An Emirati military commander has spoken for the first time of how his soldiers survived a deadly ambush while on an aid mission in Yemen.
Colonel Mohammed Almazrouei's men were pinned down by Houthi fighters in a canyon near the port town of Mokha during an operation in February 2018.
An ambush on their aid vehicle led to a seven-hour clash in which one soldier was killed and others seriously injured.
The incident three years ago is the subject of one of the biggest Emirati motion pictures to date, Al Kameen — The Ambush — directed by Pierre Morel, which was released in UAE cinemas on Thursday.
“People say that I’m a hero but I am far from that,” Col Almazrouei told The National after a special preview screening on Wednesday.
“A soldier died on my watch. What do I tell that soldier’s wife. What do I tell his family — that I let their son die?”
The incident unfolded when an aid vehicle was ambushed. The firefight that followed led to more vehicles being sent into the canyon, tripping ground mines as they arrived.
“We were told that there was a Yemeni family that needed assistance and it was like any other day,” he said.
“It was clear Sunday morning and the officers were going on with their work as usual.”
An armoured personnel carrying three servicemen and marked with the logo of the charity Red Crescent drove towards a location that had been given.
The call turned out to be a trap and when the soldiers arrived they found themselves under attack by fighters from the Iran-backed Houthi group.
One soldier, Sergeant Ali Al Mesmari, 29, was shot by a sniper and died instantly. Mesmari was among the first Emirati soldiers to be deployed in Yemen in 2015. Today, a street on Abu Dhabi's Reem Island is named in his honour.
“I remember getting the call — Almazrouei save us, Almazrouei get us out of here,” said the commander, who is portrayed in the film by actor Abdullah Saeed bin Haider.
“For a second I was in shock but I needed to think quickly and clearly.”
He sent four vehicles to rescue the first group. The first two were struck by landmines and the second two were fired at with RPG-style missiles.
When it was clear none of the vehicles would come out, Col Almazrouei went in himself.
He used his vehicle's smoke grenade launchers to create a smokescreen that fighters on the hillside could not see through.
He and his men ran from their vehicles and grabbed the wounded.
“What I saw chilled me to the bone. One of the vehicles was on fire,” he said.
“The soldiers were seeking shelter behind an overturned vehicle, there was continuous shooting coming from every side and UAE fighter planes shooting above us.”
In total it took seven hours for Col Almazrouei to rescue his comrades. Most had suffered injuries of varying severity.
“As soldiers, we are always prepared and have gone through countless mock drills and while we have expected this, nothing compares to the reality,” he said.
“You hear a lot of talk about how brave the Emirati soldier is but you never realise how much weight these words carry until you actually live the situation.”
Col Almazrouei came back to the UAE two weeks after the attack, a celebrated hero having saved the lives of at least 18 soldiers.
The last UAE troops withdrew from Yemen in October 2019. The country continues to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian support and advocates for a political solution to the conflict.
Col Almazrouei said there was nothing he would have done differently that fateful day, but he modestly rejects the praise heaped upon him.
“In my mind, I am far from the hero everyone says that I am,” he said.