Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Living Outside

Fifty years ago, Toto Bertrand and his family were told, out of the blue, they were never allowed to return home again.

Not just home to their family house, but “home-home” to the peaceful country in which they were born – the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean. 

When they got the news Toto, just 10 at the time, and his family were on a trip to nearby Mauritius where his father, Charles, wanted him to take some school exams.

Charles planned to take his two sons back to Chagos once Toto had got his qualifications. Little did he know when he left the country he was born in that he would never return.

Against their will, and with no notice, the Bertrand family were among the first forced into exile along with about 2,000 others who called Chagos home.

In the evacuation of the island, family pets were killed and belongings left behind. It then became illegal to return to the beloved isles, which the Chagossians had occupied for over 150 years. 

And who dictated this mass deportation? Our very own UK government, thousands of miles away, under Labour’s Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. It was 1971. 

As inhabitants of a British ­colony, some Chagossians who were removed permanently got sent to neighbouring Mauritius or the Seychelles. Some were brought to the UK.

Their homeland had become collateral damage in a controversial political deal between Britain and America, allowing the British territory to be used as one of the most important US military bases in the world.

In return, the UK got a ­£1million cash discount on Polaris nuclear missiles.

Now, 4,000 US and British military personnel and around 1,000 civilian workers – largely from the Philippines – are the only people allowed to live there.

The displaced thousands, and the generations that followed, are still grieving for their homeland, now surrounded by over 30 American warships.

Their only hope comes in the unlikely form of Hollywood first lady and human rights powerhouse Amal Clooney and a team of lawyers fighting to get them their homes back.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” says Toto, who still longs to return to the beautiful country he knew as a boy.

“Many Chagossians had nothing with them when they left – just what they were wearing.

“A lucky few managed to pack a bag, but everything else got left behind,” he adds in a Chagossian Creole that is translated by members of the family when we meet at his London home.

“It literally happened ­overnight. The UK and US forces quickly rounded ­everyone up and told them they had to go; they gave no reason and forced everyone onto ships and boats.

“I was already in Mauritius but as the exiled Chagossians started to arrive that night they told us we could never go back there.

“Once people got to Mauritius or the UK, many had no family to turn to for help and had no money – nothing. They were forced into a terrible poverty.”

Clearly upset, Toto remembers how families were re-housed in Mauritian “project houses” – disused houses that wild goats and cows had moved into, not fit for humans.

“Some people ended up living outside,” he adds.

Many children died and discrimination by Mauritians, who had thousands turning up on their shores, became part of exiled existence, too.

“We were only allowed to do manual work like carrying heavy sacks of rice at the docks, while women could only ever be maids,” adds Toto’s brother, France.

Keeping their vibrant culture alive in exile has also been a challenge, especially since the family moved to the UK in 2006.

All Souls Day, on November 2, lets them remember loved ones who passed away, but they are heartbroken they can’t pay their respects to those buried on their home soil.

Now 61 and living in Crawley, West Sussex, with his second wife, Jenny, and children Nelson, 13, and David, nine, Toto says he is happy to have been joined in the UK by all of his family.

They include son Jason from a previous ­relationship, Jason’s wife Jessica and grandson, Justin, nine. France is also here.

Yet they all see it as a ­stepping stone until they are allowed to reclaim what they see as rightfully theirs.

So why, after years of ­campaigning, setbacks and political blocks, do they finally feel confident about allowing themselves to dream about finally returning to Chagos?

Last year, the Government commissioned a feasibility study which concludes that it would be entirely possible to help first-generation islanders and their families return home alongside the military base.

Any day now, the Supreme Court appeal led by Ms Clooney will deliver a verdict about whether Toto and thousands of others can return.

The family is optimistic – apart from David, who calls the island home despite having never been there in his nine years of life.

“But I predict that he won’t because David Cameron might be just like that last one [Harold Wilson] who took our land off us. But I wish we could all just get in the boat and go!”

And if he allowed himself to get excited about one thing? “In England, the ocean isn’t really clear. But in Chagos it’s very clear – I’ve seen photos.

“You could go swimming and see underneath. You can’t do that in Brighton where we live.”

Jason, was brought up on stories of a peaceful life in Chagos that didn’t rely on ­consumerism – there was ­literally no money because they were mostly self-sufficient.

“Dad’s memories are about how happy people were,” he explains.

“No one was attached to things like we are today – with laptops and mobile phones and so on. Everywhere was free to run or swim, or fish and they sat around in the evening with the elders talking.

“That’s the sort of lifestyle Jessica and I would love to give our son – it’s a heritage that belongs to us all. So if we win I’m in. We’ll happily return to my father’s land.”

There are about 1,500 Chagossians who have recently voted to return.

Find out more from the UK Chagos Support Association:

By the way, due to the role of Denis Healey, they are, in my experience, diehard fans of Tony Benn. They are also staunch supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, as he has long been of them.

Consider the difference between their treatment and that of, one way or another, several other British Overseas Territories.

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