The saga of Diego Garcia's Chagossian evacuees

May 10, 2006, was a special day for the exiles from the Chagos group of islands in the Indian Ocean. On that day, uk's High Court ruled that they be allowed to return home. In the late 1960s, all indigenous Chagossians were evicted to make way for a us air base in Diego Garcia. The base was the launchpad for the recent us invasions of A fghanistan and Iraq.

A British colony located midway between Africa and Asia in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia once had more than 2,000 inhabitants. The ancestry of many of them goes back to the 18th century, when the French brought slaves from Africa to work in coconut plantations. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815, the islands passed on to the British, who bought indentured labourers from India. By the 20th century, the settlers had a school, a hospital, railways and docks. They had also developed a distinct dialect, a lilting French Creole. But tranquillity lasted only till the 1950s.

In 1961, Jack Grantham led a us survey team whose objective was to find an island suitable for a military base that would allow Pentagon to dominate the Indian Ocean. For the next three years, British and American planners inspected the Chagos group. Finally, the island of Aldabra was selected. The decision was kept a secret. It, however, leaked out to scientists of the Royal Society in London and the Smithsonian Institute, Washington. Aldabra's unique wildlife was in peril. The formidable academies mounted a campaign that saw off all plans to make Aldabra a military base. The island's wildlife was spared. The us team's second choice, Diego Garcia, however, was not. The island, though rich in biodiversity, was not exceptional enough to excite naturalists.

Brothers in conspiracy During the 1960s, the uk and us governments conspired to get rid of Diego Garcia's population. Gore-Booth, under-secretary at the British foreign office, wrote: "There will be no indigenous population except seagulls.' The correspondence was conducted with great secrecy. Researchers did not get a whiff till well into the 1990s, when a cache of declassified official documents was discovered in the National Archives at Kew, in London. Says John Pilger, an Australian journalist and maker of Stealing a Nation, a documentary on Diego Garcia, "The documents provide the narrative of a conspiracy between the governments of the uk and the us to deport a population ... a crime against humanity as per the International Court of Justice'.

In April 1964, Anthony Greenwood, colonial secretary in Britain's Labour Party government, flew to Mauritius