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Chagos islands exile Lisette Talate dies aged 70


Summary of story from the New Statesman, January 19, 2012

Lisette Talate, a prominent figure in the campaign to be allowed to return to the Chagos islands, died earlier this month, aged 70.

Journalist John Pilger writes that she was a wiry, fiercely intelligent woman who masked her grief about being exiled from the Chagos islands with a determination that was a presence.

She was, he said, the embodiment of people’s resistance to the war on democracy.

Pilger first glimpsed Talate in a 1950s Colonial Office film about the Chagos islanders, a tiny creole nation living midway between Africa and Asia in the Indian Ocean.

Sitting in her kitchen in Mauritius many years later, she said: “I was a happy child, because my roots were deep in the islands, my paradise. My great-grandmother was born there; I made six children there.

“That’s why they couldn’t legally throw us out of our own homes; they had to terrify us into leaving or force us out.

“At first, they tried to starve us. The food ships stopped arriving, [then] they spread rumours we would be bombed, then they turned on our dogs.”

And all because, in the early 1960s, the UK’s Labour government led by Harold Wilson secretly agreed to a demand from Washington that the Chagos archipelago, a British colony, be “swept” and “sanitised” of its 2,500 inhabitants so that a military base could be built on the principal island, Diego Garcia.

“They knew we were inseparable from our pets,” said Talate. “When the American soldiers arrived to build the base, they backed their big trucks against the brick shed where we prepared the coconuts; hundreds of our dogs had been rounded up and imprisoned there.

“Then they gassed them through tubes from the trucks’ exhausts. You could hear them crying.”

Talate, her family and hundreds of the other islanders were forced on to a rusting steamer bound for Mauritius, a thousand miles away.

Today, Diego Garcia is crucial to America and Britain: the heaviest bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan was launched from its vast airstrips, says Pilger, and the CIA added a Guantanamo-style prison for its “rendition” victims and called it Camp Justice.

And all this, despite the fact that article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court says the “deportation or forcible transfer of population” is a crime against humanity.

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