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Aired June 18, 2003 - 17:00:00 ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN ANCHOR: Defenseless. Long before the United States built a massive military base in Diego Garcia, a small group of islanders used to live there. They were forced out. They were forgotten. But they weren't ready to give up.
Hello and welcome.

Even now in an age of satellites, smart bombs and stealth bombers, one of the best ways to control a large body of water is with a small piece of land. And for the people of Diego Garcia, that fact means everything.

Diego Garcia is part of a chain of islands south of India. A British colony that for decades was best known to the outside world for growing coconuts, though in truth it was hardly known at all.

All that changed though when the United States military decided to put a base there, taking advantage of its strategic position in the Indian Ocean. Washington wanted its own base. It wanted the people who lived there to leave.

In the decades since, the British government has reportedly twice come up with compensation for them, paying out millions of pounds. But the former islanders say they haven't gotten the money and really what they want is to go home.

On our program today, the distant shores of Diego Garcia.

Here's CNN's Christiane Amanpour.


CHRISTIAN AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On a string of beautiful coral islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, America has built one of its most important strategic bases, Diego Garcia.

Today it's home to B52's and now for the first time stealth bombers as well, all just seven hours flying time from downtown Baghdad.

Supply ships as big as skyscrapers, loaded with tanks, weapons and ammunition for marine and army brigades gathered there before the order was given to invade Iraq.

Back in the 70's, when Diego Garcia became central to American military operations, James Schlessinger, who is now in the private sector, was secretary of defense.

JAMES SCHLESSINGER, FMR. U.S. SECY. OF DEF.: It is critical to American security and has steadily grown more critical. Indeed, it is one of the wisest investment of government funds that we have seen over the last three or four decades.

AMANPOUR: And few would disagree.

Four decades ago, when the United States and Soviet Union were racing to get footholds in this region, the United States discovered Diego Garcia, a coral island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The Americans had asked the British, their longtime allies who still had colonies in the region, to find them an uninhabited island for their base.

SCHLESSINGER: It's always preferable not to have inhabitants around. It reduces any risk of intelligence operations against the base and the possibility of sabotage.

AMANPOUR: But there was just one problem. There wee inhabitants on Diego Garcia, and they had been living there for more than 200 years.

ANNOUNCER (voice-over): The children here do not have all the toys that foreign children play with.

AMANPOUR: This old British newsreel shows a thriving community of about 2,000 people who worked on the island's coconut plantation.

But the British didn't see that as a problem. To make way for the U.S. base, they simply moved all the inhabitants 1,200 miles away to other tropical islands, Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Back then, when the island was a British colony, Marcelle Moulanay (ph) managed the coconut plantation. It was he who was ordered to ship the people out.

(on camera): In order to have their base, what did the Americans want you to do with the island?

MARCELLE MOULANAY, FMR. RESIDENT OF DIEGO GARCIA: Total evacuation. They wanted no indigenous people there.

AMANPOUR: How did you evacuate?

MOULANAY: Well, when the final time came and the ships were chartered, they weren't allowed to take anything with them except a suitcase of their clothes. The ships were small and they could take nothing else. No furniture, nothing.

AMANPOUR: The people of Diego Garcia say they left paradise and landed in hell. When they were dumped here in the urban slums of Mauritius.

They had brought no possessions, and as islanders who had lived off fishing and farming, they had no real professional skills.

(voice-over): No one helped them resettle or paid for the homes they lost. They simply were forced to become squatters in a foreign land.

Before the final evacuation, the British had cutoff the ships that carried food and medicine to Diego Garcia.

Janet Alexis's (ph) family was one of the last to leave.

JANET ALEXIS, FMR. RESIDENT OF DIEGO GARCIA: My father was told that we had to leave the island because the Americans were moving in and it wasn't safe to remain on the island anymore.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): They say they didn't force people off the island.

ALEXIS: I mean, if you stop feeding me, if you don't give me work, you bring a ship and you tell me this is the last ship, otherwise you have to stay back, I will starve to death, what other force will you need to get me out?

AMANPOUR (voice-over): The islanders say the other force that got them out was fear, when British officials ordered their pets to be exterminated. They were gassed with exhaust fumes from American military vehicles.

