On 19 December the Chagossian people lost one of the most powerful voices for their struggle, as Rita Bancoult passed away. Her funeral took place on the 22 December with family, friends and fellow campaigners.
Aged 91, Madame Bancoult had been campaigning for the community's right to return to their homeland for decades. She also pressed the Mauritian and UK Government to do more to help Chagossians suffering in exile.
Born in Peros Banhos in 1925, Rita Bancoult left her home for the last time in 1967 to get medical treatment for her daughter in Mauritius. When she tried to return, she was curtly told by an official that “the island is closed.” Apart from a brief supervised visit in 2006, she would never see her homeland again.
In exile Madame Bancoult raised her 6 children alone following the death of her husband, which she attributed to the stress of being forced from his homeland. Working long hours as maid and struggling to find food to feed her family, she still found time to take a leading role in the Chagossian campaign for justice.
She became especially known for Chagossian protests for justice in Mauritian capital Port Louis in the early 1980s. Along with Charlezia Alexis and Marie-Lisette Talate, she became one of the best known figures in the Chagossian campaign for right to return and more support for the community in exile. With the two women and her son Oliver Bancoult, she helped to found the Chagos Refugee Group 1983. The group has went on to challenge the UK government's ongoing ban on Chagossians living in their homeland and CRG has also worked to support Chagossians in exile."
Throughout her life she continued to work to explain the Chagossian campaign for justice to the world. Her powerful account of exile features heavily in the work of David Vine's Island of Shame. But perhaps most famously she speaks in John Pilger's 'Stealing a Nation' to condemn the UK government's treatment of the Chagossian people. In the film, which has been many people's introduction to the Chagossian cause, she explains the human consequences of the UK government's terrible actions.
In 2010 she also expressed her frustration with 5 decades of exile directly, as she wrote an open letter to the British High Commissioner to Mauritius. The letter both condemns the UK government's treatment of the Chagossian people and affirms that Chagossians will never give up their fight. Two extracts from the letter, which you can read in full here, are below:
“Your government has taken us heartlessly and brutally from our heaven and dumped us here in hell.”
“Please understand me. I have only one wish now and that is to die in Peros Banhos and be buried in the cemetery where I have already buried two of my children, and my parents. I fear that I may die before my wish is fulfilled.”
Madame Bancoult is also notable as the mother of Oliver Bancoult, the co-founder of Chagos Refugee Group, who has led a series of legal challenges to the UK government's ongoing ban on Chagossians living in their homeland.
Everyone at UK Chagos Support Association want to offer our condolences to all of Madame Rita Bancoult's family and friends at this difficult time.
“Rita Bancoult was one of the strongest voices in the Chagossian campaign for justice. We'll all miss her vigour and power, and she can be proud of decades of committed work striving to win justice for her community.”
“We can only try to carry on the wonderful work to which she gave so much of her life.” Said UK Chagos Support Association Vice-Chair Stefan Donnelly
Chagos Refugee Group UK also expressed their sadness publicly on Twitter, addressing Madame Bancoult directly:
“You have been another woman who has been always fighting for the right of your People but god decided to take you with him ,Your courage ,Your memories everything you have shared with us will never be forgotten. May your soul Rest in Peace."
The Chagos Solidarity Committee in Reunion has also paid tribute to Rita Bancoult, and shared their “great sadness” at her passing.
Further coverage of her death appeared in the Mauritian and Reunion press (both links in French).