A Black and Disgraceful Site

freedland_1-052809.jpg
Reuters
Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Indian Ocean’s Chagos archipelago. Between 1968 and 1973, Britain and the United States expelled the island’s residents in order to make way for a US military base, which has since been a launch pad for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was used as a ‘black site’ in the Bush administration’s system of extraordinary rendition.

1.

In the very lowest reaches of organized English soccer, in the bottom division of the amateur Crawley and District Football League, there is a team whose name sets it apart from its rivals. They are identified with their home villages in Sussex in southeast England: Ifield, Maidenbower, Worth. But this team has a name replete with an altogether different history. It is Chagos Island.

The soccer club is one of the few visible signs of a community of former subjects of the British Empire who now live in what they rarely thought of as “the mother country”—clustered, to be precise, in the unlovely exurbs around Gatwick airport. They, or their forebears, lived once in the Chagos archipelago, a string of more than sixty white-sanded, palm-fringed coral islands that are tiny dots on a map of the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Indonesia. Many of these Chagossians trace their roots back to the archipelago’s largest and best-known island: Diego Garcia.

To explain how they come to be living in Crawley, many of them working menial janitorial jobs in and around the airport, is to tell one of the more shocking tales of modern-day imperialism. It is a story of an old empire passing the torch to the new, Britain handing over one of its furthest-flung territories to the United States and expelling the native inhabitants to make way for the construction of a military base that has since become central to US control of the Indian Ocean and domination of the Persian Gulf. It is the tale of how a remote island idyll was simply emptied of its people, allowing for the creation of a place so secret that no journalist has been allowed to visit,1 a key staging post in George W. Bush’s war on terror, both the launch pad for the B-1s, B-2 “stealth” bombers, and B-52s that pounded Afghanistan and Iraq and a crucial node in the CIA’s rendition system, a “black site” through which at least two high-value suspected terrorists were spirited, far from the prying eyes of international law.

This is the story laid bare in Island of Shame, a meticulously researched, coldly furious book that details precisely how London and Washington colluded in a scheme of population removal more redolent of the eighteenth or nineteenth century than the closing decades of the twentieth. It reconstructs, memo by memo, how the deed was plotted, how it was done, and how it was denied through lies told to…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already subscribe to the Online or Print + Online Edition, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.