April 21, 2015 4:13:41 am
On April 10, as INS Tarkash entered the Gulf of Aden to rescue Indian evacuees from strife-hit Yemen, officers saw two small passenger boats packed with Yemeni nationals waiting. Commanding Officer Pradeep Singh was surprised. He had been told only Indian nationals were waiting. Singh had to make a quick decision — the foreigners wanted to embark on the ship that was leading Operation Raahat of the Indian Navy, the Government of India’s mission to evacuate ‘only Indian nationals’ stranded in the region.
Eventually, INS Tarkash would rescue Indians as well as foreigners.
“We reached Aden by 9.30 am. While the order was to evacuate only Indian nationals, we could spot two passenger boats carrying only foreigners. When I checked with a point person at the Aden port, I was informed that Indians evacuees were being held hostage and would be released only if the foreigners were taken on board. It was a very peculiar situation that required caution — one wrong move and it would have cost us immensely. We therefore decided to rescue even the foreign nationals but with a condition that our Indian nationals be ‘released’ and sent immediately for evacuation. It was only after this that the Indians were brought in,” Singh told The Indian Express.
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With Operation Raahat coming to an end on April 16, the crew returned with tales of a complex assignment completed successfully — a total of 3,074 people were evacuated, including 1,783 Indians and 1,291 foreign nationals. On March 30, guided-missile destroyer INS Mumbai and guided-missile frigate INS Tarkash sailed from Mumbai to Yemen. Two Indian passenger ships, MV Kavaratti and MV Coral that normally ply between Kochi and the Lakshadweep Islands, also sailed from Kochi towards Yemen. INS Mumbai and INS Tarkash were to escort these passenger ships till Djibouti.
Operation Raahat had to be mostly conducted over 2-3 km from the port as the escalated conflict made it impossible for the Navy vessels to anchor at the Aden port. The Navy followed a standard drill — primary checks by a pointperson either from the Yemeni government or the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) at the Aden port, a passenger boat for the evacuees and then a screening before they could embark. Documents were actually verified in real time by officials seated in a makeshift control room in a Djibouti hotel.
‘Twice we found live bullets being brought on board’
Rakesh Singh, 22, is one of the youngest officers who participated in Operation Raahat. The radio officer on INS Tarkash describes the dense smoke blurring Yemen’s skyline, the constant shelling and explosions. “Mujhe laga ki mai zinda nahi aa paunga (I thought I would not return alive). The situation was very tense there. I was afraid for my life,” Singh recounts while speaking to The Indian Express from the deck of INS Tarkash, which anchored in Mumbai last week.
A native of Bihar, Singh joined the Navy in August 2012 and has been posted on INS Tarkash since. “As a radio officer, my core duty is to monitor the message and play out messages. I am not in combat but Operation Rahaat put me on field duty, which was new to me,” he says. “We were told around five hours in advance to be prepared to leave for Yemen. I did not get the time to inform my family members or my girlfriend. When we reached the Gulf of Aden, we could hear constant shelling. The war was advancing and the rescue operation became an uphill task,” he recalls.
During the operation, Singh was also part of the team that screened the baggage of evacuees. “Twice or thrice while screening we found live bullets or magazines being brought inside the vessels and so we intensified the process and made it stricter, to ensure that no untoward element boards the ship,” he says. “At one point, there were armed men with AK-47s walking to us. I thought they might shoot us down. The only thought that crossed my mind was that I could not speak to my parents but the commandos were able to rein the gunmen in,” he says.
With thousands trying to flee, the biggest task was to screen those embarking. “There were more than 10-12 people on a boat and at a time 10-15 boats would line up for evacuation and therefore we had only about 30 seconds to screen a person,” says Com. R V Subramanian. He was also part of the team that boarded the coffin of Manjit Singh, a resident of Himachal Pradesh who died in the bombings. “We managed to get the local authorities to put the body in a makeshift coffin. There was no cover on the coffin and we used a cloth,” he says.
Medical challenge they didn’t anticipate
Principal Medical Officers Sudhanshu Shekar (25) and Roj Titus Ninan (25) had stocked medical supplies while leaving for Yemen, including antibiotics, dressing, medicines and ointments to deal primarily with burn injuries, but the young officers were about to face a tougher challenge — a 37-year-old Yemeni woman, 9 months and 4 days pregnant.
“One of the passenger boats was carrying a heavily pregnant woman. These boats drift in the waters and so embarking on a Navy vessel becomes a tough task. With two officers in the passenger boat and two more hanging on the poles of the vessel, we managed to pull the woman safely inside,” Ninan explains. “She had been fasting for two days and was dehydrated. We gave her the required medicines and supplies and observed her closely. We then moved her to a special room in the sailors quarters. We took an oral consent from her husband to perform the delivery in case she slips into labour,” he added. “Two hours after embarking at Djibouti port, she delivered a healthy baby. When I heard the news, it brought a smile on my face,” he adds.
The medical officers also remember the counselling they had to offer to some evacuees. “Many a times they did not speak at all, especially children. When we tried to strike a conversation they would just look at us with a blank expression as they were overawed by the situation. Some of them would break down and were inconsolable,” Shekar says. Most had the same narratives, that of a bomb close to their homes and then a hurried evacuation.
Navy Commandos who ensured their safety
The Navy commandos played the most pivotal role in the operations. They ensured armed men did not embark the vessel. In one such situation, they were able to rein in a group of 10 gunmen threatening to open fire if they were not taken on board. “There were 10 armed men surrounding the vessel. They wanted us to take them along with two families they had escorted. When we refused to do so, they threatened to open fire. We could not communicate with them as they did not understand English or Hindi. We used sign language to communicate. We told them that we are not going to take them on board. They finally relented and went away,” said a commando who did not wish to be named.
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