Uprooted: Foreign military bases and forced displacement

The English arrived, Mr Englishman arrived in Chagos,
The English arrived, the English uprooted us, cut off our food supply,
I will not forget,
Never, I will not forget my family,
The whistle blew three times to board the Mauritius,
It dumped us in Mauritius.

I will not forget,
Never, I will not forget my mother,
I will not forget those we left there in the cemetery.

The above excerpt is of a song composed by Mimose Bancoult Furcy, who was deported from the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean in 1971. She was only 13 years old at the time. The UK government, sometimes aided by the US Navy, forcibly expelled the entire Chagossian people, putting them on overloaded ships on which many fell ill, only to dump them – quite literally - on the shores of Mauritius and the Seychelles, hundreds of miles from their home. Without compensation, without explanation, without a resettlement plan, and without any possessions. Why? To make way for a US military base that in the past decades has developed in to one of the major military strongholds from which the US projects power in the Indian Ocean, Central Asia and East Africa: Diego Garcia.

With expenses for bases estimated to be at least 140 billion US dollars annually for maintenance and construction, the US Pentagon is the largest land-owner on earth, with assets stretching across the globe. Unfortunately it is not a landlord with a good track record when it comes to ecological, societal or moral standards, as the example of the Chagos people shows. In the 1950s and '60s, decolonisation and the growing tensions of the Cold War caused the US to fear that Russian or Chinese aspirations might make the Indian Ocean “a communist lake” inaccessible to the rapidly growing US military machine. To prevent this from happening, the US looked for and found strategically located islands such as the Australian Cocos (Keeling) Island, the Seychelles, and Diego Garcia in the British colonial ruled Chagos Archipelago.

The inhabitants of the Chagos islands were originally brought to the islands as slaves (from Africa) or indented workers (from India). For generations they built their society around the coconut-oil plantations on which most of them worked. Food, lumber for housing, medical aid and other essential needs of the islanders were provided for by the plantation owners and the British imperial rulers. Work conditions were relatively good for the Chagossians, the diet healthy. Until the Americans arrived. The Americans needed a base, and the British offered Chagos. The Americans demanded the Islands be cleared of local inhabitants, and the British still offered Chagos, denouncing the 1500 strong population as “negligible”. The Chagossians obviously had no say in the process, and have been obstructed in their fight for justice during the 40 years they have lived in exile.

Forced displacement is much more than “just” the removal from one's house, land or ancestral grounds. In the case of the Chagossians – where a whole community is deported to an unfamiliar place – the displacement has caused illness, depression, impoverishment, loss of self-esteem, and even death. Arriving in Mauritius and the Seychelles, the Chagossians found themselves in a strange land, where locals regarded them as competitors for insufficient jobs. Without education and without any possessions, most were unable to obtain proper housing or jobs, and many were unable to “fit in” to a society that to them was profoundly alien, and often hostile. Many experienced feelings of depression, of psychological stress, and have severe feelings of guilt about their own children, for whom they were unable to provide as they had back home. The jump from the almost paradisaical life in Chagos to having to find food for your hungry children in the trash of others in Mauritius or the Seychelles for some was simply too much to deal with. In the first year of exile alone, 44 Chagossians died. Among them Eliezer Louis “who had much grief and died”; Ito Mandarin who “died after landing of grief and poverty” and the entire Rabrune family that “had no property, was abandoned by everybody and died in disgrace”.

There are 17 similar recorded cases of forced mass displacement of populations to make space for a foreign military base. Examples are found as far apart as Greenland, Puerto Rico, Okinawa and Chagos. There’s a multitude of cases where smaller numbers of people lost housing, livelihood or religious sites – victims of the imperial desires of the US, EU member states or Russia. Expulsion, or displacement, directly caused by the decision of a government to make way for a military base, is but one of the many problems local communities face when they are confronted with a foreign military presence. Communities also report other economic, social, cultural, health and environmental harms, the exploitation of women, increased crime, loss of self-determination, and the inability of citizens to hold military offenders accountable in court. Military bases are usually largely inhabited by young men far away from home, partners and loved ones, and as a consequence the levels of rape, assault, and even murder, are high in the communities surrounding the bases.

The problems around these foreign bases are felt locally but they occur globally. With more than 1,000 overseas military facilities in more than 100 nations, the US has created the largest global military infrastructure in human history. European countries in addition maintain about 150 such military outposts. Russia keeps about half a dozen bases in former Soviet Republics; India has one military base in Tajikistan. Many of these facilities are direct preparations for warfare, but next to that, bases can function as listening posts, storage for nuclear or conventional weaponry, testing ranges for new weapons, early warning radar stations, treatment or “rest and recuperation facilities” for soldiers, throughput stations for troops on their way to or from a war, even administrative port facilities allowing a country to circumvent local custom procedures for dodgy arms trade deals.

The shared experience of all the communities around foreign military bases brought them together to form the International No-Bases Network in 2003. For many communities, the realisation that there are hundreds of other communities facing similar problems has been a profoundly empowering experience. Sharing information, learning from each other's successes and failures, the No-Bases groups are now better equipped to jointly struggle against the unjust arrangements accompanying foreign bases. They are empowered by the statements of solidarity in hard times, but also draw inspiration from the successes of others.

One of the successes that the Chagossians may draw inspiration from is found in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where after years of struggle the inhabitants managed to regain access rights to large parts of their island after it had been used for decades as a testing site for new weapons, and as a training site. The struggle of Vieques is long from over, now that the US refuses to clean up the toxic waste and unexploded shells they left behind. Still, the end of the expulsion of those who lost their land and the regaining of communal lands shows us that even in our most desperate times it can be done. That local communities can stand up to the most powerful governments and claim back their land. That relatively small nations can stand up to the world's most powerful army and eventually make them go home.

The Chagossian people's fate is, against their will, linked to that of the men and women serving the American war machine. Surveys show that the men and women serving on isolated island bases like Diego Garcia often suffer from home sickness, restlessness or depression. The Chagossian people who had to leave to make way for them similarly experience a painful longing for their nation, their lands, their community life. American soldier, or Chagossian exile, both are uprooted, to use the words of Mimose Bancoult. They are both misplaced and they both deserve to go home.

Wilbert van der Zeijden
Coordinator of the International No-Bases Network (www.no-bases.org) and a Transnational Institute associate (www.tni.org).

The author acknowledges that the book Island of Shame: the Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia by David Vine (Princeton Press, 2009) has been a strong motivation and source for this article.

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