When civil war broke out in Yemen between the royalist tribes of Muhammad al-Badr and the republican forces under Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) undertook a wide-ranging effort to help the civilian victims of the conflict, which ran from 26 September 1962 to 1 December 1970. At that point, the ICRC knew little of the Arabian Peninsula, and from the outset the work was delicate. The country’s rugged topography posed many obstacles, quickly complicating efforts to reach mountainous areas with no roads. [1] The heat and lack of water added to the immense difficulties ICRC staff encountered while working to help communities already struggling with poverty and endemic illnesses. [2] To facilitate their work, delegates and medical personnel immersed themselves in the culture, traditions and customs of a country that had been isolated from the rest of the world for centuries, confined by “an intransigent hostility towards foreign cultures.” [3] Over many weeks if not months, ICRC field staff lived alongside the wounded, prisoners and fighters of Yemen “in conditions from another age, sharing the privations and often the suffering of those they had come to help.” [4]

The ICRC carried out a range of activities on behalf of wounded and detained Yemenis during the 1960s. Negotiations to free fighters and remove leg irons from prisoners, surgery carried out deep in the desert – each moment illustrates the full scope of humanitarianism, which “counters the threatening fist with an outstretched hand and manages, in the thick of the violence and disaster, to establish a bond of trust and brotherhood.” [5] But there was also other work, less noticeable but just as indispensable to the success of any work in a foreign country. Humanitarians explored a new culture, at times acting as spectators of their own activities. Film clips from the ICRC archives occasionally focus not on delegates or medical staff at work but on the land and its people, lingering on a wounded man’s face, weathered by the desert winds, as he awaits medical care, or on a royalist fighter with a rifle on his shoulder and a jambiya dagger at his belt. The films evidence a desire to learn about Yemen’s culture and traditions, an earnest fascination with the country, its landscape and its people. [6]

Parts unknown

Following the death of the Yemeni king Ahmed bin Yahya on 19 September 1962, his son and heir Muhammad al-Badr took the throne. The new king put his counsellor Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal in charge of the royal guard. A week later, al-Sallal instigated a military coup d’état to establish an Arab republic in Yemen, seizing the palace in Sana’a. Al-Badr managed to escape to the country’s north. From 26 September 1962 to 1 December 1970, royalist tribes led by al-Badr and the republican forces under al-Sallal were locked in what would later be called the North Yemen Civil War. Owing to external influences on the country, “the civil war was an international conflict in all but name”. [7] Al-Badr had the backing of Saudi Arabia and several Western countries, including the United States, while al-Sallal and his forces were supported by Egypt and the Soviet Union, which provided them with military equipment. [8]

In 1962, the country known today as Yemen was two separate political entities: the British protectorate of Aden, which would become the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen when it gained independence from the British Empire on 30 November 1967; and the Kingdom of Yemen, also referred to as North Yemen and the location of the brutal civil war between the al-Badr and al-Sallal’s armies. North Yemen, situated in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, was bordered to the north by Saudi Arabia, to the south by the Aden Protectorate. to the west by the Red Sea and to the east by the Rub’ al-Khali desert [9]

Map of North Yemen. ICRC Archives, ACICR, P AR, André Rochat fonds, p. 96.

At the outset of its work, the ICRC gave first priority to presenting the warring parties with the Geneva Conventions and having them recognized. In mid-November 1962, representatives were sent to the Middle East on a diplomatic mission directed by delegate Pierre Gaillard. [10] Gaillard made contact with the republic’s ambassador in Cairo and the kingdom’s ambassador in Amman. In December 1962 in Riyadh, ICRC physicians Jean-Maurice Rubli and Guido Pidermann met with Crown Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who served as the country’s prime minister. Together, they discussed Saudia Arabia’s adherence to the Geneva Conventions, which would take place on 18 May 1963. They also discussed the creation of a National Red Crescent Society, which the ICRC would recognize on 8 August 1963. Rubli and Pidermann then met with Muhammad al-Badr at his headquarters deep in the Asir Mountains. On 2 January 1963, al-Badr agreed to respect the principles of international humanitarian law. The two delegates had scarcely returned to Geneva when a new mission left for Sana’a, this time to meet with the republicans. Delegates Roger du Pasquier and Joseph Gasser met with Abdullah al-Sallal, now president, and he committed as well to abide by the Geneva Conventions. It was an important initial victory for the ICRC, essential to ensuring the safety of the humanitarians who would be sent to the field for what promised to be challenging work.

