It is not often realised how large a responsibility the Middle East is for our government. This region accounts for nearly 7 million Indians living and working there. To put it in perspective, the number of Indians living in the Middle East and its surrounding West Asian region is more than the population of Finland, with a million people to spare.
Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world tucked between Oman, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aden, has become the latest conflict zone in the Middle East. What was only a few months ago sold as a success story in the war against terror by the US has crumbled away and deteriorated into a conflict where the jury is still out on whether it is a sectarian fight (Shia - Sunni), a political coup by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who is aiding the supposedly Iranian backed Houthi rebels against now on-the-run Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, or just simply another battle ground where the likes of al Qaeda and ISIS can fester.
Saudi Arabia did not waste a lot of time in manufacturing an "Arab Coalition" to intervene in Yemen, and try and safeguard Hadi's political muscle in the country by bombing the Houthi advancements. By this time, Saudi Arabia and its partners, which include the likes of the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar, had already taken control of Yemeni airspace (to know more on who the Houthis are in Yemen, two recommended reads here and here).
Meanwhile, New Delhi had already gathered pace in formulating a plan to evacuate its citizens from the war-torn country. Since the first Gulf War, where many lessons were learned in dealing with mass evacuations from the region, India has honed its skills remarkably well on how to respond in a crisis situation such as this, and how to safeguard its citizens from a fast-deteriorating conflict zone. Prior to Yemen, the crisis situation in Lebanon in 2006, Libya in 2011, Iraq in 2003 and again in 2014 led to evacuation operations. But the biggest one still remains from 1990, when India evacuated 110,000 people during the first Gulf War from Iraq and Kuwait using nearly 500 flights operated by Air India and, later, even cruise ships. This remains the world's largest civil evacuation till date.
Operation Rahat, the name given to the evacuation process in Yemen, was orchestrated from the tiny African nation of Djibouti, which lies on the other side of the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, and houses foreign militaries taking part in anti-piracy operations off the African coast.
"Managing thousands people and getting them to port cities and Sana'a airfield has been more than taxing, and this while navigating a multi-border process of shipping and flying people out while still adhering to international immigration rules."
As the Indian Navy, Indian Air Force and Air India pooled in resources to begin evacuation, Indian diplomats in the capital Sana'a led by Ambassador Amrit Lugun and back in New Delhi managed to negotiate a window where Saudi-led bombings ceased so as to allow Indian aircraft to land and take off. All this, happened while as far as I know, it was not even clear whether the airport was under the Yemeni government, its military or the Houthi rebels. Nonetheless, India's High Commission in Sana'a, which was still fully functional, managed to organise the reportedly-damaged Sana'a airport to accept Air India Airbus A321 and the Air Force's C-17 Globemaster planes to operate in and out for nearly four days, ferrying Indians and foreigners alike to Djibouti. In the end, more than 4,000 people have been evacuated, including foreigners from 26 other countries.
232 persons from 26 countries evacuated by India from Yemen. Efforts continuing. pic.twitter.com/kFajqxEfhz— Syed Akbaruddin (@MEAIndia) April 7, 2015
The challenges were at times towering in Yemen. Managing thousands people and getting them to port cities and Sana'a airfield has been more than taxing, and this while navigating a multi-border process of shipping and flying people out while still adhering to international immigration rules. All these logistical and operational challenges were executed while the conflict continued, specifically in and around Sana'a, and now over the past two days, even in Aden.
"India has honed its skills remarkably well on how to respond in a crisis situation such as this, and how to safeguard its citizens from a fast-deteriorating conflict zone."
While the air evacuation took place, Indian Navy's vessels INS Sumitra, INS Mumbaiand others docked near the southern city of Aden, which was under attack. Other Yemeni cities such as Al Hudaydah provided alternatives to Aden, where at times Indian Navy ships found hard to dock due to heavy bombardment. According to some accounts from the ground, the Houthi rebels were in general giving safe passage to Indians who were looking to leave the country.
India's Minister of State for External Affairs, General V K Singh, a former Indian Army chief himself travelled to both Djibouti and Sana'a to oversee the operations. If my memory serves me correctly, never has an Indian minister of Singh's political rank gone into an active war zone to conduct such a diplomatic and military maneuver (no, Jaswant Singh in Kandahar during the IC814 hijacking in 1999 does not count).
"If my memory serves me correctly, never has an Indian minister of [VK] Singh's political rank gone into an active war zone to conduct such a diplomatic and military maneuver."
Even the United States has now asked any remaining Americans in Yemen to approach the Indian High Commission for help. While this is a surprising move, considering the usual eagerness of American military to itself operate exclusive evacuations for its citizens, the success of Operation Rahat in trying conditions is an outcome of nearly two decades' worth of experience of trying to protect a small country-sized population of Indian citizens outside of India's borders.