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Following Weekly's interview with Jean Claude de l'Estrac a few weeks ago about the Chagos case at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugee Group, felt aggrieved at what he thought was an unfair portrayal of him. At his request, Weekly speaks to him to hear his side of the story and that of the Chagossians.
Mr. Bancoult, you asked for this interview because you took exception to the statement of Mr. Jean Claude de l'Estrac in a previous interview in Weekly. What is it exactly you do not agree with?
What I do not agree with is his presentation of me as someone anti-patriotic towards Mauritius. What I want people to know is that I have been fighting for my rights and those of my people for 35 years. We want people to know the way in which our human rights have been violated and that we are fighting to have the same opportunity as everybody else - that is to live in our place of birth.
I think what Mr. de l'Estrac meant was not that you were anti-patriotic, but that you are fighting for the Chagossians to be allowed to go and live on their island and not necessarily for the sovereignty of Mauritius over the archipelago. Is that something you are prepared to concede?
I have been fighting alongside the government of Mauritius since 2015.
Have you been fighting for the Chagos to become part of Mauritius?
Yes, no one can deny that! It's not only just that there has an abuse of human rights, but also a violation of sovereignty, where one nation dismembered a territory before independence. No one can deny that. That's why I cannot understand why Mr. de l'Estrac said that. We have been with the state of Mauritius since 2015, we were at the UN and we were not just making statements. We participated in an exhibition because lots of people know about the Chagos, but not many know that before the US military base, people were living there in peace and harmony.
But your fight as far as we understand it has never been for the sovereignty of Mauritius over the archipelago, has it?
My main objection is that there has been a violation of human rights. That has been our main focus. We cannot do the job of the Mauritian government. When the Mauritian government approached us to join forces with them, we did.
But you and the government of Mauritius are not fighting for exactly the same thing: you are fighting for the right of the Chagossians to go back to their country and the Mauritian government is fighting for its sovereignty over the Chagos as well.
No, there is a mistake there. Like us, the Mauritian government is also fighting for the right to return. The only government preventing the Chagossians from returning home is the UK government. The Mauritian government has allowed us to become part of its delegations and gave us the opportunity to tell the story of how we have been suffering for so many years. And we took the opportunity to do that.
What about the Mauritian sovereignty over the Chagos?
We are on the same wavelength as the Mauritian government. What is it that the government is asking for? It wants to redress the violation of the UN resolutions by dismembering the country and it is at the same time saying that the Chagossian people need to have the right to go back to their island.
The Mauritian government is fighting for more than just the return of the Chagossians home; it is also saying that the Chagos is a part of the territory of Mauritius. Are you also fighting for that?
So are you saying that the Chagos should return to Mauritius?
Of course! No one can deny that. We are against the shameful way in which the whole Chagossian population was deported. We want to see justice being done. I have lived in Mauritius for 50 years, how can we deny that? We are citizens of Mauritius!
Would you like to remain a citizen of Mauritius and all Chagossians to remain citizens of Mauritius?
That's a decision for all Chagossians to take at the proper time. Chagossians were deported to many different countries, but most of the Chagossians were deported to Mauritius and I have been living here for 50 years. I am Mauritian! And, let me be clear, we have never asked for the closure of the US military base. All we are saying is that if others can live and work there, the Chagossians should be there too. There are people from the Philippines, Singapore etc. working there and we are saying that priority should be given to the Chagossians. That is why we have had cases in the courts because it is the UK government that banished us and is preventing us from returning. If there is room for others, why isn't there for us?
Are you fighting to be in Chagos as a Mauritian or as a British citizen?
I cannot say! The most important thing is that I am Mauritian.
You are British too, aren't you?
I was born in Chagos, I have been living in Mauritius for 50 years. I am Mauritian. In 2002, I was given a British passport. But the most important part of my identity is that I am from Chagos.
But Chagos is not a country, is it?
It's a territory that Mauritius has a claim over. Where do you stand in this?
The most important thing is that we should be allowed to go back home and if the island should go to Mauritius, that's OK.
But what if it doesn't?
That is not my focus.
That is not your problem, you mean?
There are 15 judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). I leave it to them to decide.
