Nice looking island; I’ll have that for my runway

Bear with me here, but to make sense of this post, I would like you to follow some basic instructions.
  1. Open up a browser, or another tab in the one you are viewing this post in
  2. Fire up Google Maps
  3. Click on the icon in the top right hand corner of the map view and select "satellite view"
  4. Type the name "Diego Garcia" into the search box at the top of the page and click on the magnifying glass icon

Shortly the image will resolve into an expanse of inky blue sea, in its midst an Indian Ocean atoll.

Zoom in further on the largest landmass in the south, Diego Garcia itself, and you will be able to see ranks of planes lined up along a runway. They kind of look like the Airfix models I used to make as a kid, or perhaps rows of silhouetted angry snowflakes. I am not going to hunt down a copy of Janes All the World's Aircraft to check, but most likely some of these are bombers. This runway is where many of the heavy bombing sorties conducted during the Iraq war took off from.

This airport is part of Camp "Justice", a US air force base. It has featured in the news in fairly recent times for its use in extraordinary renditions during the era of Bush Jr.

It might seem as though this is going to be another nerf bashing exercise against Uncle Sam and his crimes, or alleged crimes, against foreign parts and individuals. Certainly, when viewing this part of Google's Earth you are looking at a map of the site of one of the great crimes of the twentieth century, but the principal villains are not from the western side of the Atlantic, rather they hark from the halls of power in my own country of birth, the United Kingdom.

The base is actually built on land leased from Britain; this is still British Territory and there was a time when 2000 British subjects lived there, albeit the more coffee coloured variety that don't typically get flotillas of warships sent to their rescue when bad things happen to them.

Back in the 1960s, the US wanted the island, the British government of the time wanted support from the US, and so the two got together and figured out an amicable arrangement. The ordinary people who had made their lives there however, never had an opportunity to participate in the negotiations. Their part of the bargain was to be encouraged to leave in a less than polite manner. One of the tactics that always struck me for some reason, is that all the dogs on the island, particularly beloved by the population, were rounded up and gassed.

The British weren't Nazis at least, and resorted to less extreme, if not particularly civlised means to get rid of the human inhabitants, but there are those who might view their fate as the sort of treatment more commonly applied to dogs than people.

Basically after a protracted period of various forms of tough love to inspire voluntary exodus, they were forceably shipped out across the late 1960's/early 1970's, dumped in Mauritius to the southwest and left to fend for themselves. There was talk of money to rehouse and look after them, but very little of it ever seems to have reached the displaced islanders themselves. In any case, I don't suppose they would have viewed it as any kind of consolation prize for having their home pinched and being sent into exile in a foreign country.

What happened to the islanders in the decades that followed has been told in detail by far more experienced commentators than I. Suffice to say, it wasn't pretty.

If you want to find out more about their fate, and more about the whole scope of the case, there are many articles around the web but one of the most comprehesive and compelling telling of entire saga, where images give a powerful impression words might not, is John Pilger's documentary, Stealing a Nation.

This is history, but it is also current affairs. The islanders and their descendents still exist, they are still fighting for the right to return to their home and resume their way of life, and they are being treated by more recent British governments no better than in the days when Harold McMillan was prime minister.

When the islanders resorted to legal means to secure the opportunity to return, Tony Blair, that smiling paragon of human rightswrongs, and his government, invoked special legislative measures to ensure their victory in the British courts would not be implemented. More recently the islanders have taken their fight to the European Court of Human Rights.

And once again, if you ever doubted the necessity of the work of organisations like Wikileaks, another nail in the coffin of your scepticism might be the illuminating information gleaned from a recent Wikileaks cable – the establishment of a nature reserve in the islands was supported by the British government specifically to create further hurdles for the islanders' return.

What to make of all this? Well, I will leave it up to you. I guess however, if you live on a nice island and our masters happen to like the look of it for building a runway, don't be making any plans for house extensions – the mentality that led to the events I outline above is not one with a current expiry date.

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