‘Operation Raahat’, India’s largest rescue mission in a foreign land that helped evacuate 4,640 Indians and 960 foreign nationals from war-torn Yemen, is nothing less than a miracle. To grasp the complete picture of this well coordinated operation, Organiser presents first hand experiences from the person who was executing the operations and some people who were rescued from Yemen.
‘Operation Raahat Raised India’s International Stature’ — Gen VK Singh
Union Minister of State for External Affairs General (retd) VK Singh efficiently commanded Operation Raahat to rescue more than 4,500 Indian nationals from the war-torn Yemen. Alok Goswami, Associate Editor, Panchjanya spoke to him about the operation. Here are the excerpts:
- How was Operation Raahat strategised and planned?
Yemen was facing the civil war like situation and the Government of India had issued an advisory regarding leaving the war torn country to Indian nationals. Thereafter, the situation kept deteriorating. Union Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj called a meeting. She had already had wide consultations on the same and felt that somebody should be there to coordinate the operation. She asked me to be there and I went on March 27.
- Where did you go first and how was the plan executed?
First of all I went to Djibouti. I had a rough plan in mind. Our two Air Buses were there in Muscat, we thought we would evacuate the people from Sanaa and bring them to Muscat first and from there they can be sent to India. Till I reached Djibouti, we did not have clearance to land our planes in Sanaa. On March 31, our Prime Minister Shri Modi had spoken to Saudi King Salman, but permission had been held up as the bombing continued. Finally, on April 3, we got the permission to use the Sanaa Air strip for evacuation purpose just for two hours. Till then we had prepared our base at Djibouti.
- What were the difficulties in coordinating with various authorities there?
It was very difficult. We had to simultaneously coordinate with the Air Traffic Control Authorities (ATCA) in Djibouti and Sanna. That air space is controlled by Saudi. Initially they wanted us to fly through Eretria but the relations between Eretria and Djibouti are already strained, so both of them were denying the permission. To cover the long distance, two hours time span was just not sufficient. So we tried hard to get the straight route clearance and finally succeeded. When we started the operation, we thought we would have two rounds of evacuation but actual air journey itself took more than two and half hours. Boarding and deboarding of passengers took another 40-45 minutes. I myself went to Sanaa and stayed there in night to assess the difficulties. After coming back I requested the Minister for External Affairs to provide with another airbus.
We had to face another issue of immigration. As most of the Indians work there on contracts, their passports were with the owners of the companies. So they did not get the visa to leave the country. There were other issues as well. For instance, a person went there on a tourist visa but was staying there for over six years. Yemen authorities were also perplexed on this issue. It was a clear case of penalty. There were many peculiar cases and most of them did not have money to pay the penalty. This has increased additional pressures on the embassy.
- Besides Djibouti, what were the issues at other places?
See, the situation was always in flux. The day we felt that situation is improving in Djibouti, Sanaa was in turmoil. By the time we dealt with the issues in Sanaa, there were troubles with Riyadh. At some point availability of airport was a problem while at other there was a problem of ground staff.
I reached there on April 10 (Friday), which is a holiday there, so we got only one person in immigration department. He was reluctant still we tried to send as many people as possible. Except some security guards nobody was there on the airport. Finally, some locals from Bohra community came to our help. They are also Indians but residing there. They helped us with providing basic amenities and documentation of the passenger. There support also was crucial in coordination with the local authorities without which evacuating such large number of people was impossible.
We had established a control room at Djibouti for coordination purpose. As we could not hold large number of people for a long time we planned to send a batch to India before another batch could reach there from Sanaa.
- What was the role of Navy in this Operation?
They rescued people from Mukalla, Adan and Hodeidah Ports. Though there were problems there as well, authorities at Adan helped us a lot. As there was a firing on Chinese Naval fleets they advised us to take the passengers from smaller boats while keeping the bigger ships away from the port. It was undoubtedly a coordinated effort from all quarters; Navy, Air Force, Air India, officials from External Affairs Ministry etc. I would like to specially compliment Nalin Kothari who is honorary Consulate at Djibouti. He worked very hard. As many authorities in Yemen did not expect a minister to be there, seeing me they also supported a lot, especially in Sanaa.
- We have rescued some foreign nationals from the war zone. Will you please tell something about it?
In the last three days of Operation Raahat we received a request from Yemen government about the stranded Yemen nationals there. Though our priority was to rescue every single Indian there, while doing so, we tried our best to help out others who wanted to leave the place. On the last day when the there was a fierce bombarding, we rescued more than 600 people. We rescued nationals of about 41 countries in this process.
- Were there Pakistani nationals also?
Not only Pakistani, we rescued people from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and many West Asian and European countries. In a way, we represented the whole international community. All the countries have appreciated our efforts.
- How many aircrafts were used in the operation?
We used three C-17, one Boeing -777 and three airbuses. I also travelled back to Mumbai along with the last batch of evacuated people. We rescued more than five and half thousand Indians and twelve hundred foreign nationals. Every Indian who wanted to leave the war torn Yemen is safely back home.
- You executed the operation meticulously and with finesse. How far a soldier within you helped in this?
Being a soldier definitely helped in this operation. We have a habit of going to the core of the problem, so I went to Sanaa and stayed there. For the quick decision making I went to Sanaa five times during the operation.
- What will be the impact of Operation Raahat on India’s international stature?
Operation Raahat has definitely raised India’s stature in the international community. Indian government has executed many relief operations. Government always want people to travel according to the advisories issued. As people do not follow them, this operation was different and bigger than any other operation. We have spent around one and half lakh rupees on each person rescued. Here I would like to specially mention the role of officials from External Affairs Ministry who did not get time even to have their breakfast and meals on time.
- Away from the operation, Pakistan has released the Mumbai mastermind terrorist Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi. Indian Government has demanded for immediate action on him. How do you see the course of Indo-Pak relations?
See on the one hand there is a policy while on the other its execution. As a policy we want friendly relations with all the neighbours. We cannot choose our neighbours. There has to be ongoing dialogue process. Shri Narendra Modi has said again and again that bombs and bullets vitiate the cordial environment. There will be difficulties, as happened in the case of Lakhvi. Not only India, but international community has also condemned the release. I am sure they are also working on it.
We need to keep trying with long term objectives. Small issues should not derail the process.