Yemen / Djibouti 9 May - 14 May 1994

AFME MAMS can keep it!


On 7 May 1994 2 half-teams were put on standby to 'go somewhere hot for up to 5 days'. Thankfully the newsmen gave us a slightly fuller brief for our pending deployment to Djibouti - on the northeast coast of Africa, just across the Red Sea from Yemen - to evacuate British dependants from Sanaa who were in danger from the civil war between North and South Yemen forces. The teams were:


Flight Lieutenant David Jacobs
Flight Sergeant Jim Buchanan
Sergeant Dillon Willans
Corporal Duncan Metcalfe
Senior Aircraftman Dom July
Senior Aircraftman Jim Stone


They were to deploy on 8 May but a financial delay of 24 hours (the FCO would not pay for the 2 MoD Hercules and a British Airways DC10 which was also on standby) started a week where the plot changed more often than the tasking board in MAMS Ops does in an average month. Each aircraft, in full seat fit, flew direct to Djibouti on 9 May, to find a rather surprised French Foreign Legion who were not expecting us, and humid temperatures in the mid to high 30s. The French were very helpful, which is fortunate as with their assistance it took the Detachment Commander and Operations Officer 3 hours to sort out basic office and domestic accommodation. I hate to think what it would have been like if they had been uncooperative.


Having set up satellite communications with Sanaa and High Wycombe we headed for our hotel (we were advised by the local civil handling agent that it was one of the best in the country), which was situated in what we initially thought was the smelliest, dirtiest area of town. It soon became apparent that this was, in fact, typical for the whole town. Speaking to members of the crew the following morning we considered ourselves quite lucky as the air conditioning in our rooms seemed fairly reliable, unlike their hotel where if the air conditioning worked at all, you could not guarantee whether it would be hot or freezing cold air coming through.


For the first couple of days we would dutifully catch the 0530 transport into work, to sit around in the humid heat like coiled springs ready to jump into action. Late on 11 May, while we were munching away on our usual pizza meal (a relatively safe alternative to the local food that we had seen, fly infested, on the roadside stands), we got word that a decision had actually been made - we are still not sure who by! - and that we would be granted safe passage in Sanaa the following morning. We were also told that the Yemen troops had no central control over the SAM sites, which tended to shoot any aircraft that they didn't recognise out of the sky, and which was not so comforting.


The big day arrived and we thankfully had an uneventful flight into Sanaa, where we were met by Squadron Leader Kit Ayers who had gone there to review the evacuation JTP and was stuck there! Each aircraft kept one engine running for the 3 hours that they were on the ground (to avoid the embarrassing situation of not being able to restart following shutdown) waiting for the passengers to arrive from a hotel downtown where they had been processed by the Embassy staff. When they did arrive absolute chaos ruled in the Terminal building as people fought to get out of the country, and despite the confusion caused by the local handlers who decided to ignore all our requests and instructions, the passengers and what little baggage they had with them were loaded as quickly as possible and we departed for Cyprus. The heat and noise on the aircraft upset a few of the children and babies aboard but everyone settled down soon after they had eaten the basic 'buttie boxes' that we had managed to get from Djibouti.


The arrival in Larnaca was fairly uneventful with just one camera crew recording the moment - paying particular attention to the more attractive women evacuees of course! The passengers then had a few hours to wait for the aforementioned British Airways DC10 to arrive and take them home to UK. We managed a few hours sleep at Akrotiri (the restaurants in the village had closed by the time we arrived) before flying back to Djibouti to recover the Ops and Comms personnel and all the equipment which we had left there the previous day. After a QTR we headed back to Lyneham, flagging Akrotiri for fuel, to complete a rather long and tedious day.


Despite the 'hurrying up to wait around' syndrome and the uncomfortable heat and humidity, the task was a very satisfying one. I would recommend however, if you have a choice, that you do not go to Djibouti. I certainly hope not to return there (once is definitely enough), and have crossed it off my list of possible places to go on holiday!


Flight Lieutenant Dave Jacobs