Rescue missions without fanfare

Rescue missions without fanfare

During past evacuation missions, officials quietly did their work and the media was tolerated at best 

“Why have you come?” shouted Ambassador Manimekalai Murugesan, a small but commanding figure at the Indian embassy in Tripoli, Libya. “We can’t look after you too!” The sound of gunfire was going off every few minutes, sometimes closer to, and sometimes further from, the embassy building, where a small team of officers were burning the midnight oil in tense circumstances. Their task was to ensure that every one of about 15,000 Indians working in Libya had their passport papers in order and received exit clearances from the Muammar Gaddafi government to leave the country, all within a quickly closing window, with armed militia ruling the streets. On February 15, 2011, protests had broken out in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. By March 1, the United Nations General Assembly suspended Libya’s membership in the Human Rights Council. Anticipating a war, and that Indians would need to be helped out of the conflict zone, my cameraman and I had been despatched to Tripoli, clueless of the kind of trouble we were headed for. When we landed, it was already clear to us that the city was emptying out, with most expecting a UN-authorised ‘no-fly zone’ over the country. Our flight via Amman had only four passengers going to Tripoli, and at the airport, an entire ‘tent city’ had been erected for lakhs of foreign workers fleeing the country.

For all the tough welcome, Ambassador Manimekalai and her team were more than hospitable. They helped us with numbers and directions for how to get around the city, even as they organised the thousands of Indian nurses, teachers, engineers and labourers for an exit from Libya by March 15, the unofficial date when the UN Security Council was due to consider a Chapter VII resolution, or force authorisation and was expected to begin a military intervention. Commercial flights had shut down. The Ambassador had to meet Gaddafi to ask him to allow special Air India flights to run services for the week so that Indians could be flown home, all part of ‘Operation Safe Homecoming’. The next ask was tougher: India had decided to send in a naval fleet, comprising two destroyers — I NS Mysore and I NS Aditya — and the biggest ship, INS Jalashwa, which had already set off from Mumbai on February 26, and the Ambassador needed permission for them to steam into Tripoli harbour, even as Gaddafi kept all international vessels in international waters. Since there was goodwill for India, Gaddafi agreed to make an exception for the Indian vessels, which arrived on March 8 and left a few days later, carrying about 2,500 Indians and other nationalities out of the war zone. NATO strikes on Libya began on March 19.

The operation had used the military’s experience of another evacuation I had been a part of, when the INS Mumbai and other ships went from Cyprus to Lebanon during the Israeli bombings of 2006. The Indian Ambassador in Beirut, Nengcha Lhouvum, and officials of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) back home negotiated a humanitarian “window”, when the Israel Defense Forces agreed to stop shelling Beirut and surrounding areas to allow the ships to enter and exit the harbour. When we entered Beirut, there were Indian embassy officials on the port floor, stamping passports and organising transport for Indians stuck in areas under fire.

The two operations are among at least 30 such evacuations, including the biggest one of 1.17 lakh Indians from the Gulf in 1990 during the Iraq war. They were carried out by the Ministry’s diplomats worldwide, and Navy, Air Force and Air India personnel who often risked their own lives, quietly, and without the need or even the desire for press coverage (as the Ambassador in Tripoli made clear, we were actually in the way). The media was tolerated at best, and certainly not encouraged to glorify these missions, which were seen simply as the duty of Indian officers towards their fellow citizens. When we returned, the welcome was perfunctory, with no senior official, let alone minister, there to address returning citizens. Times have changed.

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