the Disillusioned kid: Visitation Rights
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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Visitation Rights

Not all that long ago the visit by a group of Chagossians to their island homes was starting to look a lot like Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy: long awaited, much delayed and as yet amounting to diddly squat. Therefore, when stories began to emerge in January about preparations for such a visit my bullshit detector was going two-to-the-dozen. Unusually, my usually impeccable cynicism was misplaced on this occasion. Long story short: the visit has actually taken place.

Quoth the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
Following their successful visit to the Saloman Islands yesterday [April 4], the Chagossians today [April 5] visited Ile de Coin at Peros Banhos.

With no other suitable landing place, the group disembarked from their Mauritian vessel Trochetia directly onto the beach.

Once ashore, they wandered freely on the island and attended a church service in the old church conducted by the two Mauritian priests accompanying the visit, Father Marion and Father Mongellard. The opportunity was then taken to tend family graves on the island, after which a short service was also held.

Their final act was to unveil a stone commemorating the visit, which was produced in Mauritius and taken to the island with the Chagossians. They returned to the Trochetia for the overnight passage to their final Chagos Islands destination, Diego Garcia, which they will reach tomorrow, (April 6th).
The press release explains, "The humanitarian visit is being jointly organised by the British and Mauritian governments in co-operation with leaders of the Chagossian communities. The role of the British and Mauritian governments is to facilitate the Chagossians own programme of events on each island. British Forces personnel are providing logistic support." The FCO also reveals that the trip is being accompanied by "a professional Royal Navy camera team" (is anybody else surprised that such a thing exists?!). "Their footage will be available on a pooled basis from Reuters in Singapore on the evening of Friday 7th April." If you can't wait that long there are photos here and here.

No doubt the participants in the visit were fulfilling a lifetime's dream, but many of those not given the same opportunity consider their situation less than fair. According to Afrol News, "At Port Louis harbour in Mauritius, some 500 Chagossians waved goodbye to the few selected ones. Many were crying." Those Chagossians who are now resident in the UK are particularly unhappy. Allain Vinticassin, the de facto leader of the Chagossian community in the UK, asserted, "We were not informed and they did not say they needed a list from the UK group." Afrol News suggests a more complex picture:
According to Robert Bain from the UK Chagos Support Association, however, Chagos refugees in Mauritius maintain that their British comrades had been "offered places, when the trip was first planned a few years ago, but they turned them down." The trip was postponed several times and when the British Chagossians finally decided they did want places, "it was too late," Mr Bain had been told.
Whatever the truth on this particular point, it is clear that the visit is only the start. This isn't to say it shouldn't be viewed as a victory, but rather that we shouldn't lose perspective. The group participating in the visit numbered only 120, a fraction of the total Chagossian population (which probably numbers around 3,000) and lasted merely three days, of which only part was actually spent on the islands. The Chagossians and their allies haven't been fighting for forty-years to stop now.

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