From words…

Three voices speak

Until the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Six-Day War) in June 1967, Yemen was the principal focus of the ICRC’s efforts in the Middle East. [11] Among the activities that delegates undertook, ensuring the protection of prisoners of war was among the most important. [12] In addition to visiting prisoners in order to prevent abuses, the ICRC acted as an intermediary when the warring parties were prepared to make an exchange. Months of negotiation were often needed to obtain a prisoner’s release. One such meeting is captured in CICR Yémen 1964” (“ICRC Yemen 1964”). [13]

The clip below, likely shot by Jérôme Santandrea, [14] shows members of the two parties as they meet for the first time to discuss exchanging several prisoners. The rendezvous took place on 16 July 1964 at 11:00 in the morning at Beni Echeche, in the small valley of El Serr near Naham. The area was declared neutral for the occasion. [15] A tent was pitched in the middle of the desert to welcome the official representatives of both sides: Prince Abdullah ibn Hassan, commander of the Khawlan region, represented the royalists, and Colonel Mohamed Schaukhat represented the armed forces of the United Arab Republic. [16] They were accompanied by delegate André Rochat, a pivotal figure in the ICRC’s work in Yemen in the 1960s. Once they settled in the tent, the meeting began. With the ICRC’s support, the representatives discussed the many points that would go into the document drawn up that day, after six hours of negotiation. Among the issues addressed was whether the prisoner exchange should take place in a single location, and whether it should be simultaneous. [17] Up for discussion as well were the women and children of al-Badr’s family – what could be done to improve their living conditions and whether they could be transferred to the royal palace in Sana’a, where they could live freely. At the close of the meeting, the ICRC delegates took the opportunity to pass on advice to the two parties. Then the royalists returned to the north while the republicans went south. Both camps were accompanied by ICRC delegates, who ensured their smooth return to their respective headquarters.

“CICR Yémen 1964”, © ICRC, director unknown, 1964, V-F-CR-H-00120.

When the camera is not fixed on the tent, or even slipping inside for a few seconds to film the discussions, [18] notable attention is paid to the vastness of the Yemeni desert. Several wide shots show the representatives as they arrive at and depart from the neutral zone. Although human beings are almost always at the centre of the image, they are no longer the centre of attention. They recede into the vast sweep of sand, a hostile natural environment that becomes a character in its own right. The desert features in other films on the ICRC’s work in Yemen in the 1960s, including “Yemen, land of suffering” (1964) [19], “Ils ont encore besoin de nous” (1967) [20] and “Yémen à vif” (1969) [21]. Each brings to the fore the beauty of the desert landscape and the architecture of Yemen, once the realm of the Queen of Sheba.

“Yemen, land of suffering” documents various activities carried out by the ICRC on the side of both the republican forces, in Sana’a, and the royalists, in Uqd. In the first part, filmed once more by Jérôme Santandrea, [22] pride of place is given to architecture. The first minute gives a brief history of Yemen, accompanied by several wide shots of the city of Sana’a – the narrow alleyways, souks and traditional buildings. “Who can remain indifferent to the beauty of the Great Mosque and its minarets, marvels of Zaydi architecture?” asks the narrator. [23] Later on is a panorama of a village on the outskirts of Sana’a, where “war raged long” after the first shots were fired, and part of the population fled. Once again, the viewer is treated to images of traditional Yemeni architecture. In another film shot by Jérôme Santandrea “Ils ont encore besoin de nous”, the camera zooms in on the entrance to an ICRC medical centre, set up in a cave. [24] The location is emblematic of some of the difficulties that humanitarians encountered in the field during the ICRC’s work in Yemen. The clinic is nestled into a natural refuge in the middle of the Yemeni desert, and medical staff blend into the scenery. Such images are reminiscent of others filmed in Jihanah for “Yémen à vif”; as discussed later on, they speak to the punishing conditions humanitarians worked and lived in.

