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From Iraq to Yemen to Libya to Kabul: Some of the toughest evacuations executed by the Modi government

The tough path of diplomacy and ensuring Indians stuck abroad in war torn countries reach home safely: How Modi govt has successfully carried out courageous evacuations of Indians abroad.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has sent countries around the world scrambling to mount a swift evacuation plan to extricate their respective nationals from the strife-torn country.

But executing an evacuation plan is not an easy job. It’s a Herculean task, a disastrous nightmare that a country has to see through to safely rescue its people. The fluidity of the situation makes it incredibly difficult for the authorities to draw up a blueprint of the evacuation amidst perpetual volatility.

Not only do the government has to come up with a practical solution to rescue its marooned citizens in a foreign country but they also have to manage the political crisis developing back home with the opposition parties and the kin of people stuck abroad putting pressure on the government to get their relatives to safety.

The complexity of the task at hand adds to the pressure on the government and the officials involved in the evacuation. The country is also severely constrained in case it does not share a contiguous border with the nation from where it plans to pull out its people.

But arguably, the most difficult part is to have a handle on the situation that the country and its diplomats and foreign ministry officials buckle down to tackle. To come up with a reasonably good plan to evacuate its people to safety, the officials involved in the evacuation process need to have an acute understanding of the unfolding crisis. The diplomats should anticipate much in advance about a possible humanitarian catastrophe and work towards hatching up a plan should the push comes to shove.

In case there is a hostile takeover of the country as is the case in Afghanistan or a war situation as was the case in Libya, Yemen and Iraq, the diplomats need to know who the current stakeholders are and explore opportunities to get into negotiations with them. After getting them on board, the final modalities of the evacuation can be smoothed over and the implementation of the rescue plan could be set in motion.

India, over the years, has been one of those countries that have been remarkably successful in executing its evacuation plans and bringing its stranded citizens back home. Its foreign policies had been disastrous for a couple of decades after the independence when it committed one after another ‘Nehruvian’ blunders. For instance, not obliterating Pakistan for its audacity of attacking and capturing Jammu and Kashmir in 1948 or serving the UNSC seat to China on a platter and later on misreading China’s intentions on Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh that inevitably led to the catastrophic 1962 war.

But, in the last few years, after PM Modi came to power, there has been a radical shift in India’s foreign policy. It carried out Surgical Strikes across the border, both in the east and west, to demonstrate its willingness to go beyond the conventional methods to deal with the scourge of terrorism. With Balakot Airstrikes, it has shown the world that it is no longer the yesteryear’s India that will not sit back and lick its wound, but it will mount a swift offensive and exact revenge from its adversaries.

Additionally, under PM Modi, India has also aced in tackling hostage and humanitarian crises unfolding in foreign countries. Be it the Tikrit hostage situation in 2014 or the Yemen-Saudi war in 2016, or the Kabul evacuation much recently, India has demonstrated that it prizes the life of its nationals residing in other countries and would not abandon them to their fate.

Here are some of the successful evacuation operations carried out by India under the Modi government:-

46 Indian nurses rescued from ISIS captivity in strife-torn Iraq in 2014

In June 2014, depressing news trickled in from strife-torn Iraq, where the Islamic State was making rapid territorial gains. The ISIS terrorists had managed to intrude into Tikrit as the Civil War between them and the Iraqi Army escalated. A contingent of Indian nurses was deployed in a hospital in Tikrit to look after the injured and sick. It was just weeks after Narendra Modi had sworn in as the Prime Minister with a very new cabinet.

At midnight of 12 June 2014, all the nurses, both Indian and Iraqis, heard a crackle of bullets on a road nearby the hospital. For the Indian nurses, this was their first brush with Iraq’s changing reality as they heard a volley of bullets being fired, along with a loud thud of noise coming from grenade explosions. Soon, the Iraqi nurses whispered among themselves to flee the town. The Indians, on the other hand, knew they had nowhere to go. 46 Indian nurses were stranded in the hospital. All except one of the 46 nurses were from Kerala.

The next day, ISIS terrorists had occupied the ground floor of the hospital. The Indian nurses lived on the second floor of the hospital in the makeshift dormitories. All the hospital staff, including the patients, were hoarded up on the second floor as the incessant firing continued on the ground floor.

For days on end, the nurses lived in perpetual fear of being assaulted and executed at the hands of their ISIS captors, who were also known for committing unspeakable atrocities against women and holding them as sex slaves. They spent their time in captivity watching TV bulletins and surfing the news on their phones until the television stopped working and the internet was no longer available on the phones.

Throughout their ordeal, the Indian Embassy in Baghdad steadfastly kept in touch with them on phone and at times recharging their prepaid cell phones. On June 30, the nurses were ferried to the border by the ISIS terrorists. From their office at the border, another bus was arranged to transport the nurses to the Indian rescue team. They were then taken to the military office, and then Erbil airport after their documents were verified. The Indian Government had arranged a special flight from Delhi to Erbil to fly the nurses back. After 23 days of traumatic experience, the nurses, unscathed and unharmed, finally boarded the flight on July 5 and returned home.

The escape, which was dramatic and unprecedented, given that ISIS had become notorious for meting out brutalities on their hostages, is partly credited to the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who was continuously in touch with all the major countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iraq. It is believed that New Delhi activated informal channels and established peripheral contacts with ISIS, and other splinter groups in Iraq to precipitate the rescue. The foreign ministry later refused to identify interlocutors who had negotiated the release of the nurses.

More than 4,500 Indians and 960 foreigners evacuated from war ravaged Yemen in 2015

In 2015, as fighting raged between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government supported by aerial bombardment from the Saudi-led coalition, the Indian government once again found itself in a tight spot. Thousands of Indians were stranded in Yemen as the Royal Saudi Air Force led a coalition of Arab states in suppressing the Shiite Houthi rebels.

