Among the memorable scenes of the 2006 return to the Chagos is one showing a frail old woman landing on the shore of Peros Banhos and throwing herself on the sea-washed sand which she embraces with her whole body. After so many years of longing in exile, that moment must have been for Marie-Lisette Talate, also known as Aurélie, a moment of fusion of herself and Chagos, the homeland and sea.
Lisette’s narrative of how she was forcibly removed from her island has been told and retold a number of times. It is her life story, which in essence was also that of the Chagossian people, recovered from a sudden crash, saved in different formats and spread across the worldwide web. When she appeared before the judge at the London High Court in October 2003, she tried to make him understand how she was born in Diego Garcia but could not remember when, “because of her suffering”. While concluding that “Mrs Talate was not a credible or reliable witness, certainly on any matter of detail,” the judge writes:
“There was an element in her evidence of collective memory, that is, evidence which describes what happened to others, where she was absent, as if she had been present and which might be true. (…) The strength and depth of feeling for Diego Garcia and the emotions attached to her experiences are entirely genuine.”
Thus, in a very real sense, her personal testimony bears the stamp of collective experience, her voice becomes the mouthpiece of a people, and herself the symbol of all the injustice done to the Chagossians as a people uprooted from their native land.
Lisette was among the group of Chagossian women who stood up with Charlesia on the front line of the ‘Ilois’ struggle – literally, the Islanders – in the 1970s. Street demonstrations led to hunger strikes which culminated, with the active involvement of Mauritian organizations, in the 1981 London negotiations. The disappointing outcome of that episode was a turning point: it marked the end of the Ilois struggle, seen as an appendix of the Mauritian sovereignty claim on the Chagos, and the birth of the Chagos Refugees Group, which ultimately was to be invested with the legitimacy of a de facto Chagossian people’s organization. Lisette Aurélie Talate, Charlesia Alexis and young Olivier Bancoult were among the founding members of the CRG.
As she re-embarked for the Chagos on the eve of 2009 All Saints’ Day to perform, for the first time since the exile, the sacred rite of laying flowers at the ancestors’ tombs instead of the doorstep of the British High Commission, she retold her life story, that of her people, in an interview to l’Express, adding a new lifeline to it:
“At my age, if I could return to Diego for good, I would become young again.”
Three years later, in the early hours of 4 January 2012, Aurélie Marie-Lisette Talate left on her final voyage, handing over the torch of the Return to Home struggle to the young generation.