In addition to the architecture, the cameraman shows deep admiration for the expanses of sand that demanded courage and perseverance from aid workers, who spent hours or even days crossing them. In “Ils on encore besoin de nous”, one such journey is described as “a long voyage through semi-desert landscapes with a rugged and captivating beauty”. [25] The trips through the desert were hard but indispensable to carrying out some activities, such as those captured in the excerpt below. In order to meet up with another team already settled further south in the country, ICRC staff travelled by truck for twenty hours. And yet, as the narrator relates, “the difficult travel conditions, the merciless sun, the dust and above all the dangers posed by the fighting cannot dampen the enthusiasm of those discovering these landscapes for the first time.” The Yemeni desert reveals its “savage beauty”, “captivating those who pass through it”

“Ils ont encore besoin de nous”, © ICRC, Porchet, Adrien, 1967, V-F-CR-H-00121.

Patients and patience

To preserve the trust of all those with whom it works, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement holds impartiality as one of its seven Fundamental Principles. Impartiality enables humanitarians to “relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.” [26] Nevertheless, in a country where the goals could differ radically from one location to the next, convincing the parties to the conflict to voluntarily remain impartial was no mean feat. In the north of Yemen, a mountainous, arid region, there was no medical infrastructure or means of communication, unlike the city of Sana’a further to the south, where medical care was already available and communication was possible. While the ICRC was furnishing republican-held hospitals with medicines and supplies, it set up a field hospital in Uqd, in the far north of the country, near the border with Saudi Arabia. From the outset of the ICRC’s work in Yemen, the ICRC was criticized by the republicans, who took a dim view of the imbalance in medical aid. [27]

Given the urgency of the medical needs in the north of the country, the field hospital quickly became a “haven of human fellowship” for wounded royalists. Seven doctors and more than twenty assistants recruited by the Swiss Red Cross – nurses, laboratory workers, technicians, chauffeurs, etc. – worked relentlessly. Each day, they came into direct contact with members of the local community, who viewed the strangers in white shirts like aliens who had turned up in the middle of the desert to help them. Civilians flocked to the tents for treatment. From November 1963 until the hospital in Uqd was closed at the end of 1965, around 60,500 consultations took place, and more than 11,000 cases were treated. [28] “One of the most delicate tasks facing the head of the hospital is to maintain good relations with the local dignitaries”, the narrator relates in the second half of “Yemen, land of suffering”. [29] An Arabic interpreter working alongside medical staff proved critical, whether for communicating with members of the royalist tribes or making diagnoses during examinations. “Without [the interpreter] it would take much longer to diagnose a case of malaria, schistosomiasis or stomach ulcers,” explains the narrator in the excerpt below. In the Report on Operation of the ICRC Hospital in the Yemen, the authors write that “[t]here were one or two interpreters available. It was by no means an easy task to question … patients in Arabic, examining them … treating them and – still in Arabic – making them understand how they should take their medicine.” [30] The Yemenis, discovering the benefits of modern medicine, would sometimes smile at regular dressing changes, medicines of all types and a fully equipped operating room in the middle of the desert. They were no less grateful once they had recovered, grabbing the doctors’ white shirts to thank them from the bottom of their hearts – “Shukran! Shukran!”.

“Yemen, land of suffering”, © ICRC, director unknown, 1964, V-F-CR-H-00122.

But before they could delight in their recovery, the injured needed patience. Not only during the visits in the tents, but also at the entrance of the hospital, where trucks filled with the royalists’ wounded and sick arrived daily. In the following clip, women and children “stand beneath the burning sun, sometimes for hours, patiently waiting their turn …. These veiled Bedouin women do not know what the ICRC is, but they know what it does, and that is why they come to Uqd.” In all of the films documenting the ICRC’s work during the North Yemen Civil War, this particular clip stands out for its rare representation of women, who are sometimes pictured with their husbands sitting at their sides. Once again, the local community is emphasized with wide shots of those who sit patiently in front of the hospital’s entrance, the de facto waiting room, and several close ups on the faces of a few. The camera also lingers on a highly symbolic object associated with the country’s traditions: the jambiya, a curved dagger carried by any “self-respecting Yemenite” (in this case “richly decorated in nickel and silver”). These images bear witness to the aforementioned fascination with Yemen and its culture.

