Bird in the Sky
“Diego was my bird in the sky that was taken from me.”
(Charlesia Alexis, in ‘Stealing A Nation’ by John Pilger)
My name is Samuel.
Where am I from?
I am from islands, lost in the Indian Ocean.
Sometimes the rains swept across us and nobody knew we were there. But mostly, the sun was hot, the sea was turquoise and there was always a bird in the sky.
I lived with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and our Grandma who shooed us like chickens. Our houses were made of wood, with little verandas, and the rooves were thatched with coconut leaves. We grew food in the dry earth and looked after the animals - ducks, turkeys, pigs, rabbits….and our beautiful dogs, who dived into the water to catch our fish.
We are from islands where our grandmother’s grandparents were born. Before that, she can’t remember. But there was a time before that.
There was a time when the French brought African slaves here to work the plantations and a time when the British came here instead. There was a time when the slaves were freed and people from India came here too. After all those times, the people mixed together and worked the land and did many jobs.
That is where we are from.
Now, I will tell you our story. But you’ll have to travel over sea and land and years and through a web of lies.
We remember a day which made us laugh. The sun was shining and we wanted to play with the dogs. But our Grandma scolded us.
“Get to school!” she said and she shooed us like chickens.
So we ran to school. The sea was turquoise and the leaves on the tall coconut trees leant with the breeze, first this way and then the other. By the time we reached the school house, we could hear the children laughing. Monsieur Moosa was having one of his crazy ideas.
“What’s funny?” said my sister, Arlette.
“He wants to bury a time capsule,” said one of our friends.
We knew what time was, passing over our heads and wrinkling our grandma’s face. But we didn’t know what a time capsule was. So Monsieur
“You must each write your dreams and wishes on a piece of paper,” he told us. “Then we will put them in a tin box and bury it in the earth.”
That made us laugh again.
“Maybe it will grow into a tin tree,” said Arlette.
But Monsieur Moosa stuck to his idea like a bee to a honey comb. “One
day,” he said, “You can dig up the box and see if your dreams and wishes have
We liked Monsieur Moosa so we agreed to his crazy idea.
“My name is Samuel,” I wrote. “I would like to travel the world. Then I would come home and tell everyone my stories. I would build a house like my father did, big enough for all my children and all my dogs.”
“My name is Arlette,” wrote my sister. “I would like to be a teacher. I would have crazy ideas and make the children laugh.”
Monsieur Moosa put the pieces of paper in the tin box. Then we went outside. It was very hot and we could hear the chop and thud on the copra in the distance and smell the smoke as they burned the husks. Monsieur Moosa had brought a spade. He dug near the banana trees and we watched the sweat pouring down his face and onto his shirt.
Maybe he wished now he hadn’t had his crazy idea.
But at last, he put the box in the hole and we helped to scrape the earth back over it.
“We might forget where it is,” said one of our friends.
But Monsieur Moosa put a big stone on top of the hole and scratched an X on it. Scratched and scratched so that the rain wouldn’t wash it away.
“Somebody might move it,” said another friend.
But we knew that none of us would move it. We would come back and remember.
When school finished, we played on the beach and in the trees. We saw the ships in the distance, going to Africa and Asia, and the little boats going to the other islands. We watched the dogs in the shallows, catching fish. We helped our parents. We lay on our backs in the sun and watched a bird in the sky, gliding free.
Some time after that, Monsieur Moosa was told to go back to Mauritius. We watched him leaving with his suitcase, his little moustache and all his books. We never saw him on our island again and we no longer had a teacher. Then we heard that the nurses and doctors at the hospital had been sent away too. And even though the sun was shining, a dark shadow came over us. The ships stopped bringing us food – oil, salt and sugar and the dairy products that we needed to grow. Nothing was coming in. No one was arriving, except the American soldiers.
And after that, the sadness came.
There was a big meeting, outside the plantation house.
