Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations form one of the core functions of Armed Forces in benign role. The challenges presented during HADR missions are complex and unique in nature. This is mainly due to the prevailing uncertainties vis-a-vis the humanitarian mission in relation to a multitude of factors viz; requirement to safely evacuate distressed civilians of varying age groups, prevailing political instability, presence of armed combatants, application of rules of engagement, difficulty in identification of personnel, unfamiliar area of operations and presence of multiple military/ non-military agencies involved in the situation. Operation ‘Rahat’ was one such successful HADR mission undertaken by the Indian Navy at Yemen, in which a plethora of challenges associated with HADR operations were present in full measure.
The operation was undertaken for rescue and relief to the Indian and foreign nationals in distress under hostile conditions in war torn Yemen and was aptly codenamed ‘Rahat’, meaning providing succour and comfort to the humanity in distress. Once the government decision was made to launch the operation, the Indian Navy was first off the block, with Offshore Patrol Vessel INS Sumitra, which was on patrol in the Gulf of Aden, being diverted to Aden for the first of the many evacuations. Soon, two more warships of the Navy and C 130 J aircraft of the IAF followed. IN ships Mumbai, Tarkash joined Sumitra in the daring and sensitive operation, which not only brought laurels to the Navy, but also international recognition and fame to the country. Op Rahat witnessed a large scale evacuation operation using boats/ small country craft as primary means of transportation of distressed people to warships. Behind the success of the evacuation was a detailed planning and preparatory effort, which needs to be brought out for larger appreciation.
The planning and preparatory activities of naval warships included embarkation of HADR ‘brics’, a selfcontained package of essential relief items, navigational charts and publications, embarkation of additional personnel including Prahar team and other essentials as envisaged for large scale evacuation in a conflict zone. Planning and preparatory activities also catered for unforeseen contingencies which might have emerged due to the prevailing instability in Yemen. It is also pertinent to mention that although material preparedness was paramount, sensitising ship’s crew and preparing them to deal with unexpected eventualities was equally vital for success of the mission. Accordingly, detailed daily briefings for ship’s company, Prahar and flight crew were conducted, including briefing of individual groups associated with the operation. Personnel were sensitized specifically to cater to requirements of ladies, children, aged and multi ethnicity of evacuees including patients and casualties. Also, ship’s company was mentally prepared and motivated through briefings and lectures to deal with hostile conditions and go the harm’s way, if required.
At the peak of the conflict Port of Aden was engulfed in shelling and firing and permission for entry of ships was not accorded by the local authorities as fighting raged in the port city. The naval warships remained in a high state of readiness and were poised to tackle any unforeseen eventuality. As very few countries were undertaking evacuation on their won, requests poured in from the international community to India to evacuate their citizens from the war zone. In all the IN warships evacuated 1,783 Indian citizens and 1,291 foreign nationals from 35 nations, from different ports of Yemen. The naval warships worked out evacuation plan in close liaison with the staff of Indian Embassy in Yemen. In an unprecedented show of synergy, the MEA and MoD (Indian Navy and Indian Air Force) worked in absolute synchronisation and real-time information was exchanged with the ships on the scene through satellite communication. The ships facilitated repatriation of evacuees in coordination with MEA authorities and respective embassies expeditiously. Other planning included intelligence and communication planning, strengthening ship’s security organisation against the possibility of armed violence and constituting various coordinating teams among ship’s crew like medical and first aid team, escort groups, baggage parties, crowd control teams, personal screening teams, catering team, life guards, etc. The ships provided succour and care to the evacuees during transit and facilitated repatriation of evacuees at Djibouti in synergised coordination with MEA authorities and respective foreign embassies.
Warships are not designed to carry passengers in addition to its crew. This imposes unique challenges for evacuation of civilians, especially women. Since a large number of ladies, children and elderly evacuees had to be embarked onboard, earmarked accommodation/ mess spaces, bathrooms/ toilets, etc. were allotted and the evacuees were made comfortable. The ship’s crew, who voluntarily sacrificed their own spaces for the ‘guests’, were sensitised to interact with the evacuees with humane approach, empathy and provide ease, comfort as well as reassurance.
A number of medical emergencies such as treatment and care of pregnant ladies, patients with fracture, cases of acute dehydration, asthma etc. were encountered and handled with due care and compassion. Multiple ethnicities of evacuees from different nationalities and religious beliefs posed challenges. Hence, addressing apprehensions and briefing ship’s company on dealing with the evacuees was vital for seamless conduct of evacuation. Deft handling by escort teams including officers and senior sailors ensured that there were no incidents of misdemeanor, theft or hurting of sensibilities.
The evacuees were provided with hot meals, snacks, bottles of water, etc. Constant communication was maintained with evacuees. Also, movies were streamed on ship’s video system and songs were played on ship’s internal audio broadcast system to pep up the evacuees and boost their moral. All of this contributed towards keeping the evacuees motivated, comfortable and reassured. This prompted the evacuees sharing their experiences, singing songs and mingling with each other as well as ship’s crew to relieve the trauma and agony experienced by them.
The swift response and high professionalism of the Indian Naval warships was a testimony to the high quality of training and preparedness of the ‘silent service’. The smile on the faces and patriotic fervor amongst the evacuees was the ultimate manifestation of the success of ‘Op Rahat’, which will remain etched in the annals of history as an operation which saw a high level of synergy and cooperation between different arms of the government, with the armed forces playing a lead role.