Operation Haven

Operation Haven

In the spring of 1991 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines spearheaded ‘Operation Haven’ – an international aid effort to help hundreds of thousands of Kurds who, persecuted by Iraqi Forces, had fled to the mountains on the Iraq/Turkey border.

The Iraqi treatment of the Kurds had begun to verge on ‘ethnic cleansing’. Kurdish civilians were suffering greatly from lack of food, medicine, hygiene and the extreme cold in their mountain settlements.

The United States led an international coalition comprising of forces from France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Germany, Canada, Holland, Australia, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom to halt the actions of the Iraqi Army and Secret Police.

4000 British personnel from the Royal Navy, Army and Air Force were involved including 2500 Royal Marines Commandos. The coalition formed a Joint Force Headquarters with HQ Commando Forces RM and 3 Commando Brigade RM at its heart with Major General R J Ross RM in overall command of the British Forces.

Operation Haven stands as a dramatic example of how the Marines have given 'aid to the civil power'.

Two Marines pass a small refugee to safety as they help to evacuate a mountain refugee camp. (RMM)
Two Marines pass a small refugee to safety as they help to evacuate a mountain refugee camp. (RMM)

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Arriving in Turkey

In 1990 Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait. The small country easily fell to the Iraqi Army, which then tried to invade Saudi Arabia. A United Nations force successfully halted this invasion and restored the balance of power.

The Kurdish guerrillas – the Peshmerga – saw the defeat of Iraq as an opportunity to rise up against Saddam Hussein. However, the Iraqi Army once again drove the Kurds back to the mountains and looted and burned their villages and towns.

Kuwani, typical of many small, deserted Kurdish villages. (RMM)
Kuwani, typical of many small, deserted Kurdish villages. (RMM)

With half a million people in temporary camps and disease becoming prevalent, a speedy response was essential. The first step the Joint Forces took was to employ C-130 Hercules aircraft to drop supplies of food, water, shelter and medical goods. Although fairly crude this bought the forces time to bring personnel and equipment into the area and open supply routes.

All men and stores landed initially at the Turkish base of Diyarbakir. On 20 April the Advance and Reconnaissance Parties from 40 and 45 Commando and Commando Logistics Regiment arrived then travelled to Silopi, which became the first Headquarters and build-up area.

Central Development Committee HQ 3 CDO BDE RM Iraq. A weekly meeting, held to coordinate relief work by the various agencies working in the operational area was held. Shown here are representatives from a number of agencies including, in the centre with glasses Dr Peter Nabarro. Opposite him are Kurdish civilian and Peshmerga leaders. (RMM)
Central Development Committee HQ 3 CDO BDE RM Iraq. A weekly meeting, held to coordinate relief work by the various agencies working in the operational area was held. Shown here are representatives from a number of agencies including, in the centre with glasses Dr Peter Nabarro. Opposite him are Kurdish civilian and Peshmerga leaders. (RMM)

Next, the Commandos themselves arrived. 45 Commando crossed the border into Iraq only seven days after Major General Ross had answered the first telephone call warning him that the deployment could be necessary.

By this time 40 Commando’s Advance Party had joined Task Force Alpha, which mainly consisted of the US 10th Special Forces Group. Moving into south east Turkey, their main task was to reach the refugee camps and begin to bring in food and aid as quickly and effectively as possible.

To read the story of 40 and 45 Commando, select Next

To learn more about the role of the Royal Marines' Logistical Support, follow the link

To discover the role played by 3 Commando Brigade's Air Support, follow the link

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Making ‘safe routes’

One essential early role for the Royal Marines was ensuring that the Kurdish population could move safely from their mountain retreats. This meant protecting them from the threat of attack from Iraqi Forces and also from injury in the country’s vast minefields. They had to establish trust and convince the Kurdish guerrillas that the refugee camps were really safe.

Each Commando had its own tasks. The Commandos would then split into their various companies to undertake different elements of the task.

40 Commando’s C Company moved to the Kurdish villages of Begova and then Nazdur which were burnt down and deserted. They then checked safe routes for the refugees to move out of the mountains while 40’s Support Company moved to Kani Masi to establish the Refugee Movement Centre through which the refugees would pass.

Royal Marines from 45 Commando patrol the town of Zakho. 29 April 1991. (RMM)
Royal Marines from 45 Commando patrol the town of Zakho. 29 April 1991. (RMM)

45 Commando’s Reconnaissance Party joined Task Force Bravo and moved to Zakho to establish a Unit Headquarters, then returned to Silopi. A few days later the Commando's M and X Companies also established themselves at Zakho. The town was unoccupied apart from the Iraqi Police. As the Marines occupied the town Iraqi Army units watched them on the ridge about 600 metres away.

