an interview, treaded carefully during his appearance, acknowledging the divisions among exiled Chagossian communities while referencing the internationally recognized legal status of the islands. The Chagossian community was not a monolith, he said. It includes “a large number of individuals with a range of different views about their rights, the harm that has been done to them and the way forward.” But, he added more firmly, the situation in international law had been settled. There wasn’t much point in wasting any more time on a decision that the British government had itself recognized.

Barrister Jamie Trinidad, who had previously represented Chagossians based in the Seychelles, acknowledged that Mauritian sovereignty was an “imperfect solution.” Speaking on the phone after the conference, he said he understood Chagossian Voices’ decision not to attend. “Some of it boils down to the fact they don’t feel confident of giving an account of themselves in that setting,” he said. But, in his view, the group needed to find a way of engaging “in good faith” with Mauritius.

As he said at the conference, Mauritius was now the only game in town.

For some Chagossians, however, Mauritius wasn’t even part of their story, and Chagossian Voices was banking on those without ties to Mauritius to help it make its case for a future untethered from Port Louis.

Bernadette Dugasse, a member of Chagossian Voices who had been exiled in the Seychelles, had zero links to Mauritius. Earlier in the year, she had launched a legal bid at the London High Court to halt talks, represented pro bono by barrister Anton van Dellen. If her application for judicial review worked, the British government would have to review its approach. If she lost, she would have to cover the government’s legal fees, potentially running into tens of thousands of dollars.

It was a massive gamble for Dugasse, already struggling with a recent rent hike on her house in London. She was alarmed by Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth’s indications ­— recently reconfirmed in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly — that resettlement would be reserved for Mauritian nationals. “It’s confusing for me because I don’t have connections to Mauritius,” she said. “If I don’t have a connection to Mauritius, am I not considered Chagossian?”

A veteran of the Chagossian struggle, Dugasse was born on Diego Garcia in 1956. She had some support from her allies in the Seychelles. Pierre Prosper, leader of Chagossian Committee Seychelles, had been pushing for a place at the table through the Foreign Office, something a bit more substantial than the online consultations.

“We don’t think that it’s out of place to ask for that,” he said over the phone from the Seychelles island of Mahe.

Prosper said he would ideally have wanted all groups to agree before the application had been filed, but what was done was done. He feared that, once the handover was complete, Chagossians would find it difficult to assert their rights through the Mauritian legal system.

“It’s a more closed environment, judicially,” he said. “If the title is transferred to Mauritius, our leverage will diminish significantly.”

The backstory to Dugasse’s bid was an open secret. Daniel Kawczynski, a Conservative member of Parliament in the U.K., had introduced her to Van Dellen in a fit of pique after then-Prime Minister Liz Truss triggered the handover process during her six weeks in office. Kawczynski was on high alert over China, prophesying an almighty conflagration in the Indian Ocean. In his view, Mauritius, which had long been courted by China, was now “a puppet state.” If Chagos became Mauritian, it followed that China would rule the waves.

Intent on keeping China out, Kawczynski had developed a keen interest in Chagossian rights. Speaking via Zoom with New Lines, he suggested a referendum. After all, 1,650 voters in the Falklands had been asked if they wanted to remain British in 2013. Denying Chagossians this choice was “racist,” he said, adding that it was time to track down Chagossians around the world for a vote.

Like the Falklanders, he believed Chagossians would choose to remain British. He wasn’t averse to including independence on the ballot, an option he deemed preferable to handing the islands over to Mauritius without any consultation. “They’re sitting on a gold mine,” he said. “If they chose to lease some of the islands to the Americans and to the British, they would probably make Monaco look like a walk in the park. They could actually be the wealthiest people in the world.”

For many, the alliance with Kawczynski was beyond the pale. Chagossians were being used as a “vehicle for China bashing,” said Trinidad, the barrister who had previously represented the Chagossians of Seychelles. “It’s not going to serve their interests.”

Chagossian Voices did not care how it looked. Its members felt they had been given one shot at getting to the table, and they were damned if they weren’t going to take it. When they were pushed to the margins of talks, Kawczynski had showed up for them, and that was all that mattered.

For Dugasse, the pressure was mounting.

“I have that feeling. Am I doing the right thing or am I being used?” she said, seated in her living room, strewn with mementoes of her island past. “Can I trust 100%?”

