The ICRC In Yemen, Part II: 1964-1969

The ICRC In Yemen, 1962-1969, Part II - All photos ©ICRC

The ICRC In Yemen, 1962-1969, Part II - All photos ©ICRC

This second instalment of a two-part post looks at the action of the ICRC during the North Yemen Civil War from 1964-1969. Where the organization further develops its action, grave IHL violations are committed and an ICRC archivist reflects on the continued relevance of that fabled operation.

In 1964, Many More Victims

Yemen's geography and climate, its lack of basic infrastructure and the complexity of local, national and regional politics continue to be a challenge for the ICRC throughout 1964. Hostilities continue unabated and, too often, so do violations of international humanitarian law. 

Civilians, already destitute before the hostilities began, now bear the brunt of the conflict. 

The organization's response grows accordingly: many more victims – prisoners, internees, wounded and sick – are assisted that year. All in all, Yemen remains an exceptionally challenging operational environment. 

The parties have agreed to the provisions of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, giving the institution a solid legal basis to intervene, sometimes forcefully, with authorities on both sides. Visits to Egyptian and republican prisoners require long and difficult expeditions into mountain areas where there are no roads. The humanitarian impact of these visits is, however, significant. The prisoners are virtually cut off from the rest of the world; everything, food and medicine in particular, is lacking. Doctors are often part of the visiting teams and treat sick or wounded detainees on the spot.

In the early spring of '64, Yemen head of delegation André  Rochat, several delegates and a doctor leave from Uqd Field Hospital with over 500 kilos of supplies to visit royalist areas controlled by the Naham tribe, whose territory lays east of Sana'a. They travel by truck, camel and donkey and by foot, crossing several frontlines. They are generally well received by military commanders on both sides. Naham tribal leaders and fighters are waiting for the delegates; their arrival in these secluded mountains has been announced by radio.

Rochat and his team set up camp in a cave at 3000 meter in the high desert. Twenty-nine Egyptian prisoners are detained in a cave; their officer is held in a fortress nearby. The soldiers are chained, their bodies barely covered. Rochat negotiates for the shackles to be taken off and for more food and supplies to be sent on a monthly basis. The team's doctor requests that a gravely ill prisoner be transferred to a hospital. The head of the tribe, Prince Ibn-el-Moshen, agrees but on one condition: a royalist leader held by the republicans must be released and personally brought to him within fifteen days. Rochat accepts, knowing this sets a useful precedent. The team leaves with the sick man, crosses the frontline and reaches Saad'a, where Rochat negotiates the release of the royalist leader as promised. A week later, two delegates accompany the released detainee to the headquarters of the Nahan tribe, using that visit to bring more aid to the Egyptian prisoners it still holds. These transfers of prisoners, one example of the many actions led by Rochat and his team, also allow the delegates to facilitate the exchange of news between prisoners and their families, a task organized and supervised by the Geneva-based Central Tracing Agency. 

The ICRC soon obtains the release of 15 Egyptian soldiers interned in Saudi Arabia after their capture by Yemeni royalists and organizes their repatriation. A delegate accompanies them to Cairo on a chartered flight. Rochat also negotiates visits to royalist detainees in republican, Egypt-supported Sana'a. Visits led by the head of delegation start in January 1964. During their first visit, delegates see 30 detainees. Among them are six member of imam al-Badr's own family. Rochat, who speaks Arabic, is able to meet and discuss with the detainees without witnesses, already an ICRC standard practice. Visits are then repeated throughout the year. In December, delegates visit ten royalist detainees in Taiz. As usual, they bring them supplies and family messages.

Ongoing emergency

In many parts of the country, the only medical care available is that provided under the Red Cross emblem and for the most part, the organization's medical work throughout 1964 continues to take place at Uqd Field Hospital. The Swiss Red Cross still staffs the outpost. Patients - wounded combattants and civilians - continue to travel, sometimes for days, to reach the hospital, even when there is a lull in the fighting. The hospital constantly operates beyond its 50 beds capacity, with 75 to 80 patients treated at any time. Staff members give their own beds to patients and sleep on the floor. At times, there are as many as 100 patients in the tents by the mountain.

Teams regularly leave Uqd for field expeditions near theatres of operations. Reports to Geneva still describe the medical action of the ICRC at Uqd as an "emergency operation". By the end of 1964, over 800 surgeries had been performed in the Clinobox, which remains the core facility at Uqd. Over 900 patients have been treated and close to 10,000 ambulatory patients visited the polyclinic. At the end of the year, the Field Hospital has cost the ICRC and contributing National Societies 2.5 million Swiss francs, not an insignificant sum in 1964. 

Several doctors take turns leading the Field Hospital that year: Ulrich Middendorp, Johann de Puoz, Reinhold Wepf, Edwin Hofman and Enrico Bonifazi. They supervise five teams of about thirty people – including doctors, nurses, laboratory staff, technicians and drivers – who operate at Uqd between October 1963 and December 1964. Work is particularly taxing in the summer, when temperatures in the operating theatre rise above 50 degrees Celsius and water consumption goes from 3,500 to 9,000 litres a day despite severe rationing. The climate is also tough on the equipment, what with lack of roads and regular sandstorms. Water trucks must be replaced, equipment parts must be sent in. 