As 45 Commando’s X Company patrolled towards the refugee camps they came across a Peshmerga roadblock. The Peshmerga believed that it was their job to prevent the refugees leaving the camps until they were convinced that these ‘Safe Havens’ were indeed safe.

They were well armed with pistols, rocket propelled grenades and automatic weapons and would resist if necessary. The Marines showed the Peshmerga’s senior commander what they had achieved in Zakho. As a result, he allowed the refugees to begin returning.

Kurdish freedom fighters come down from the hills to Zakho for talks with Lt Col Thomson, the Commanding Officer of 45 Cdo. Among the problems discussed was the presence of Secret Police in the village which was under the protection of the Royal Marines. (RMM)
Kurdish freedom fighters come down from the hills to Zakho for talks with LtCol Thomson, the Commanding Officer of 45 Cdo. Among the problems discussed was the presence of Secret Police in the village which was under the protection of the Royal Marines. (RMM)

Next, the different sections of 3 Commando Brigade supported the movement of the refugees down to Kani Masi Refugee Movement Centre. Royal Marines Air Defence Troop, the Royal Marines Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre, and 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery, deployed in a line parallel to the Turkish/Iraqi border. Their job was to provide a screen against any possible interference from the Iraqi Army or Secret Police.

40 and 45 Commando were now in the mountains preparing to bring the refugees back down to their villages and towns whilst the main HQ of 3 Commando Brigade with 59 Independent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers and the Brigade Air Squadron established themselves in the centre at Sirsenk.


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Safe havens

Once the Marines had moved the refugees each person needed to be recorded to assess the best way to deal with their needs. This task fell to 40 Commando whose companies took on roles in the different refugee camps established by the Joint Forces.

B Company established ‘Rupert Brooke Camp’ on the banks of the Great Zab River. From the camp they began the movement and administration of 130 000 refugees from Cukurca Refugee Camp, across the river and into the valley.

S Company, at Kani Masi Refugee Movement Centre, had begun to receive refugees from Uzumlu Camp as well as Cukurca Camp. The forces were able to develop Kani Masi into a very large camp providing many thousands of people with food, medical aid, shelter and then transport.

Queuing for water at Kani Masi Refugee Movement Centre. (RMM)
Queuing for water at Kani Masi Refugee Movement Centre. (RMM)

Meanwhile 40 Commando’s C Company had found safe routes for the refugees from Yekmal camp to travel to Kani Masi. These routes were still difficult and the refugees, many of whom were either very young or very old and were weak and frail.

Following treatment at Kani Masi, many of these refugees went to Zakho. As word spread that the safe area was expanding some refugees crossed over the ridge and into the next valley. A Company opened and guarded this route after completing improvements to the steep, badly surfaced road.


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Food and medical supplies

The International Forces were able to empty the two original camps in the mountains within a week. Thousands of truck journeys succeeded in moving some 165 000 Kurdish refugees through Kani Masi. The Marines’ next task was to ensure that the Kurds had adequate food and medical treatment.

An 8 month pregnant woman is ‘casevaced’ (casualty evacuation) to hospital by medical staff and members of 3 Cdo Bde, RM. The baby was stillborn and the mother would have died had it not been for the medical assistance provided. (RMM)
An 8 month pregnant woman is ‘casevaced’ (casualty evacuation) to hospital by medical staff and members of 3 Cdo Bde, RM. The baby was stillborn and the mother would have died had it not been for the medical assistance provided. (RMM)

Members of the Peshmerga, who had remained in the village when everyone else fled, escorted 40 Commando’s Assistant Quartermasters Department, mainly chefs, through a deserted village. They showed them to a three-roomed building where civilian aid workers from all over the world were working.

The chefs’ task was to create food that was high in nutrients and vitamins which would help refugees gain weight and strength. This food had to be suitable for the undernourished and made from ingredients that the Kurds could easily obtain such as wheat, flour, sugar and milk.

Working with the civilian aid workers they managed to convince mothers to boil their children’s drinking water and to use the food formula that they had prepared. Once these two principles were accepted they saw a tremendous difference and, as a result, the deserted village came to life once more.

French, American and Canadian personnel – a total of 370 people that included medical teams, civil engineers and water purification experts supplemented members of S Company, 40 Commando, at Kani Masi.

Platoons from the United States Marine Corps, the Dutch Marines and the Luxembourg Defence Force were also part of the team, helping to build a military camp, named ‘Rorkes Drift’. They also helped in the construction of a medical complex, two landing sites, a vehicle park and a stores compound for the thousands of tons of food that were needed.

A Royal Marine samples Kurdish food. (RMM)
A Royal Marine samples Kurdish food. (RMM)

Constant patrols by the Marines between this camp and the refugee camps built-up a strong understanding and trust. Soon they were learning local customs and manners and being given sweet tea and naan bread.

