Thursday, October 07, 2004
There are times when one tragedy, one crime tells us how a whole system works behind its democratic facade and helps us to understand how much of the world is run for the benefit of the powerful and how governments lie. To understand the catastrophe of Iraq, and all the other Iraqs along imperial history's trail of blood and tears, one need look no further than Diego Garcia.
The story of Diego Garcia is shocking, almost incredible. A British colony lying midway between Africa and Asia in the Indian Ocean, the island is one of 64 unique coral islands that form the Chagos Archipelago, a phenomenon of natural beauty, and once of peace. Newsreaders refer to it in passing: "American B-52 and Stealth bombers last night took off from the uninhabited British island of Diego Garcia to bomb Iraq (or Afghanistan)." It is the word "uninhabited" that turns the key on the horror of what was done there. In the 1970s, the Ministry of Defense in London produced this epic lie: "There is nothing in our files about a population and an evacuation."
Diego Garcia was first settled in the late 18th century. At least 2,000 people lived there: a gentle creole nation with thriving villages, a school, a hospital, a church, a prison, a railway, docks, a copra plantation. Watching a film shot by missionaries in the 1960s, I can understand why every Chagos islander I have met calls it paradise; there is a grainy sequence where the islanders' beloved dogs are swimming in the sheltered, palm-fringed lagoon, catching fish.
All this began to end when an American rear-admiral stepped ashore in 1961 and Diego Garcia was marked as the site of what is today one of the biggest American bases in the world. There are now more than 2,000 troops, anchorage for 30 warships, a nuclear dump, a satellite spy station, shopping malls, bars and a golf course. "Camp Justice" the Americans call it.
During the 1960s, in high secrecy, the Labour government of Harold Wilson conspired with two American administrations to "sweep" and "sanitize" the islands: the words used in American documents. Files found in the National Archives in Washington and the Public Record Office in London provide an astonishing narrative of official lying all too familiar to those who have chronicled the lies over Iraq.
To get rid of the population, the Foreign Office invented the fiction that the islanders were merely transient contract workers who could be "returned" to Mauritius, 1,000 miles away. In fact, many islanders traced their ancestry back five generations, as their cemeteries bore witness. The aim, wrote a Foreign Office official in January 1966, "is to convert all the existing residents ... into short-term, temporary residents."
What the files also reveal is an imperious attitude of brutality. In August 1966, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote: "We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks that will remain ours. There will be no indigenous population except seagulls." At the end of this is a handwritten note by DH Greenhill, later Baron Greenhill: "Along with the Birds go some Tarzans or Men Fridays ..." Under the heading, "Maintaining the fiction", another official urges his colleagues to reclassify the islanders as "a floating population" and to "make up the rules as we go along".
There is not a word of concern for their victims. Only one official appeared to worry about being caught, writing that it was "fairly unsatisfactory" that "we propose to certify the people, more or less fraudulently, as belonging somewhere else". The documents leave no doubt that the cover-up was approved by the prime minister and at least three cabinet ministers.