We help clients with emergency evacuations practically every year, and 2014 was no exception.
Moving people from an unsecured location quickly, safely and discreetly is always a challenge. Medical evacuations from areas of unrest can be even more complex – especially when cultural and linguistic barriers are added to the equation. And when all these things came together in northern Yemen at the height of an armed insurgency, things really got interesting.'
The challenge: We were requested to evacuate a family and three other individuals from a town in northern Yemen to the capital, Sana’a.
Three of the five family members had been hurt in a serious traffic accident, were hospitalized, and required constant medical attention. With injuries ranging from a rib fracture to a broken ankle, leg and pelvis – and a serious concussion – the family was in no shape to make a move on their own.
And yet move they must. Houthi rebels were stepping up their armed insurgency, and fierce battles were raging between the rebels and government forces around the town where the family was hospitalized.
Intensified fighting had grounded all ambulances from the hospital in northern Yemen. Similarly, the hospital in Sana’a would not allow its ambulances to leave town under any circumstances due to the deteriorating security situation.
The solution: Our first order of business was to secure ambulances that were capable of making the drive to the capital, a four-hour journey when conditions were good; now, the road between the town and Sana’a, more than 100 miles (170 km) away was marked by intense fighting and numerous roadblocks.
We then arranged two vehicles for the evacuees who did not need ambulance transportation, and two armed advance units as well as armed follow units to provide protection.
We communicated with the family head, who only spoke Arabic, via an asset in Lebanon.
At the agreed pick-up time, fighting between government forces and rebels erupted in the area, effectively preventing our team from reaching the hospital. We had to wait until the following day and make a second attempt. When the team finally arrived at the hospital, matters were further complicated by the family head, who insisted on going to a nearby mosque to pray before leaving. After prayer, he insisted that he and the family find a place to eat prior to departure.
Our transfer window was closing fast: the route to Sana’a wound along through mountainous roads and was extremely unsafe to travel after dark. Even though our team included a local interpreter who could help clear our journey through the tribal roadblocks along the way, at night we could be mistaken for government forces or rebel troops, and attacked by either. Finally, by threatening to abandon the evacuation and leave the family behind, our team succeeded in convincing the principal to allow his family to get in the ambulances and leave.
The result: Once we got under way, the evacuation went off as planned.
Six hours later, the patients were resting in clean beds at a better hospital in Sana’a. Three days later, the family left Yemen.
Why the delay before we were to leave? We learned from our Lebanese asset that it was all about saving face. The family head had understandably been very upset when we began discussing evacuation details with him a few days before our arrival in the northern town – and had shed some tears as he described the family’s plight. Once we got there with our armed entourage, however, he felt reassured – and compelled to “gain face” by demonstrating that he was unafraid and in no hurry to leave.
Our team, on the other hand, had a healthy sense of fear and every reason to get out as soon as possible!