AMANPOUR (on camera): It's hard to believe that people would do that.

ALEXIS: Yes. In fact, it did happen. And you can imagine the pressure that put on the population there. It was just terrible for people.

AMANPOUR: When you boarded that ship, finally, for your last trip out of Diego Garcia, what do you remember?

ALEXIS: We were crying. We were hanging on to our mother's skirts, crying, because although we were very young, we understood we were leaving something very valuable behind, and that was our home.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And for the next 30 years, the world never knew what had happened to Diego Garcia's original people.

No outsiders are allowed on to Diego Garcia, so this secret stayed hidden until one of the exiled islanders, Olivier Balcoud (ph), started organizing his community.

He was angry by the years of misery that his people had been forced to endure. Three of his own brothers drank themselves to death, dispirited by their poverty and unemployment. One of his sisters was so homesick that she committed suicide.

OLIVIER BALCOUD, FMR. RESIDENT OF DIEGO GARCIA: It is very sad. This is why I will never give up. All the difficulty is because of the United States and the United Kingdom. They have turned our people's lives into a nightmare.

AMANPOUR: So three years ago, Olivier (ph) traveled to London, to take the British government to court.

His big break came when he and his lawyer, Richard Gifford (ph), found secret documents that had recently been declassified that described the agreement between the United States and British governments to build a base on Diego Garcia.

RICHARD GIFFORD, ATTORNEY: Here we have the legal experts in the foreign office, in which he's got a paragraph headed "Maintaining the Fiction."

AMANPOUR: The fiction, that Diego Garcia had no native people. These British documents show colonial officials thought that no one would notice if they deported the islanders.

(on camera): Were you surprised when you started digging, at the memos you found between the Americans and the British?

GIFFORD: I find it rather shameful, yes. And here we have a rather interesting little memorandum of the British government, "There will be no indigenous population except seagulls."

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Another British document confirms that evicting the people and leaving the island to the seagulls was done at the request of the United States.

It reads, "The United States government will require the removal of the entire population of the atoll by July."

(on camera): The Americans are telling that to the British?

GIFFORD: Yes. And the British were only too happy to oblige.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And what did the British get in return for providing the Americans a population-free island?

Polaris missiles for their submarines. The United States reduced the price by $14 million or $5 million British pounds.

GIFFORD: Well, you have to understand that the stiff upper lips hardly quivered at the idea of moving the population.

AMANPOUR (on camera): Didn't care.

GIFFORD: $5 million was a massive incentive compared with a very modest conscience problem.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Uncovering this paper trail brought Gifford (ph) and Balcoud (ph) a stunning victory. Britain's highest court ruled that deporting Diego Garcia's native population was illegal.

But the euphoria didn't last long, because the court didn't propose a remedy, neither money nor what the people wanted most, to return home and the right to earn a living on the base.

AMANPOUR (on camera):: Do you think given the security situation right now, the war on terrorism, do you think they will ever really be able to go back to Diego Garcia?

GIFFORD: The position of the islanders is that they never objected to the United States base on Diego, but then the islanders were extremely bitter that they are denied employment on the base, precisely because they come from there.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Especially since the base employs several thousand civilian workers from other countries, like the Philippines.

Benoit Emileien (ph) used to recruit those civilian employees.

BENOIT EMILEIEN, FMR. DIEGO GARCIA EMPLOYEE: That's me again, with the commanding officer.

AMANPOUR (on camera): Your job was to find workers to work on that top secret American base. Were native Diego Garcians ever allowed to go back and work there?

EMILEIEN: Definitely no.

AMANPOUR: Why not?

EMILEIEN): I was given instruction to be careful. They don't want any kind of claim or demonstration.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And when Benoit (ph) tried to talk to his American friends on the base about Diego Garcia's original inhabitants, he found the subject was taboo.

EMILEIEN: It's like this thing, like.

AMANPOUR (on camera): They don't want to know.

EMILEIEN: No, they don't want to know.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And they don't want visitors. When the islanders asked to visit their family graves, they were told in this letter from the British government that the United States had to grant permission.

