As last generation of Chagos islanders fade, hopes of reviving lost culture is on the horizon

Rosy Leveque has never set foot on the land of her ancestors, although her grandmother’s stories have kept a vision of island life alive in her mind for decades.

“Somewhere peaceful, joyful, with no concept of money – she always longed to return,” explains the 28-year-old.

Ms Leveque’s grandmother, Anasthasie Modliar, was one of approximately 2,000 inhabitants forcibly exiled from the Chagos Islands – situated in the Indian Ocean – in the 60s and 70s.

This act of British postwar colonialism meant the UK could lease the largest island of Diego Garcia to the US as a military base, and Chagossians went on to form communities in Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK.

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Ever since, they have campaigned for the right to return to their homeland, and in 2019, the UN’s’ highest court ruled that continued British occupation of the remote Indian Ocean archipelago was “unlawful” and must end.

Mauritius, which won independence from the UK in 1968, still maintains the islands are its own.

“Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away before she could ever set foot on Peros Banhos again, which is one of the larger atolls in the islands,” says Ms Leveque, who lives between London and Lisbon in Portugal.

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“My grandmother always said she wanted to be buried in Chagos, but she’s buried in Mauritius, where she endured a life of poverty and discrimination, similar to many Chagossians.

Rosy Leveque, a third generation Chagossian, is using her activism to fight for the rights of her ancestors (Photo: Rosy Leveque)
Rosy Leveque, a third generation Chagossian, is using her activism to fight for the rights of her ancestors (Photo: Rosy Leveque)

“I miss her a lot. Today my activism is her legacy. I have a tattoo of Peros Banhos, so I feel she’s always with me, guiding me through life.”

Ms Leveque helped secure the recent positive amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill, which means descendants of people born in the Chagos Islands can apply to become British nationals.

But even as a third-generation Chagossian, her desire to return to the Chagos Islands has never wavered.

She says: “The generational trauma of deportation, exile, separated families, that great sense of loss and despair – it lives within us.

“The graveyards of my ancestors are still there, and I want to see where they’re buried.

“The story and struggle of the Chagossians doesn’t end with the natives. We, the descendants, carry the stories of our ancestors with us.”

For Pierre Prosper, the elected chairman of the Chagossians Committee in the Seychelles, hope is running out.

“I feel angry that the misery and disregard towards our rights has been continually ignored throughout the last 50 years,” he tells i.

Pierre Prosper, chairman of the Chagossians Committee in the Seychelles, said it will be difficult to revive a nation that's been 'wiped out of existence' (Photo: Pierre Prosper)
Pierre Prosper, chairman of the Chagossians Committee in the Seychelles, said it will be difficult to revive a nation that’s been ‘wiped out of existence’ (Photo: Pierre Prosper)

“The original inhabitants who were deported are now all old. The language is almost gone. The culture is almost gone. It will be hard to revive that. Our fifth Indian Ocean island nation was wiped out of existence.”

Mr Pierre, 50, can’t help but imagine an alternate history, in which the Chagos Islands was its own small nation, and could compete in the Indian Ocean Island Games, alongside the Seychelles, Mauritius, Reunion and Madagascar.

As it stands, when Creole-speaking Chagossians were first illegally deported to the Seychelles, many lived in poverty as plantation workers.

Back in the UK, Frankie Bontemps who now resides in Crawley, West Sussex, says: “We have been suffering for 54 years.

DOWNING STREET, LONDON, GREATER LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2016/12/15: Chagossian demonstration against the UK Government, about the respect of human rights. The depopulation of Chagossians from the Chagos Archipelago, was the compelled expulsion of the inhabitants of the island of Diego Garcia. (Photo by Alberto Pezzali/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Chagossians demonstrate against the UK Government (Photo: Alberto Pezzali/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty)

“As an indigenous population, we want our voices to be heard, and to decide the future of our island, our land and our culture.”

On 3 November, the UK announced it would open negotiations over the future handover of the Chagos Islands, in a major reversal of policy.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly stated his intent to “resolve all outstanding issues, including those relating to the former inhabitants of the Chagos archipelago”.

Yet, many Chagossians view this development as “history repeating itself”.

“The same two states who treated my family like cargo are once again negotiating our community’s future,” Ms Leveque explains.

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“Our right to self-determination is not being respected.”

A spokesperson from the Foreign Office said: “The UK and Mauritius have decided to begin negotiations on the exercise of sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory.

“This will allow the UK and Mauritius, as close Commonwealth partners, to significantly strengthen our cooperation on matters of shared interest in the region and more broadly.”

Dr Jonathan Levy, the international lawyer representing the Chagos islanders, says Mauritian sovereignty would only be positive if the issues of reparations, resettlement, future local governance, Chagossian property and fishing rights and recognition as an African people are addressed.

It remains to be seen whether Chagossians will be consulted as part of the negotiations.

“I hope we will be heard,” Ms Leveque says. “Archaic laws and rules shouldn’t come above our human rights.

“And if the doors were open tomorrow, I’d be the first one there.”

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