In February, a ship set out from Mauritius into the blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Its mission? To deliver a group of visitors to the Chagos archipelago, under their own flag, for the first time since the British government had forcibly cleared the islands of their 2,000 inhabitants in 1966. Cullen Murphy was there to chronicle the homecoming — and to tell the long, woeful story of the diaspora that preceded it.

The Chagossians took a launch to Île du Coin, where three of the group had been born, and waded onto the smooth, coralline sand. The island is narrow and slightly curved, about a mile and a half long. The white beach was alive with small crabs. Coconuts bobbed in the surf. The Chagossians bent to their knees and kissed the sand, leaving a splay of palm prints. They stood and joined hands, closing their eyes and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Kreol, the French-based language of the islands. They concluded the prayer and planted the first of the wrought-iron crosses.