Operation Safe Haven
Northern Iraq 1991
On the 17th of April 1991, the 3rd Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, had been chosen to undertake Operation Haven in Northern Iraq. This was to be a force of some 5,000 personnel consisting of substantial numbers from the RAF and Army, and 1,000 troops from the Netherlands that included 400 from the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps. On Thursday 18th April, the Commanding Officer Of 40 Commando, RM, cleared the lower deck to announce that the unit would be deploying, along with the majority of the Brigade, to Northern Iraq. The task was defined to be a cross between humanitarian aid and the provision of security for the Kurdish people.
The advance party left on the 20th April from RAF Brize Norton. Our initial destination was Diyarbakir, in Turkey. We then moved on to Silopi, which was a hive of activity near the Iraq and Syrian border. With planning well advanced, the Americans were here in strength and the tented camp was expanding by the hour. Relief stores for the refugees were coming in by the truckload. The advance party of 40 Commando was slotted into Task Force Alpha, mainly consisting of the US 10th Special Forces Group, with the task of administering the mountain camps, and alleviating the most immediate suffering. Our operations in this remote and mountainous area were to based on the little known town of Yuksekova in the southeastern corner of Turkey. With the main body of the Commando about to arrive, a more detailed reconnaissance of the area revealed that there was only one major concentration of refugees, at Yasilova and this was taken on by the M & AW Cadre. A new task had appeared. 45 Cdo were already occupying Zakho, across the border in Iraq. The new mission was to push east of Zakho and secure the first large valley to the south of the Turkish border, which would be the initial reception area for the Kurdish refugees coming down from the mountain camps.
Once the main body of the unit had arrived, having enjoyed the care and attention of the RAF, the companies were deployed at strategic points within our area of operations. Sp Coy took up residence at Kani Masi. Refugees were received directly from Uzumlu Camp along with those that had passed through 'B' Coy at the eastern end of the valley, on the banks of the Great Zab River, and began to administer the move of refugees from Kukura Camp on the Turkish border, across the Great Zab River and into the valley. Kani Masi developed into a refugee camp of its own with many thousands of people being supplied with shelter, food, medical aid and transport. 'C' Coy moved north up into the mountains to the razed and deserted village of Nazdur. The refugees, women and children, young and old, had completed an arduous trek across the mountains with their personal belongings. Many of the refugees, who passed through our locations, headed for Zakho, as it was a safe area. But as 45 Cdo and other coalition forces expanded the area of the safe haven to the south, many refugees began to cross over the ridge out of the valley. 'A' Coy was positioned on this route, and the Marines turned their hands to road improvement on a steep, tortuous, badly surfaced track, over which many thousands of refugees were to travel in weeks to come.
Royal Marines were involved in a variety of tasks ranging from military skills to practical humanitarian support. Once Iraqi troops had withdrawn from Dahuk, the population at Kani Masi dropped from 28,571 at the rate of over 7,000 per day. A major task for SP Coy, who suddenly found themselves under employed once the task of expediting the movement of refugees out of the camps, was completed. Our attention was to facilitate the resettlement of the valley by the Barwali tribe, who had been displaced from their villages by Saddam Hussein. A change of scene was provided by the search for three missing BBC journalists who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances in late March. After a tip-off 'B' Coy was deployed on a search operation and recovered two bodies and some belongings in a remote mountainous corner of Iraq. Further searches for the third journalist, Rosana Della Casa, found nothing, but her belongings were located not far from the other bodies.
45 Commando were on the move, as usual, when the order came to move to northern Iraq. The first days were hectic. In any event, the recce party landed in Diyarbakir, somewhere in Turkey, on the 20th April, and then moved on to Silopi at the junction of the Turkey, Syria and Iraq borders. Crossing over the border into Iraq, we drove through Zakho, a ghost town with no people but lots of Iraq police and soldiers, who stood by and watched as we drove by. Our presence was clearly a show of force and immense cheek. The headquarters we had chosen was a deserted school and in a hell of a mess, as were most of the buildings in northern Iraq. As we occupied the building, we were watched by the Iraq Army, still dug in on a ridge about 600m away, and as per normal Iraqi routine mines were strewn everywhere in front of their positions. The rifle companies joined us over the next four days. They spent 24 hrs reorganizing before moving out into the mountains and patrolling north to the camps to help to bring down the refugees.
On 24th April, the unit was retasked to an operation in Zakho, which involved all four rifle companies in patrolling the streets, identifying police, secret police, and army barracks, and then ejecting their occupants. It was a huge task. Iraq is a country with an enormous military presence in northern Iraq and it's people are in the grip of terror, but with constant patrolling Northern Ireland style, the right of the secret police to kill and beat their subject population was challenged by these Marine patrols, and the first days on the streets were remarkable as people came out of their houses, free for the first time. As the days passed, thousands of refugees returned to Zakho. The whole of 45 Commando had established control over an area some 1,000 square kilometres of north Iraq. Some dishevelled groups of Iraqi soldiers began to withdraw with their few possessions and what loot they could carry. The first month in Iraq, elements of the 3rd Royal Marine Commando Brigade had bought freedom to towns and villages as we advanced further into the country, rebuilding roads and the resettlement of people. The mission of restoring the Kurdish people to their homes was completed.