“Yemen, land of suffering”, © ICRC, director unknown, 1964, V-F-CR-H-00122.

Find the second and last part of this article here.

[1] ICRC, Annual Report 1964, ICRC, Geneva, 1965, pp. 7–8, all links accessed 24 Mar. 2022.

[2] F. Perret and F. Bugnion, From Budapest to Saigon: History of the International Committee of the Red Cross 1956–1965, ICRC, Geneva, 2018, p. 469.

[3] ICRC, Le C.I.C.R. et le Conflit du Yémen, ICRC, Geneva, 1964, p. 2. Translated.

[4] Perret and Bugnion, p. 592.

[5] “8 Mai 1989: Le Geste Humanitaire: Appel à Tous les États à l’Occasion du 125e Anniversaire du Mouvement International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge”, Revue Internationale de la Croix-Rouge, No 776, Mar.–Apr. 1989, p. 162. Translated.

[6] Since 2014, Yemen has once again been gripped by civil war.
See: ICRC, Annual Report 2020, Vol. 2, ICRC, Geneva, 2021, pp. 503-510.

[7] A. Rochat, L’Homme à la Croix: Une Anticroisade, Éditions de l’Aire, Vevey, 2005, p. 27. Translated.
This article focuses on North Yemen, the site of the civil war, and the ICRC’s response there.

[8] D. Callegari, L’Intervention du Comité International de la Croix-Rouge au Yémen sous la Direction d’André Rochat (1963–1969), BA thesis, Geneva, University of Geneva, 2011, p. 24.

[9] Rochat, p. 28.

[10] ICRC, Annual Report 1962, ICRC, Geneva, 1963, pp. 29–30.

[11] J.-L. Blondel, From Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City: The ICRC’s Work and Transformation from 1966 to 1975, ICRC, Geneva, 2016, p. 54.

[12] Rochat, p. 28.

[13] “CICR Yémen 1964”, director unknown, V-F-CR-H-00120, ICRC, Geneva, 1964.

[14] ICRC Archives, ACICR, B AG 251 225-006.01, (138), general report, 11 Sept. 1964, p. 5.

[15] ICRC Archives, ACICR, B AG 210 225-005.01, No. 40, letter from Marcel Boisard, ICRC delegate in Sanaa, to Mohamed ibn Mohsin, leader of the Naham tribe, 14 July 1964.

[16] The United Arab Republic arose from a political union between Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961. After Syria’s succession, Egypt continued to be officially referred to as the United Arab Republic until 1971.

[17] ICRC Archives, ACICR, B AG 210 225-005.01, No. 42, agenda for meeting on exchanging prisoners.

[18] The film was silent, keeping the content of the discussions private.

[19] “Yemen, land of suffering”, director unknown, V-F-CR-H-00122, ICRC, Geneva, 1964.

[20] “Ils ont encore besoin de nous”, director A. Porchet, V-F-CR-H-00121, ICRC, Geneva, 1967.

[21] “Yémen à vif”, director A. Rochat, V-F-CR-H-00125, ICRC, Geneva, 1969.

[22] ICRC Archives, ACICR, B AG 062-099.02, letter from Y. du Guerny to T. Hughes, 28 Mar. 1964.

[23] “Yemen, land of suffering”, 00:01:40–00:01:45.

[24] “Ils ont encore besoin de nous”, 00:08:21–00:08:26.

[25] Idem, 00:07:45 – 00:07:48. Translated.

[26] ICRC, “The Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement”, CROSS-Files (blog), ICRC, Geneva, 4 May 2021.

[27] Callegari, p. 25.

[28] ICRC, Annual Report 1965, ICRC, Geneva, 1966, p. 28.
ICRC, Report on Operation of the ICRC Hospital in the Yemen, ICRC, Geneva, 1965, p. 2.

[29] “Yemen, land of suffering”, 00:09:55–00:10:01.

[30] ICRC, Report on Operation of the ICRC Hospital in the Yemen, p. 2.