The Corps designated five senior non-commissioned officers as Liaison Officers with responsibility for a sector of the camp. Part of their responsibility was to fairly distribute bread, flour, rice, water and sugar to the 4-5000 refugees in each sector.


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Re-establishing the Kurdish community - Zakho

After they had established themselves at Zakho, all four Companies from 45 Commando, RM, patrolled the streets seeking out and identifying the barracks of the Police, the Secret Police and the Army. This was a difficult task as the people lived in terror of them. The experience gathered from firm patrolling in Northern Ireland proved its worth and even the Secret Police left the town.

Marines of 45 Cdo with Kurdish Peshmerga guerillas armed with Soviet made RPG rocket launchers, meet in a deserted Kurdish village. (RMM)
Marines of 45 Cdo with Kurdish Peshmerga guerillas armed with Soviet made RPG rocket launchers, meet in a deserted Kurdish village. (RMM)

They spread through the Sirsenk Valley where they found most of the villages burnt, shelled or gassed. The Companies had responsibility for different towns and areas.

45's Support Company occupied Al Amadiyah, a regional centre which, at 4000 foot above sea level, could only be reached by a single road. The Company flew in, landing on the town’s football field. They pursuaded the Iraqi Army, the Secret Police and the Police controling the town to leave which, by the next morning, they all had.

Next the Marines established a Royal Marine officer as ‘Humanitarian Officer’. This officer led a team with the task of cleaning up the town and, as this progressed, so pride and self-confidence began to return.

It fell to the Marines to help in the regeneration of a local economy and reduce the reliance on coalition and aid agency handouts. The Marines helped form a town committee from Peshmerga groups and local leaders.

A Kurd sowing seeds for next year’s crop. (RMM)
A Kurd sowing seeds for next year’s crop. (RMM)

They discussed security, provision and distribution of food, reconnection of utilities and the future administration of the town. Next, the Marines had to encourage the re-establishment of the trading system and the local economy.

Three weeks after Support Company arrived in the town, 11 000 refugees had returned – some of them very unwell. The military Medical Assistant treated cases of cholera, typhoid, malaria, dysentery and delivered a baby – his first experience of midwifery.

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Re-establishing the Kurdish community - Quadish

Responsibility for the town of Quadish was shared by Support and Y Companies. Quadish was not far from Saddam Hussein’s Winter Palace, from where Republican Guards fired upon the Royal Marines Observation Post. This fire was returned and a brief fire-fight ensued.

Saddam Hussein’s Winter Palace. (RMM)
Saddam Hussein’s Winter Palace. (RMM)

An American Civil Aid Team took care of food distribution whilst the Royal Marines organized a clean-up to prevent the spread of disease, restored the water and power supplies and set up a surgery.

The two local Peshmerga groups proved useful, encouraging the returning population to help themselves, clean up the town and organize themselves. Y Company carried out similar tasks in Birmini as did Z Company in Sarsink.

The resettlement and rebuilding took almost a month and covering all of this work was X Company, deployed in the hills and mountains to the South, close to the Iraqi Army. 45’s Support Company also helped X Company by lending them their Mortar Troop, Milan Troop.

Whilst one Royal Marine from X Company 45 Cdo, RM, observes the Iraqi positions, the Corporal maintains a log of their movements and actions. (RMM)
Whilst one Royal Marine from X Company 45 Cdo, RM, observes the Iraqi positions, the Corporal maintains a log of their movements and actions. (RMM)

In addition the Assault Engineers of Support Company provided all manner of support to the troop locations and the local community. They disposed of large quantities of ammunition left behind by the Iraqis and also assisted with the rebuilding of the destroyed villages.

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An end to the suffering

The work of the coalition forces gradually reduced as all of the refugees were re-settled in their towns and villages. 45 Commando returned to the UK during June and 40 Commando in July.

An old man, living in one of the camps, collects firewood. (RMM)
An old man, living in one of the camps, collects firewood. (RMM)

A residual force remained just inside the Turkish border under US Command. The British component was 40 Commando’s B Company – a Company that claimed that they were the first to arrive and went deepest into Iraq - now were to be the unit that stayed the longest.

On his return to the UK the Brigade Commander wrote:

'Because I have known Marines, soldiers and sailors over a number of years, it came as no surprise to me that one of the most striking qualities they have demonstrated throughout this operation has been compassion. I hope this quality will come across in the media, so that some of those at home who may have regarded the military as ‘brutal and licentious’ may change their view. Our people are tough and disciplined, but compassion is surely an essential quality in a serviceman or woman. For us all in the Joint Force, Operation Haven has been a thoroughly rewarding, stimulating and satisfying experience. I know that memories of the Kurdish people and their beautiful country will remain with us for the rest of our lives.'