It reads, "We have consulted the United States authorities, who have confirmed that they cannot agree to it at the present time."

So last August, the islanders appealed directly to President Bush. But the Bush administration said it was Britain's call.

This letter reads, "Because of the vital role the facility plays in the global war on terrorism, British authorities have denied permission to visit Diego Garcia. We concur and support the decision."

Kasem Muti (ph), a former president of Mauritius, had written the letter to President Bush on behalf of the islanders.

(on camera): So both sides are essentially passing the buck.

KASEM MUTI, FMR. MAURITIUS PRESIDENT: That's what they are doing. That's exactly what they are doing. I think that it's most not only inhuman, but illegal. They should never have been expelled from their land.

AMANPOUR (on camera): We tried repeatedly to interview anyone from the British and American governments about this affair, but no one from the British Foreign Office, the United States State Department or the Pentagon would even talk to us.

(voice-over): But Dan Urish (ph) did talk to us. Back then, he was the American commander on Diego Garcia.

(on camera): In retrospect, do you think that they were treated fairly, these people?

DAN URISH, FMR. U.S. COMMANDER ON DIEGO GARCIA: You know, I have a great sympathy for them. I think the British are the ones that are probably legally responsible for it. Morally, the United States certainly has an interest in seeing that things are made right for the islanders.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And until that happens, Olivier Balcoud (ph), Janet Alexis (ph) and the rest of the islanders say they'll never give up.

Now they are suing both the United States and British governments for compensation and the right to return.

ALEXIS: It's all important, this I agree. But at the same time, they should have realized that people are also important.

AMANPOUR (on camera): Do you think you have any chance, taking on America? Taking on Britain?

ALEXIS: The Americans and the British always talk about the champions of human rights. There we are. What they did to us, they should rectify. They should look after us. You know, they should do what they preach.


MANN: We have to take a break now. When we come back, a look at why the U.S. brass likes to store its lead around the world.

Stay with us.


MANN: Remote islands make attractive holiday destinations. Their relative isolation also makes them attractive to the military.

They can trim hours off flight times, allowing the military to respond to threats faster. They also allow it to conduct its business in secret.

Next year will mark 50 years since the United States detonated a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, a remote island chain in the Pacific. The French chose Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific. They conducted more than 100 nuclear tests over the course of 30 years. Now some Pacific islanders are pushing for compensation after a link between those tests and cancer was found.

Welcome back.

Diego Garcia is an important asset for the United States military. It was a crucial refueling base for the United States, for example, during the 1991 Gulf War, and more recently the bombers used in the war to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan left from Diego Garcia. The island was vital as well in the latest action in Iraq.

According to one report, it cut out 9 hours of flying time and more than 5,000 kilometers for the U.S. pilots involved.

It seems unlikely the United States will change its policy on the island or let the islanders go home any time soon.

Joining us now from Washington is Jack Spencer, a defense and national security senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Thanks so much for being with us.

It is clear from the numbers that are available that having Diego Garcia is convenient, it is useful. But when you look at that kind of far- flung post and the lives that had to be altered to get it for Washington, is it really going to alter any conflict the United States is in? Will the United States lose battles if it gives back that ace? Will it win them because it has it?

JACK SPENCER, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Oh, I think so. I don't know that it's a matter of winning or losing battles, but it certainly is a matter of vital national security importance to the United States if for no other reason that the United States, unlike really any other nation in the history of the world, has the responsibility of maintaining stability in these regions that are vitally important to things like the global economy, to global commerce and to the United States people.

The fact of the matter is, is that if the United States were not able to show some amount of force in these important parts of the world, then someone else would fill that power vacuum. And it's the United States presence over the past 50 years that has allowed the global economy to be more successful and more peaceful, we should add, really, than ever before.

MANN: Now, you make it sound like the United States is unique in that regard, and I'm curious about that, because I'm wondering whether the United States or Diego Garcia are really all that special, or if we go back over the last few decades, if go back to the Cold War, if you go back to the great powers competing in the decades and centuries before that, there was a lot of competition for far-flung bases, for coaling stations, for distant outposts that various empires could use to their advantage -- by concentration on Diego Garcia, we're really seeing a holdover of a much broader historical phenomenon.