“Why do we have to go?” I said.
“Everyone has been told to,” said my father.
We ran together and the dogs ran at our heels, tongues panting, scuffing up the dust, licking our hands and legs. When we got to the meeting, we stood at the back of the crowd.
Up on the steps of the plantation House was an English man. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Then he began to speak in a big, cracking voice.
The Americans are coming, he told us.
“Can’t he see?” said my mother. We almost laughed. They were here
already; armed American soldiers on the edges of the crowd.
But the man on the steps just carried on talking. His voice went all the way
to where we stood at the back. Even the geckos on the trees listened. Even the
coconut trees bent towards us, as if they could hear.
You have to leave.
Our parents stared at the man as if he was sick. Words stuck in their throats that wouldn’t come out. Then our grandma started to shout. It was such an angry shout! Those words had been working their way up out of her heart for years. But the man’s voice could still be heard.
You have to leave.
You are not wanted here any more.
Was he crazy?
How could we not be wanted in our own homes?
But the sadness had only just begun.
One by one, the dogs were being rounded up.
“What are they doing?” whispered Arlette. She put her arms around her dog and kissed his shiny, white head. “Let’s take them home?”
But the soldiers had seen her. They dragged the dog from her and took him with all the others, into a building nearby.
The doors and windows of the building were shut tight and we watched, as two jeeps drove up. Pipes were taken from the cars and pulled close, as close as they could to the building.
The engines were turned on and we started crying even though we didn’t understand. The soldiers waited, guns ready, and the men who had turned the engines on walked away. But they must have heard us, all of us screaming and crying; the dogs, barking and yelping in fear.
There were so many tears rolling down Arlette’s face that she sat in the dust and buried her face in her knees. We sat down and put our arms around her.
“What are they doing?” we kept asking.
Finally, my father told us. The pipes took the gas from the cars. The gas was pumped into the building. And…..slowly, painfully…..the dogs died.
Without the dogs there was no fishing. Without the fishing we couldn’t live there.
There were ships waiting for us.
“Hurry up,” said the soldiers.
Hurry up leaving your homes that we have stolen.
Still crying and shouting, we were forced onto the ship. Away from our islands and the graves of our ancestors and the tin box, buried in the earth.
The ship set sail in the darkness. Squashed together, hungry and thirsty, lying in dirt, we rolled on stormy seas, in a rusty, old ship that was too small. Some people died and their bodies were thrown overboard like rubbish.
Finally the ship took us to an island much bigger than ours.
“It’s Mauritius,” one of the grown ups said.
There were so many buildings. “Where are we going to live?” I asked.
But there were no houses. No houses, no food, no jobs. We were left on the quayside with nothing but a handful of clothes.
“Is somebody coming for us?” we asked.
But nobody came. So we started to wander, looking for shelter. We wandered over land and sea and years and through a web of lies.
For almost forty years I’ve lived in Mauritius, in poverty and pollution. We sang songs to keep ourselves hopeful. But sadness has swept across us and nobody knew we were there.
Where are we from?
We are from the Chagos Islands. There was a hospital, a school and shops. There was a church made of coral rock. There was our own food, our own songs and our own words. There was our own life.
That is where we are from.
My sister Arlette hasn’t become a teacher. She does whatever she can to feed her children.
“Are you from the islands?” people say when she tries to get work.
She pretends she’s not. But they know by her accent that she is. So she
turns her face to the wall and tries to forget.
Our grandma was allowed to take two of her children and four of her grandchildren to live in England. She went to the Houses of Commons and tried to shoo the government. Over and over again, she told them. Over and over again, she begged them, let us go home. But time passed over their heads and their wrinkles grew deeper.
For almost forty years I’ve been angry at powerful countries that turned our island into an airbase. And from there, in the name of peace and freedom, they send planes to bomb other countries.
Where are we from?
We are from Diego Garcia.
We have left our dreams and wishes there.