The UN leave, the ICRC stays

The mandate of the United Nations mission ends on September 4, 1964, which creates additional problems for the ICRC since it at times relies on UN planes and radio communication to operate at Uqd. More importantly, the area where the hospital is located was until then a protected zone; it loses its neutral status when the UN mission leaves. The security guarantees the ICRC had enjoyed come to an end. Before they leave, the United Nations donate some tents to the hospital.  

Uqd maintains radio contact with headquarters after the UN's departure however, speaking daily with Geneva through the short-wave set-up the organization has been using for a year. Staff communicate by morse and by voice through that state-of-the-art installation. Throughout the year, the hospital shows that is it well adapted to these extreme circumstances. Its location does indeed protect it from military operations and the facility can be reached by those wounded in the battlefield east and northeast of Sana'a.

Most field missions right out of Uqd are short, with doctors treating the sick and wounded they meet. Those at the frontlines are longer. A British Red Cross doctor and nurse team working under the ICRC banner spends five months near the frontlines of the northeast. Two French Red Cross doctors relay that team, followed by a Swiss group. These frontline expeditions treat about 4,500 people in 1964, on top of the 14,600 patients treated during over 45,000 consultations by the ICRC Uqd Field Mission.  

The action also continues on the republican side. In Sana'a, the ICRC has distributed significant amounts of medicine the previous year. It now focuses on the pressing food needs of the population, and in particular those of children.

Every day, except during Ramadan, two delegates and their Yemeni team distribute enhanced milk to 700 Sana'a war orphans.

They do the same for about 200 internees every evening. They cannot find enough cups and glasses in the capital. They organize the collection of empty tin cans throughout the city, which they clean and modify for their milk distributions. Food and soap, increasingly rare commodities, are also regularly distributed, to women in particular. 

Beginning what will be a long orthopaedic tradition, the ICRC in Yemen starts a program for war amputees. Starting in March 1964, a delegate accompanies small groups of amputees to Cairo's Red Crescent Hospital, where they are treated. Prosthesis are made and fitted at the Aguzah Rehabilitation Center, near the Egyptian capital. The ICRC pays for the treatment while the United Emirates pay for the Sana'a-Cairo flights. By the end of 1964, 24 amputees have been rehabilitated and hundreds of crutches have been distributed in Sana'a.

The ICRC further expands its activities in both royalist and republican Yemen in 1965. Fighting continues in several areas until the autumn. Visits to soldiers held in remote royalist areas continue. Royalists are visitied in both Sana'a and Taiz. The Field Hospital at Uqd remains extremely busy during the first half of the year. On several occasions, the staff there are unable cope with the massive influx of wounded. 

A ceasefire is negotiated at Jeddah at the end of the summer but the ICRC continues its visits to prisoners into the Fall of '65. Delegates organize the exchanges and repatriations of prisoners of war and political detainees as negotiated by the parties at Jeddah. In fact, the first meetings between representatives of the Egyptian military and those of royalist forces take place inside the Field Hospital at Uqd under ICRC auspices. 

There, where thousands have been treated, the ICRC works with the parties to organize the exchange of detainees that effectively bring that phase of the conflict to an end in November. 

On the republican side, several medical outposts are set in and around Sana'a in 1965, some staffed by a single doctor seconded by a nurse. Wherever the ICRC is present, hundreds of people seek treatment. A team moves south to Qataba mid-year, treating over 2,000 people. Doctors also work in Dhammar, between Sana'a and Taiz, where no medical personnel has been present for several months. In Manakha, between Sana'a and Hodeidah, the ICRC doctors start an antivariolic vaccination campaign in city schools and surrounding villages. The orthopaedic program proceeds apace, with four groups of amputees flying from Sana'a to Cairo and back. Sana'a war orphans continue to fed and provided with clothes. Throughout 1965, two tons of powder milk is distributed monthly. Food and clothes are also provided throughout the city; distribution include milk, cheese, tuna, sardines, soap and, sometimes, cigarettes.

Uqd Field Hospital closes its doors in November 1965 in the wake of the Jeddah accords and the cessation of hostilities. A dispensary remains. It is visited by over 100 patients a day until the end of the year. During its existence - from November 1963 to November 1965 - doctors at the hospital have performed 2,088 surgeries. Sixty thousand five hundred consultations have been provided. Eight teams and a total of 186 persons have worked at Uqd.

Grave violations

Despite the ceasefire agreements of 1965, hostilities erupt again in early 1966. The ICRC had intended to progressively terminate its action in the country but it now decides to maintain a presence on both sides. Two medical teams operate on the republican side. One is in Zehid, on the coastal area the second in Beit-el-Fagih, south of Hodeida. They include the first doctors to ever work in these utterly destitute areas.