Boris Johnson, Britain’s former prime minister, upped the anti-China ante in September, with an article in the Daily Mail exhorting Britain to “kick over the ­negotiating table and to get tougher” in talks over Chagos. While the current Mauritian government was eyeing a direct deal with America, he claimed “a future Mauritian government might also close the base or allow the Chinese, at the right price, to build their own runways on the same archipelago.”

In Mauritius, claims of Chinese influence seemed wide of the mark. China and India had long vied for influence over the savvy island nation, known for punching above its weight in the region. Back in 2009, it had seemed that China was winning, obtaining prime land for a $730 million trade development zone, with further plans for a $113 million fishing port. But both projects, once hotly debated as signs of a putative takeover, had stalled. “At India’s request, Mauritius has had to calm its involvement with China,” said Ram Etwareea, a former economics and finance journalist with Geneva-based Le Temps, who is based in Mauritius.

All eyes were now on India, which had proposed and funded a $550 million light rail system in Mauritius, its largesse understood to be part of a deal granting it the use of Agalega, another island dependency ruled by Mauritius. India had built an airstrip on Agalega, which appeared to be specifically designed for its P-81 maritime surveillance aircraft, rather than the island’s 300 inhabitants still living on subsistence fishing. Fretful residents featured on Mauritian talk show Au Coeur de l’Info wondered whether they faced a Chagos 2.0.

India backed Mauritius in its bid for sovereignty over Chagos, though its support was driven by realpolitik. Worried about China’s presence in Djibouti and its investment in the deep-sea Gwadar port in Pakistan, New Delhi had a clear interest in maintaining tight links with its junior partner Mauritius, thus ensuring its own stakes in the future of the strategically located archipelago. But the talks also had a broader dimension, providing a platform for India to forge a pragmatic alliance with British, American and Australian interests, creating a common front against Chinese expansionism.

So where did Chagossians stand amid the geopolitical flexing? Cassam Uteem, the former president of Mauritius, believed talks were not sufficiently focused on Chagossians. “My personal view is that the Chagossians have the first right to know how their islands are going to be administered once we have our sovereignty back,” he said. “I think they’re afraid that if they get the Chagossians too much involved, they might just start asking for self-determination and eventually independence.”

Sitting in his coastal headquarters in Pointe aux Sables, Bancoult, of the Chagos Refugees Group, expressed confidence that the Mauritian government would grant Chagossians some form of regional autonomy as part of a planned resettlement programme on the islands of Peros Banhos and Salomon. He seemed satisfied. Allying himself with the Mauritian government in a joint battle against colonialism had borne more fruit than his years of battling in the British court system.

Bancoult, born on Peros Banhos, had a privileged insight into talks: He and his team received feedback each month from the Mauritian prime minister himself.

“Everything is on paper,” he said. “I’m surrounded by consultants, advisors, experts. I have people all over the world,” working to forward his cause. “My vision is that Chagossians will have their destiny.”

In his eyes, that destiny lay with Mauritius. As talks continued, Bancoult worked in lockstep with the Mauritian government. He was incredulous at the refusal of his fellow Chagossians to accept that they were Mauritian. “Chagos was a dependency of Mauritius,” he said. “People saying they are not Mauritian are more Mauritian than me.”

Bancoult had long been considered the voice of Chagossians in Mauritius. But now he had competition from fellow Peros Banhos native Claudette Pauline Lefade, a veteran activist who had helped set up the Chagos Refugees Group before a long exile in Switzerland. Now she was back, leading yet another rival group, Chagos Asylum People, which met weekly in Roche Bois, an impoverished suburb of Port Louis. Some of the 12 members at the meeting were keen to leave Mauritius, applying for British citizenship.

Lefade said that members were sick of struggling in poverty, with no training or opportunities to improve their lives. She said that they had lost faith in Bancoult’s leadership and wanted to participate directly in talks.

“The English decided for us,” she said. “Mauritius decided for us. But us, we’re still considered as Tarzans and Man Fridays. I say: No, things have changed. Now you have to let us take our destiny in our own hands.”

The group was working closely with Chagossian Voices in Britain on a parallel battle, pushing for recognition as an Indigenous people at the U.N. and other international forums. Indigenous status would provide legal underpinning for rights to some form of self-determination. It seemed that they were playing the long game, looking beyond Mauritian sovereignty.

