1989 Interview with native born Chagossian
This month Chagossian Marie-Elphegia Veronique celebrated her 101st birthday. Indian Ocean magazine 7 Lames Lamer took this opportunity to republish a 1989 interview with Madame Veronique (article is in French). In the interview, which is summarised in English below, she speaks powerfully about how in her long life she never forgot Diego Garcia, and never came to terms with the thought she would never see the land of her birth or the graves of her parents.
Summary of 7 Lames Lamer's interview with Marie-Elphegia Veronique
1989, Port Louis, Mauritius - 7 Lames la Mer : Where do you come from, Marie-Elphegia Veronique?
Marie-Elphegia Véronique : I was born in Diego Garcia, in the Chagos archipelago, on March 19, 1916. Today [in 1989] I am 73 years old and I have not seen my homeland in 55 years. And yet, I have not forgotten anything. I remember everything perfectly. It stayed there, in my head. I will never forget Diego. I am attached to this land. I think all the time in Diego. Everywhere I look I see Diego. At night, I dream of Diego.
7 Blades the Sea :What was it like on Diego Garcia?
Marie-Elphegia Véronique : In Diego Garcia there was a small church, a school, a small hospital, a cemetery, a large house for the "commander". My family lived in one of the two villages, in straw huts. There were coconut trees everywhere and everything we ate was fresh: fish, chicken, vegetables ... It was a simple and healthy life. Really, we did not lack anything. We did not need to buy to eat. There was virtually no need for money to live.
7 Lames la Mer : Your last memory at Diego Garcia?
Marie-Elphegia Veronique : It's been so long ... 55 years since I left Diego Garcia. I was 18 at the time and I embarked for Mauritius without suspecting that I could never see my island again. If I had known, I would never have left. I stayed for a long time in Mauritius because I had family there. But when I wanted to go home, to go back to Diego Garcia, I was told that it was no longer possible because the archipelago had to be evacuated and that it was useless for me to go back.
7 Lames la Mer : What did you feel then?
Marie-Elphegia Véronique : It was horrible. We really did not expect that and we were not asked for our opinion.
7 Lames la Mer : Did you know why the archipelago was to be evacuated?
Marie-Elphegia Veronique : No, no. We just knew that the English wanted everybody to leave the archipelago. But no one wanted to leave.
A rumour circulated that it was necessary to evacuate the island because a dangerous unexploded bomb. Then, the English organized the shortage of necessities to force people to leave the Chagos: the boats that usually refueled the archipelago did not come any more. And so, no more food came to Diego. That's how the people were forced to give in. They had no choice.
7 Lames la Mer : How did the deportations take place?
Marie-Elphegia Veronique : Some of the Chagossians who were there told me that they had been embarked, sometimes by force, on boats that were taking them to Mauritius. Seeing their masters leave, the pets and working animals, lying on the ground, began to cry out because they felt that they were being abandoned.
When the last boat arrived at Port Louis, I remember that the Chagossians on board did not want to get off. They wished to return to the Chagos; They refused to go down to the ground because they did not want to stay in Mauritius. Then they were forcibly thrown on the docks. They stood there, dazed, not knowing what to do.
7 Lames la Mer : What would be the first thing you would do if you could return to Diego Garcia?
Marie-Elphegia Veronique : I would go to the grave of my parents. They are buried there in the small cemetery on Diego Garcia. My roots are there. I can not even go to my parents' grave, I often think of them. Despite all the years I spent here in Mauritius, my strongest wish is to return to Diego. That's where I was born