Work hours were drawing to a close at the US air base in southwest Germany, and loudspeakers in the immense space began to play the American national anthem. Later, the loudspeakers came back on, this time in Arabic, calling the Muslims to late-afternoon prayers.
The recording in Arabic is just one of the startling changes that have marked the past two weeks at the massive Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Teams from the US Armed Forces, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have been working intensively to welcome, house, screen, and send thousands of people — American and Afghan citizens — to the United States.
After Kabul fell into Taliban hands on Aug. 15, the US began daily evacuating thousands of people from the city on planes. Many were taken to US military installations in Qatar or Kuwait. But at the end of that first week, those bases couldn’t hold any more newcomers. Ramstein, who throughout the 20 years of the war in Afghanistan served as an important crossing point for troops and equipment, was called up to fulfill another mission.
When the first arrivals from Afghanistan landed at the base on Aug. 20, General Joshua Olsen, commander of the 86th Air Transport Wing, told reporters that Ramstein could hold 5,000 evacuees. Now, two weeks later, the base houses almost three times as much.
“When we arrived in Ramstein, I felt that now, at last, I was safe,” said Hassan, a young Afghan who worked as an interpreter for the US Special Forces in Helmand Province and managed to board a retreat flight last week. He declined to give his last name for security reasons, as he left his family in Kabul.
After spending months in hiding and several unsuccessful attempts to get to Kabul airport to board one of the flights, Hassan said that sharing a tent at an American air base with dozens of other people, having little more to do than play football, volleyball or waiting for the next meal doesn’t bother you at all. “I’m just happy to be here,” he said.
Many of the military and officials involved in the Ramstein evacuation mission have spent time in Afghanistan themselves, believing they are part of an effort to help the country build a better and more democratic future. For them, helping Afghans in Ramstein feel good and get them to the US in the shortest possible time is more than a simple task. It’s a personal goal.
“We all know someone who has been left behind,” said Elizabeth Horst, who spent a year in Afghanistan in 2008-09 and was sent by the American embassy in Berlin to manage the civilian side of the operation with the evacuees in Ramstein. “Being a part of this helps.”
Her workday begins with an interagency meeting where about 30 people gather around a table and exchange the latest information. The victories –for example, an unaccompanied child who was reunited with his parents– and challenges, such as the number of people whose luggage has not yet been found, are highlighted.
The focus of the evacuation mission is to bring US citizens and their families home and drive Afghans to safe destinations, while ensuring the security of the US air base and borders. To do this, all new arrivals undergo a medical screening before encountering US border officials, who make passengers undergo biometric tests.
“Nobody boards a plane without having been approved,” said Horst. As of Wednesday (1st), about 11,700 people had been driven to the United States or another safe destination. So far, she said, none of those withdrawn has been refused entry into the US.
China, Middle Land
Not everything has been going smoothly. After base staff and volunteers were called in to set up camp beds in the tents, many of the Afghans who arrived said they preferred to sleep on blankets on the ground, as they did in Afghanistan. Others did not know how to use the portable toilets installed in long lines and cleaned six times a day.
“Sanitation is a constant battle,” said Lt. Col. Simon Ritchie of the 86th Medical Group, responsible for the initial screening of newcomers. Before undergoing biometric screening, everyone is temperature-measured and examined for signs of illness, injury or injury.
Ritchie said he has seen people with gunshot wounds and fractures or who need medication for diabetes or hypertension, as well as many cases of diarrhea and dehydration, especially in children. Sometimes he notices a child who is so stressed and distressed that he calls her with one of her parents and sends her to a darkened, quiet tent.
Many of the families have more than a dozen members; others have grown since landing at the base. Captain Danielle Holland, a gynecologist and obstetrician in the Air Force, said she had already referred three women in labor to an army hospital, but in three other cases the labor was already so advanced that the babies were born in the emergency tent set up. on the base itself.
In addition to meeting the immediate needs of the displaced, providing them with two meals a day and unlimited access to clean water, the team works to ensure they understand where they are and where they are going. Physically tired, many worry about family members who remain in Afghanistan and who they have been unable to reach — the tents do not have power outlets that allow them to charge their cell phones or access communications. And they are stressed by uncertainty about the future, said Captain Mir M. Ali, an imam who works in Ramstein.
In addition to providing tents that can be used as mosques and organizing regular calls to prayer, Ali talks to Afghans. “I remind them that with every step they take, their situation improves, as the verse of the Qur’an says: ‘With every trial comes relief,’” he said.
Elizabeth Horst, the consular official, now hopes to be able to return people’s luggage that many were forced to leave behind along the way — in Qatar, for example. Many of them don’t want to move on to a new life in the United States without the few belongings they managed to get out of Afghanistan stuffed into plastic bags or wrapped in blankets. “Luggage is important to people,” she said. “They contain the last remnants of their homes.”