But what would you wish to happen?
The most important part of the struggle is for my fundamental rights and those of my people.
Is what happens to Mauritius secondary?
You cannot separate the two; we have been working together.
You have been working together, but have you been working for the same thing?
It's more or less the same thing.
Mauritius is fighting primarily for its sovereignty over the Chagos. Is the fight of your people the same?
The fight of my people is to return to Chagos.
Whatever the circumstances?
Whether Chagos returns to Mauritius or not is irrelevant, is it?
My primary aim is that the British government that is supposed to be a champion of human rights deprived my people of all their rights. I cannot support what they did.
You are citizens of Britain, isn't that a form of support?
Not for me. Before being British, I am a Mauritian citizen. Dual nationality is not prohibited.
I am not saying you are doing anything illegal. What I am saying is that you can't say that you will never accept Britain to have sovereignty over the Chagos when you are a British citizen yourself.
The way that my people have been suffering for so many years is unacceptable. Look at other British overseas territories and the treatment they have been getting and compare that with the way Chagossians have been treated. It is shameful! How could you not treat less than 10,000 people properly when you have been able to give facilities to more than 78,000 refugees to come to the UK? If Chagos remained British, that means that some Chagossians will be allowed to come in and others will not because they are not holding a British passport! Mauritius, on the other hand, has never denied the right of citizenship to the second and third generation of Chagossians. I therefore do not have any problem with Mauritius exercising sovereignty over the Chagos.
Is this your personal or official stand?
This is my personal stand.
What about your official stand and that of your people?
It will be the same. As I told you, we have been suffering for so many years. If there was goodwill on the part of the UK government, this matter would have been solved so many years ago. If you take a look at the UK's stand at the ICJ, they recognise the atrocities they have committed against the Chagossians but they are not doing anything positive to put an end to our suffering.
They say that they gave you British passports to allow you to go and work in the UK. Is that not an act of goodwill?
No! That is not enough. I was born in Chagos. That place is now accessible to others who are living and working there but I don't have the same opportunity! That is why I blame the UK government for the situation we are in today.
Don't you blame the Mauritian government as well for the treatment you got when you were deported from Chagos?
The Mauritian government also has its own responsibility. However, we were given the opportunity to come to Mauritius and we were treated the same as every Mauritian. We have had free education, free healthcare, an old age pension... We also have the Chagossian welfare fund that is working for the welfare of the Chagossian people. What has the UK done for us?
They gave you the nationality and the right to live in the UK.
What's the point of that? I am in Mauritius. Did the UK government pay for my air fare to London? I need to find that money to go there myself! And what do I do when I get there? There is nothing to help the Chagossians settle in the UK. Maybe you read in newspapers the problems experienced by the Chagossians there. Communication was a real issue to begin with. Did the British government provide them with some facilitator or field officer to assist them when they went to the doctor for example, or to settle down in the UK? No! Nothing! What they have done very well is separate families. If I have a partner and we are not civilly married, my son won't have the right to go to the UK.
But that's the same all over the world.
No, it's different. Besides, children born from a Chagossian mother before 1969 are not entitled to the British nationality but those born after that date are. In many cases, there are Chagossian mothers with children born before and after. If they have 10 children, five can be British and the other five cannot live with them in the UK. In the Chagos, we lived as a whole family, children, parents, grandparents. That was our way of living. We will not allow the British to separate our families.
Would you be prepared to go back to the Chagos even if it was not returned to Mauritius?
For the time being I am supporting Mauritius because I am part of what Mauritius is supporting.
For the time being?
For the time being.
But if there was the possibility of returning there under some other conditions.
We will cross that bridge when we come to it.
The bridge right now is for your people to return to the Chagos, not for the Chagos to return to Mauritius.
I am saying that there is not just the violation of human rights, but also the issue of sovereignty.
Again, would you consider the possibility of returning home even if the Chagos did not come back to Mauritius?
We have to choose. But right now, justice needs to be done. Not just for the Chagossians, but for Mauritians too.
What is the bridge you were talking about?
If there is a judgment against Mauritius, which is unlikely, then we will have to decide. But for the time being, we are with Mauritius because what the UK government has done has not been redressed.
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