The Uqd

Clinibox is now a dispensary located in Najran, on Saudi territory. In the course of a month, over 1,000 patients are treated before it is definetely shut down on February 3rd, 1966. No other organization can run the facility so the ICRC hands it over to the royalist leaders who control the area, hoping they will find the means to provide for the local population. 

The delegation believes it is ending its action in north Yemen at that point, but fighting erupts once again and medical teams are sent back to the field that August in the Jauf area, near the frontlines. Rapidly, the operation extends towards the north. This second phase of the ICRC's response to the conflict is challenging in its own right, with staff working completely on its own and constant logistical and security challenges. The response continues throughout 1967, with three or four medical teams present in the field without interruption.

On January 5th, 1967, over 120 civilians, many of them women and children, are killed during the bombardment of Ketaf, a Jauf village. Many, including the ICRC, allege that chemical weapons were used. In the wake of this tragic attack, the ICRC publicly appeals to the parties to respect the rules of international humanitarian law and the principle of humanity on January 31st.  On May 12th, another bombardment kills 75 civilians in the area. ICRC delegates deploy rapidly to bring relief aid and document the event. Their June 2nd report calls on the parties to respect the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits chemicals weapons.

Final phase

The North-Yemen civil war reaches a turning point with the outbreak of war between Israel and the U.A.R. on 5 June 1967, when Egypt starts to withdraw its forces and artillery and Saudi Arabia halts its support to royalist forces, forcing the opposing Yemeni leaders to reach an agreement. 

In November 1967, days before the creation of the People's Republic of South Yemen on November 30, widespread rioting takes place in the port city of Aden resulting in hundreds of wounded. At the request of both the Yemeni and British authorities, the ICRC sends in two Switzerland-based war surgery teams. Soon the ICRC is unable to temporarily work in republican territory and pulls out its teams. 

The following month, fighting erupts once again around Sana'a, which the ICRC had left. In the capital itself, the hospitals lack medical personnel so the delegation negotiates its return on republican territory and sends doctors and surgeons in theater. Another medical team works at night and hiding in a cave during the day in Jinanah, a hard hit city near the frontline. There, delegates find the corpses of mutilated women and children. Twice during that month, ICRC medical team protected by the Red Cross emblem are attacked by planes. The gravity of the situation forces the ICRC to again call publicly on the parties to respect the laws of war in the last days of December 1967.

In January 1968, the ICRC once again develops its action on the royalist front but its Jihanah antenna is bombarded on March 21st. All supplies, including medicine, are destroyed. Intercine tribal conflicts taking place between Jihanah and Najran add to the confusion, preventing the arrival of new doctors and nurses. 

Despite the volatility of the situation, doctors operate on average ten times a day.

Intense fighting also takes place around Sana'a in early 1968, with scores of civilians killed during aerial bombardements. Once again, the ICRC calls on the parties to respect the fundamental principles of the Geneva Conventions. ICRC Sana'a representative Dr. Middendorp attempts to neutralise the city's main hospital, with little success. 

The security in Jinannah worsens throughtout 1968 and forces the institution to finally pull out on January 8, 1969. 

Click here for a radio interview with Dr. Peter Kuhn, ICRC, taped upon his return from Jihanah in 1968.

Several eastern bloc National Red Cross Societies, notably those of Hungary and the USSR, send medical supplies to Aden through the ICRC in early 1968. The next year, Soviet and Bulgarian Red Cross medical team operate in Aden's Al Gamhouriah hospital. The ICRC mission in Aden, now the capital of the People's Republic of South Yemen, is headed by M. Isler, who supervises the medical teams and organizes food distributions in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Surgical teams regularly travel to Mukallah, the capital of the Hadramout province, a twelve day trek from Aden. Swiss and Bulgarian teams operate over 700 persons from April to December, working out of the province's single hospital. Delegates, including the ever-active Andre Rochat visit political detainees at Aden's Central Crater Prison that April. 

When it finally decides to terminate its mission in Najran on September 21, 1969, the ICRC has operated in Yemen without interruption for close to seven years.

Bridging the past and the future

"The work of our Yemen delegation during the 1960s is defined by the presence of multiple actors and the complexity of the operational environment on one hand, and the resourcefulness of the delegates who led the action on the other," says ICRC archivist Fabrizio Bensi. "The North Yemen Civil War was characterized by the outbreak of tribal rivalries, disruption of political loyalties, foreign interventions, guerilla warfare and grave violations of international humanitarian law, including the use of chemical weapons. It is interesting to note that our historical public archival sources and records show that war of the 1960s shares many characteristics with the so-called 'asymmetrical' confrontations of today, anticipating contemporary armed conflicts fought in the post-9/11 era by a few decades," says Mr. Bensi. "The operation led by André Rochat and his team in fact bridges the past and future of our institution. As such, one hopes it can inform the ICRC's humanitarian response in the context of today's violent confrontations."

Watch Yemen, Land Of Suffering, a 1964 documentary shot on location in Sana'a and Uqd (in English, despite the French title):