By Lt Gen Dr Subrata Saha
Two major earthquakes – measuring 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale hit southern Turkey and northern Syria, as the Arabian tectonic plate appears to have moved northwards, grinding against the Anatolian plate. The first earthquake, struck on 6 February at 04:17 AM local time (6:47 AM IST) near the city of Gaziantep. The second quake triggered by the first, struck 12 hours later, with the epicentre further North in the Elbistan district of Kahramanmaras. The earthquakes killed thousands of people and caused widespread devastation. Many aftershocks continued to be felt across the region even after several days.
Operation Dost (Turkiye) was the codename for India’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mission, comprising search and rescue teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the 60 Parachute Field hospital of India’s 50 Independent Parachute Brigade. Incidentally, 60 Parachute Field (earlier called Ambulance) has earned many laurels representing India in the 1950-53 Korean War.
India’s international crisis management structure functioned in top gear as 60 Para Field Hospital received orders from the Army HQ to prepare for the mission by 11 AM IST, within hours of the earthquakes. 60 Para Field Hospital responded with alacrity – 99 personnel including Medical Specialists, Surgical Specialists, Anesthetists, Orthopedics, Maxillofacial Surgeons, Public Health Specialists, Medical Officers, Paramedics, and the NDRF teams, were airlifted by the Indian Air Force from the Hindon Airbase, along with their bricks of medical, surgical, dental and disaster relief equipment. Within three hours of arrival at Turkiye on 8 February, the Field Hospital was set up at Iskenderun in Hatay, one of the most severely affected provinces in Turkiye and the NDRF teams commenced rescue and relief operations at ground zero in Gaziantep.
Popularly called ‘Indistani Sahraa Hastanesi’, the Indian Field Hospital had, in a span of 12 days, treated 3604 casualties, provided emergency medical care, fixed fractures, provided dental treatment, and conducted major surgeries. Over 100 casualties required admission or detention. The tempo was sustained with prompt replenishments of medical and surgical bricks, as well as orthopaedic equipment from India.
Years of experience of the Indian Army in undertaking people centric operations in United Nations Mission, as well as in disturbed areas within the country certainly helped. Indian Army’s operations in war torn Angola, Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, and others as part of UN mission, and counter insurgency and counter terrorist operations have invariably been accompanied by civic action. The language barrier in Turkiye was overcome by involving local volunteers in the relief efforts, in assisting interpretation, managing patients and pharmacies.
The disaster relief teams got a touching send-off from the people of Turkiye. A message from the family of Ulas a Turkish Volunteer says it all, “You had arrived as a 99 team of medics, but you have the blessings of whole of Turkiye while you are going back to India”. Eda Iskendrum from Turkiye expressed her gratitude with a tweet, conveying the popular emotion that the soldier-medics evoked, “You are all our heroes. We will see each other in the days that we are not cry(ing) [in happier times]. I will come to India. And also we want to see you in Hatay again in the future. We love u.” A Turkish medical student texted this parting message to a medical officer boarding the C17 back to India, “You must remember that you have [a] home back here in Turkiye and a brother [is] waiting for you to host you”.
Even as the 60 Para Field Hospital and the NDRF teams won hearts and minds in the field, on the global stage too, India’s humanitarian action stood out on three counts; first, swift decision making and rapid implementation in a crisis situation; second, the commendable ability of our forces to adapt to trying circumstances and empathize with the suffering people; and third, primacy for humanitarian values and principles over any other considerations.
Operation DOST was yet another practical demonstration of India’s commitment to multilateralism in dealing with natural disasters and to be at the forefront of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). India’s response during the Covid pandemic is well known; it provided international medical relief; facilitated the repatriation of foreign nationals; and exported vaccines to several countries. India has been actively contributing to cooperation in HADR amongst BIMSTEC countries since 2016. In September 2022, the Quad group of countries – India, U.S., Australia, and Japan signed an agreement for HADR partnership. In November 2022, India hosted a multi-national, multi-agency HADR Exercise ‘Samanvay 2022’ in Agra, involving ASEAN nations.
Living up to the spirit of the G20 mantra articulated by PM Modi, “One Earth, One Family, One Future”, India is taking the leadership role in disaster management and relief operations, by standing firmly with victims of disasters across the world.
The author is a former Member NSAB and DCOAS, in 2014 as GOC 15 Corps he led the massive flood rescue and relief operations in Kashmir.