Greenland marchers protest land-return deal

Agreement doesn’t provide for U.S. clean-up of site near Thule

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

SIKU CIRCUMPOLAR NEWS SERVICE

NUUK, Greenland — Last Thursday, angry protesters were out on the streets of downtown Nuuk to protest a new deal between Denmark and the United States on the return of land once used by the U.S. military that’s believed to be contaminated.

The 200 demonstrators, led by Aqqaluk Lynge, the vice-president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, are furious about the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Denmark, the Greenland Home Rule government, and U.S. on the area around Dundas (Uummannaq), not far from the site of the U.S. Thule air base in northern Greenland.

Many of those protesting were from the group Hengitaq 53, which represents Greenlanders who relocated from the Dundas region in 1953 to make room for the construction of a U.S. air force base at nearby Thule.

“Memorandum of misunderstanding,” the demonstrators shouted, saying: “Isumaqatigiissut naaggarpara — We say ‘no’ to the agreement.”

They fear it’s the first step towards the signing of a larger agreement that would see this base revamped into one of the missile defence system radar sites that U.S. president George W. Bush wants to build.

While Dundas is back in the hands of Greenlanders, the citizens of the local Avanersuaq Municipality also aren’t happy because they say their old community and hunting grounds are contaminated.

Three trash heaps remain in the vicinity of Dundas, and many suspect that nuclear waste may be found among the debris left behind after 50 years and they’ll be left with the clean-up.

Article Two of the MOU says: “Notwithstanding the provisions of any other agreement, the Danish Government (including the Greenland Home Rule Government) accepts the return of Dundas “as is” and assumes complete responsibility for any environmental remediation or other actions it may believe necessary.”

“It’s not that we don’t want the land back — we just want the land back as it was when we lived there. That is what we want, that is our dream,” said Maassannguaq Qujaukitsoq, a member of Hengitaq 53.

“Respect our wishes. The injustices committed to us must be duly rectified. If justice doesn’t apply to us, the human cost will be even higher than it already is. The limitations forced upon us are already costly. Being forced out of our land is terrible and we are still paying the price.”

During the spring of 1953, Danish authorities informed 30 families in the Dundas region that they would have to abandon their settlement and move 150 kilometres away from the top-secret military air base at Thule. The order coincided with the last months of Danish colonial rule.

Among those displaced were babies and the elderly. They slept in tents throughout the damp and cold summer at the site of the new settlement. The first houses that would eventually become the new settlement of Qaanaaq didn’t go up until September, 1953.

Over the years, however, the move was not a forgotten issue. In 1960, Qaanaaq’s municipal council tried to launch a court case, but this effort never went far.

More than 20 years later, in 1987, a joint Danish-Greenlandic commission would take another look at the Thule relocation.

In 1996, residents of Qaanaaq then formed their own committee, called “Hengitaq 53” or the “1953 Exiles.”

They asked the ICC for assistance and, shortly thereafter, in December 1997, the ICC launched a new court case, argued by one of Denmark’s top constitutional lawyers.

After months of hearings and a visit to Qaanaaq to interview the survivors of the relocation, the appeal court’s justices finally decided in 1999 that it was a forced relocation.

The court’s judgement gave 63 people financial compensation equivalent to $3 thousand and $5 thousand CDN each.

As well, it set up a collective fund worth $100,000 CDN for the 611 other plaintiffs who had supported the case against Denmark. Nyrup Rasmussen, then the Danish prime minister, apologized for the 1953 relocation.

The only remaining issue was to settle ownership of the land that was expropriated, as well as hunting rights on this land — what the agreement signed on Thursday was intended to accomplish.

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