Jean Claude de l’Estrac, a Mauritian journalist as well as a former foreign minister, sensed a clash of interests. For a long time, he had been skeptical about the merging of Mauritian sovereignty and Chagossian resettlement rights.

“We think it’s one and the same, but these are two separate battles,” he said. “These two are sleeping in the same bed, but they have two different dreams.”

Mauritius had won its bid for sovereignty over Chagos against a darkening political backdrop at home.

All over the country, Mauritians were talking about Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth’s democratic backsliding. Jugnauth had been given the top job by his late father when the latter stepped down in 2017. And though his premiership was later endorsed by voters in 2019, the country once known as Africa’s leading democracy had since appeared to be in decline, managed by Jugnauth’s “Lakwizzin” (“The Kitchen”) — a tight inner circle, which critics accused of acting like a royal court.

Amid multiple corruption scandals, things took a perturbing turn with the murder in 2020 of Soopramanien Kistnen, an agent for Jugnauth’s Militant Socialist Movement who was found burned in a cane field, allegedly after attempting to lift the lid on bid-rigging in the procurement system. Police said it was suicide, a lie later disproven by a coroner. A string of suspicious suicides among civil servants followed, and rumors of a mafia-style government cover-up abounded.

Over the past year, a series of apparent revenge attacks, led by a new police unit called the Special Striking Team, have targeted a number of government critics, including lawyer Akil Bissessur, activist Bruneau Laurette and Sherry Singh, the former CEO of Mauritius Telecom, once a member of Lakwizzin who had denounced Jugnauth for forcing him to allow an Indian team to install a device at a deep-sea cable station capable of monitoring the country’s internet traffic.

The attacks followed a pattern, with officers arresting targets on provisional charges of trafficking or fraud.

“The government’s aim isn’t necessarily to convict people,” said Touria Prayag, editor-in-chief of L’Express Weekly, who has documented the abuses in two books. “What they want is to humiliate you. Waste your time. Waste your money. And then they sort of finish you because this is a small country.”

Looking in from the outside, activists like Nellan and Bontemps contesting the Chagos handover had lately started to worry about returning to the island. They were especially spooked by changes to the country’s criminal code, making it illegal to produce “misleading information” on Mauritian sovereignty over its territories, an offense that could result in a fine of 5 million Mauritian rupees (over $100,000) or 10 years in prison.

In a recent interview with Le Mauricien’s Week-End newspaper, Jugnauth addressed criticism of his human rights record on the margins of a Chagossian commemoration event. Taking aim at a recent U.S. State Department report that highlighted abuses, he deployed the Chagos card. “They criticized us. But when the English uprooted the Chagossians from Chagos, what did they do?” he said. “I find it shocking that they present themselves as the world’s policeman but only apply their principles on one side.”

After six weeks of requests, New Lines was unable to obtain an interview with a government representative.

It was often said, perhaps for the sake of convenience, that Chagossians who’d left Mauritius had moved on, leaving the struggle behind. But Modeste Alexis, a native of Diego Garcia, still lived it each day. His mother, Charlesia Alexis, co-founded the Chagos Refugees Group in 1983, after landmark protests and hunger strikes in Mauritius; he had been entrenched in the saga since his youth.

His mother had died in 2012, after eight years in Crawley, a strange existence on the edges of the London sprawl, with her cigarettes and memories for comfort. She had never gone home, having rejected Britain’s offers of a heritage visit.

“She would say that Diego Garcia was the land where she was born and that, if the English took her there on a boat, the day she set foot back on that land, nobody would ever be able to take her away. They’d have to kill her,” Alexis said.

Alexis had come to Crawley in 2008 and now worked at a restaurant at Gatwick Airport. Vivid memories of Mauritius crowded his head, of going to school hungry, of being exploited as a child laborer in a furniture workshop, of seeing his mother come home from prison with a bandage around her wounded head.

Now he was contemplating his own feelings about it all.

“I lived more than 40 years in Mauritius, but I know that I’m not Mauritian and I will never be able to consider myself as a Mauritian. But nobody can tell me I’m English either. Even when they gave me the English nationality, I couldn’t think of myself as English,” he said.

“In truth, I don’t know what I am,” he said. “But my identity is still mine.”

Amid the geopolitical tussles, the fear of Chinese expansionism and the rise of Indian influence, the talk of colonialism, of sovereignty, of back rent owed and future contracts to sign, there was still the simple truth at the core of the Chagossian struggle.

“They took our place on earth,” he said.

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