SPENCER: Not at all. If you look in the past history, when great powers compete with one another, at least the great wars, it was the first World War and the second World War that led us, really, to where we are now.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for global hegemony. The United States won that conflict, and now we're in a position where I think most reasonable nations understand that democracy and free markets really are the way forward.

That doesn't mean that there aren't still threats out there, there aren't still these nations or these entities, transnational entities or nation states, that still don't want to pose a threat to that global system. And if the United States doesn't remain prepared, because really, we're the only nation capable, along with our allies, of maintaining that stability, and it is these bases, like Diego Garcia, that's so important.

And let's remember that this is a British island that we use with them, and for that reason, if no other, not only is it strategically important, but politically it's much easier to operate out of than, say, Turkey, where as we saw in Operation Iraqi Freedom, we can be denied access because the political pendulum happened to be swinging the wrong way at any particular time.

MANN: I'm going to jump in, because you talked about the big picture. Let me talk about the little picture, the ordinary lives of people who are displaces or who remain near these bases.

In Germany, people complain about the noise, the congestion, the presence of so many U.S. forces and.

SPENCER: But they don't complain -- they didn't.


MANN: These things are difficult to have around.

SPENCER: Well, sure. And it's easy for the media to point out these isolated incidents and then blame the whole system on those isolated incidents, or condemn the whole system.

The Germans weren't really arguing when the Soviet Union was not invading. The Germans really weren't arguing a whole lot, nor were the Japanese, as their war-torn economies that were born out of dictatorship grew and burgeoned into some of the greatest industrial states the world has ever seen.

So let's look at the big picture. It's easy to look at isolated incidents, but in whole, there is no question but that the United States and its presence around the world has been certainly a force that has led to much more good than bad.

MANN: And I suppose the best evidence of what you're saying in fact is the competition now underway between countries like Bulgaria and Poland and other former Soviet republics to actually get U.S. bases. There has to be some possibility that the United States is going to do that.

SPENCER: That's a great point, because these are countries that have been under the yoke of tyranny not so long ago, and these are countries who understand that a U.S. presence, the mere presence, will attract investment, will add that stability, that national security stability, that will allow for an economy to grow, much like has happened in Western Europe. That's what the Eastern Europeans are looking for.

That's what our allies and friends in the India (ph) region are looking for. That's why countries want us to be involved, in Africa and in the Middle East. We always hear about how no one wants the United States around, but that's really a mischaracterization of the reality on the ground that we see around the world right now.

MANN: Let me ask you a question, not about the politics of this, but about the technology. Obviously, ships don't run on coal anymore, and at a time when planes can refuel in the air, when they can land on ships at sea, does the United States, does any country that wants to extent its political and strategic reach, really need these kind of bases anymore?

SPENCER: Sure. Even though, you point out the aircraft carrier, but if you're too dependent on an aircraft carrier, then your military power becomes very vulnerable, because if someone figures out a way to counter than, then you have no where else to turn.

What we need is a flexible force, one that combines bombers and carriers and tactical aircraft. Right now, in fact, we're way too dependent on these relatively short-range capabilities. Even though an aircraft carrier can travel anywhere in the world, the airplanes that actually project the power off of that carrier are very limited in range.

So these bases around the world are extraordinarily important. We often hear than when there's a conflict, the president says, "Where are the carriers."

Well, I think that in future days and future years, the president is going to say, "Where are the bombers." Because these are the capabilities that can go anywhere, anytime, and defeat any sort of defense that an enemy puts up.

MANN: Jack Spencer, of the Heritage Foundation, thanks so much for talking with us.

SPENCER: Thank you.

MANN: A final word before we go. In Germany, there is a love-hate relationship with the United States. American culture and entertainment tends to be popular with most people. The American military doesn't. But Germans have lived so long with 60,000 American soldiers in their midst, that some are getting nervous about talk that the United States may be leaving, taking its business elsewhere.

A delegation of 13 Germany mayors visited Washington just last week to ask the Americans to stay. One mayor said their presence is worth $1 billion to his community.

The United States military both makes and loses friends when its bases come and go.

That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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