The Indian government launched Operation Rahat to evacuate Indian citizens and foreign nationals from Yemen. Since Yemen was not accessible by air due to a no-fly zone announced by Saudi Arabia, India chose Djibouti initially as a centre to carry out initial evacuation by sea. The Indian government also sent the then Minister of State for Overseas Indian Affairs General (Retd) V.K. Singh to oversee operations from the nearest port of Djibouti city.

Indians stuck in Yemen were asked to reach Sana’a and Aden, from where they would be ferried back to India. The Indian Navy redeployed the patrol vessel INS Sumitra (P59) from anti-piracy operations off the coast of Lakshadweep to the Yemeni port of Aden.

Besides, INS Mumbai and frigate INS Tarkash were also sent from Mumbai to provide protection and support to Indian ships and aircraft in the conflict zone. The Indian government also commissioned the Indian Air Force to help the Navy with the evacuation effort. Two C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft with a capacity of 600 passengers were sent to Djibouti.

In addition to this, two ferries belonging to the Lakshadweep administration, MV Kavaratti and MV Corals, with a capacity of 1,500 passengers were sent to Aden, while two Air India Airbus A320 aircraft were dispatched to Muscat in neighbouring Oman. Then on April 1, 2015, INS Sumitra reached Aden to evacuate 349 Indians.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally spoke to the King Salman of Saudi Arabia to seek a safe passage for Indian nationals and evacuation effort. The Prime Minister’s Office was personally monitoring operations and looking over seamless cooperation between various arms of the state including ministries of external affairs, defence, shipping, railways, navy, IAF, Air India and various state governments to provide relief to those in distress.

After India was permitted to fly to Yemen on April 3, 2015, it began evacuating people from Sana’a to Djibouti and from there to Mumbai or Kochi. The two C-17 Globemasters flew nine sorties to Mumbai and two to Kochi to transport the expatriates back to India.

Over the next few days, India rescued about 4,640 Indians stranded in Yemen, along with 960 foreign nationals from more than 41 countries. Some of the countries did not have the operational capability to carry out a complex evacuation process so they sought India’s help. India happily obliged and rescued the beleaguered foreign nationals.

India exfiltrates CRPF contingent amidst escalating tensions in Libya in 2019

With the security situation on the ground rapidly deteriorating in Libya, the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in April 2019 announced that an entire contingent of CRPF troops was removed from the conflict zone.

The root of the crisis that continues to plague Libya to this day is the unrest that sparked the Arab Spring in 2011. The uprising had then overthrown and killed long-ruling dictator Moammar Gadhafi and since his death, various rival factions within the country had been jousting for power.

An UN-backed internationally recognised government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj was installed but the rebels continued to fight with each other, in their bid to undermine the government and stake their claim to power.

The infighting escalated in 2019 with the launch of a military campaign known as the Western Libya campaign, initiated on 4 April 2019 by the Operation Flood of Dignity of the Libyan National Army, which represents the Libyan House of Representatives, to capture the western region of Libya and eventually the capital Tripoli held by the United Nations Security Council-recognised Government of National Accord. 

The Indian government initiated a massive evacuation plan to rescue the marooned people from the country. Later, the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted that the evacuation of an entire contingent of CRPF forces was carried out as the situation in Tripoli had worsened.

“Indian Embassy in Tunisia has evacuated the entire contingent of 15 CRPF personnel yesterday itself. I appreciate the excellent work by the Indian Embassy in Tunisia. #Libya,” she had tweeted.

With the situation exacerbating, the Indian government foresaw the possibility of the crisis devolving into a long-drawn-out conflict. During this time, some Indians residing in Tripoli were still hesitant to leave everything behind and get rescued from the war-torn country. With more than 500 Indians still in Tripoli, the then EAM Sushma Swaraj requested families and friends of people in Libya’s capital city Tripoli to persuade them to leave immediately amid an emergency.

Kabul evacuation in 2021 as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan

With the peace talks in Doha going sideways and the Taliban not holding up to its end of the bargain, the Indian authorities anticipated that there would come a time when New Delhi will have to decide whether to stay put or extricate itself from Afghanistan.

Then, on August 15, 2021, the Taliban terrorists walked into Kabul, facing no resistance from the Afghan armed forces and declaring themselves as Afghanistan’s rulers. Panic and fear had swept across the country after the fall of Kabul, following which a multitude of city residents flocked to the airport, in a desperate attempt to fly out of the country.

With India anticipating a humanitarian crisis emerging in Afghanistan, it had already laid the groundwork for initiating a swift evacuation campaign. Indians were dogged by primarily two concerns. Firstly, it didn’t share a contiguous border with Afghanistan, which meant that the evacuation had to be carried out at a broader level with an all-embracing approach. Secondly, India had no security footprint in Afghanistan.

“Our overriding concern was the security of our officials on the ground. So we prioritised it in our plan to exfiltrate them from Afghanistan should the Taliban gets hold of the country,” TOI quoted a senior official as saying, who wished to remain anonymous because of being unauthorised to speak on the issue.

As of August 22, India brought back 392 people, including two Afghan lawmakers, in three different flights as a part of the mission to evacuate its nationals and Afghan partners from Kabul.

A total of 168 people, including 107 Indians and 23 Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, were flown from Kabul to Hindon airbase near Delhi in a C-17 heavy-lift military transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF). The evacuation plan is still underway as India undertakes repatriation of remaining Indians stranded in Afghanistan while helping other countries evacuate their marooned nationals.

The Indian government is still making all efforts to bring back Indian citizens as well as Hindus and Sikh Afghan nationals as well as other Afghans to India.

 

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Jinit Jain
Engineer. Writer. Learner.

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