AIRSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – As the working day at the US air force base in southwest Germany came to an end, “The Star-Spangled Banner” sounded from loudspeakers set up in the huge system.
Minutes later the loudspeakers turned up again, this time to the Arabic rhythm, and called on the Muslims for late afternoon prayer.
The recording is just one of the remarkable changes that have taken place at the sprawling Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany in the past two weeks. Teams from the U.S. military, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies have rushed to greet, house, screen, and dispatch thousands of people – U.S. citizens and Afghans – to the United States.
After Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, the United States began flying thousands of people out of Kabul every day. Many were taken to US military facilities in Qatar or Kuwait. But at the end of this week these bases could no longer safely support. Ramstein, which served as an important transit point for troops and equipment in Germany during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, was called up for another assignment.
When the first arrivals touched down on Aug. 20, Brig. Gen. General Joshua Olson, commandant of the 86th Airlift Wing, told reporters the base could accommodate 5,000 evacuees. Two weeks later, it is home to almost three times as many.
“When we got to Ramstein, I just felt like I was finally safe,” said Hassan, a young Afghan who had worked as an interpreter for US special forces in Helmand province and who was on an evacuation flight last week. For security reasons he did not want to give his last name because he had left his family behind in Kabul.
After months of hiding and traveling unsuccessfully to Kabul airport to snag a flight, Hassan said that he shares a tent with several dozen other people at a U.S. air base and has nothing to do but soccer He didn’t mind playing volleyball or waiting for the next meal.
“I’m just glad I’m here,” he said.
Many of the troops and officials involved in the Ramstein evacuation mission had spent time in Afghanistan themselves believing they were part of an effort to help the country build a better, more democratic future. For them, it is more than just a job to make the Afghans in Ramstein feel good and to get them to the USA as soon as possible. It’s personal.
“We all know someone who was left behind,” said Elizabeth Horst, who spent a year in Afghanistan in 2008-09 and was sent from the US Embassy in Berlin to lead the civilian side of the Ramstein evacuation operation. “Being part of it helps,” she says.
Your working day begins with an inter-agency meeting, in which around three dozen people crowd around a conference table and keep each other informed. Victories are highlighted – for example, an unaccompanied toddler reunited with parents – as are challenges such as the number of people still missing luggage.
Sept. 1, 2021, 8:56 p.m. ET
The focus of the evacuation mission is on getting US citizens and their families home and Afghans to safety while maintaining the security of the air base and US borders. This means that all arrivals will have a health screening before they meet with U.S. border officials, who will perform biometric checks on all passengers.
“Nobody who has not been cleared gets on a plane,” said Ms. Horst. By Wednesday, about 11,700 people had flown to the US or other safe location. So far, none of the evacuees has been refused entry to the United States, she said.
Not everything went smoothly. After recruiting grassroots staff and volunteers to set up camp beds in the tents, many of the arriving Afghans said they prefer to sleep on blankets on the floor, as they did in Afghanistan. Others did not know how to use the long rows of portable toilets that are cleaned six times a day.
“Hygiene is an ongoing battle,” said Lt. Col. Simon Ritchie of the 86th Medical Group, who is responsible for the initial screening of all newcomers. Before the biometric screening, the temperature is measured and examined for diseases and injuries.
Colonel Ritchie said he saw gunshot wounds and broken bones, people who needed medication for diabetes or blood pressure, and a lot of diarrhea and dehydration, especially in the children. Sometimes he notices a young child who is so stressed and overwhelmed that he and a parent pull them aside and send them into a dark, quiet tent.
“All you need is a good nap,” he said. A special seating area was set up so that a sick person’s family could wait for the patient to return to them, in order to maintain one of the primary goals of the evacuation of keeping families together – and reuniting those who were separated.
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputation and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here is more about their genesis and track record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who for years have been on the run, in hiding, in prison and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to rule, including whether they will be as tolerant as they say they are. A spokesman told the Times that the group wanted to forget their past but had some restrictions.
Many of the families number more than a dozen members and others have grown on the base since landing. Captain Danielle Holland, an Air Force gynecologist, said she sent three mothers in labor to a nearby army hospital, but three other babies came so quickly that they were born in the ambulance tent set up at the base.
“Pretty much every woman of childbearing age is either pregnant, breastfeeding, or both,” said Captain Holland, adding that an Afghan mother told her that the tented birth was the most comfortable of her eight births. “These women are very stoic,” she said.
The team not only met the evacuees’ immediate needs by providing them with two meals a day and unlimited access to drinking water, but also to ensure they know where they are and where they are going.
Physically tired, many worry about family members still in Afghanistan who they couldn’t reach – the tents have no power outlets to charge cell phones or access to communications – and were stressed about the uncertainty of their future, said Captain Mir M. Ali, an imam in Ramstein.
In addition to providing tents that can serve as mosques and organizing the regular call to prayer, Captain Ali spoke to the evacuees. “I remind them that their situation has improved with every step they have taken.
The diplomat Mrs. Horst now hopes to reunite the people with the luggage that many had to leave behind on the way – like in Qatar. Many do not want to continue their new lives in the United States without the few belongings they could stuff into plastic bags or blankets tied in bundles from Afghanistan.
“Luggage is important to people,” says Ms. Horst. “It keeps her last bit of home.”