‘Finally, I Am Safe’: U.S. Air Base Becomes Temporary Refuge for Afghans

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — As the workday drew to a detailed on the U.S. air base in southwest Germany, “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang out from audio system arrange throughout the huge facility.

Minutes later, the audio system cranked up once more, this time within the cadence of Arabic, calling Muslims to late-afternoon prayer.

The recording is simply one of many outstanding modifications which have taken place on the sprawling Ramstein Air Base in Germany prior to now two weeks. Teams from the U.S. navy, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and different companies have been racing to welcome, home, display and ship hundreds of individuals — U.S. residents and Afghans — to the United States.

After Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, the United States started flying folks out of Kabul at a charge of hundreds a day. Many have been delivered to U.S. navy installations in Qatar or Kuwait. But by the top of that week, these bases couldn’t safely assist any extra. Ramstein, which has served as a key transit level in Germany for troops and tools all through the 20-year warfare in Afghanistan, was referred to as on for yet another mission.

When the primary arrivals touched down on Aug. 20, Brig. Gen. Joshua Olson, commander of the 86th Airlift Wing, informed reporters the bottom may maintain 5,000 evacuees. Two weeks later, it’s housing practically 3 times as many.

“When we got to Ramstein, I just felt like, now finally, I am safe,” stated Hassan, a younger Afghan who had labored as an interpreter for U.S. Special Forces in Helmand Province and managed to get on an evacuation flight final week. He declined to provide his final identify for security causes, as a result of he had left his household behind in Kabul.

After months spent hiding and making fruitless journeys to the Kabul airport to get a flight out, Hassan stated that sharing a tent on a U.S. air base with a number of dozen different folks with little to do apart from play soccer, volleyball or anticipate the following meal didn’t hassle him.

“I’m just glad I’m here,” he stated.

Many of the troops and officers concerned within the evacuation mission at Ramstein had hung out in Afghanistan themselves, believing they have been a part of an effort to assist the nation construct a brighter, extra democratic future. For them, making the Afghans at Ramstein really feel snug and getting them to the United States as rapidly as doable is greater than an task. It is private.

“All of us know somebody who was left behind,” stated Elizabeth Horst, who spent a yr in Afghanistan in 2008-09 and was despatched from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin to handle the civilian aspect of the evacuee operation at Ramstein. “Being a part of this helps,” she stated.

Her work day begins with an interagency assembly at which about three dozen folks cram round a briefing desk and replace each other. Wins are highlighted — an unaccompanied toddler reunited with the mother and father, for instance — as are challenges just like the variety of folks nonetheless lacking baggage.

The focus of the evacuation mission is to get U.S. residents and their households residence and Afghans to security whereas additionally guaranteeing the safety of the air base and U.S. borders. That means all arrivals endure a well being screening earlier than they meet with U.S. border officers, who perform biometric checks on all passengers.

“Nobody who is not cleared gets on a plane,” Ms. Horst stated. As of Wednesday, about 11,700 folks had been flown to the United States, or one other secure location. So far, not one of the evacuees have been rejected for entry into the United States, she stated.

Not the whole lot has been seamless. After enlisting base personnel and volunteers to arrange cots within the tents, lots of the Afghans who arrived stated they most popular to sleep on blankets on the ground as they did in Afghanistan. Others didn’t know learn how to use the moveable bathrooms arrange in lengthy rows and that are cleaned six occasions every day.

“Sanitation is a constant battle,” stated Lt. Col. Simon Ritchie of the 86th Medical Group, who’s accountable for the preliminary screening of all new arrivals. Before passing by the biometric screening, folks have their temperatures taken and are checked for sickness and damage.

Colonel Ritchie stated he has seen gunshot wounds and damaged bones, folks needing medicine for diabetes or blood stress, in addition to loads of diarrhea and dehydration, particularly within the youngsters. Sometimes he notices a younger youngster who’s so harassed and overwhelmed, he pulls them apart with a father or mother and sends them to a darkened, quiet tent.

“What they need is just a good nap,” he stated. A particular seating space was arrange for an unwell individual’s household to attend till the affected person was cleared to rejoin them, upholding one of many paramount objectives of the evacuation, holding households collectively — and reuniting those that have been separated.

Many of the households embody greater than a dozen members and others have grown since touching down on the bottom. Capt. Danielle Holland, an OB-GYN with the Air Force, stated she had despatched three moms in labor to a close-by Army hospital, however three different infants have been coming so rapidly they have been delivered within the emergency medical tent arrange on base.

“Pretty much any reproductive-age woman is either pregnant, breastfeeding or both,” Capt. Holland stated, including that one Afghan mom had informed her that giving delivery within the tent had been essentially the most nice of her eight deliveries. “These women are very stoic,” she stated.

In addition to assembly the instant wants of the evacuees by offering them with two meals a day and limitless entry to consuming water, the crew has labored to ensure they perceive the place they’re, and the place they’re going.

Physically weary, many are fearful about members of the family nonetheless in Afghanistan they’ve been unable to contact — the tents don’t have retailers to cost cellphones or entry to communication — and have been harassed concerning the uncertainty of their future, stated Capt. Mir M. Ali, an imam serving at Ramstein.

In addition to offering tents that may function mosques and organizing the common name to prayer, Capt. Ali has been talking with the evacuees. “I remind them that with every step they have made, their situation has improved, like the Quranic verse, ‘With every hardship comes ease,’” he stated.

Ms. Horst, the consular official, hopes now to reunite folks with the bags many needed to go away behind alongside the best way — like in Qatar. Many don’t need to proceed to their new lives within the United States with out the few belongings they have been in a position to stuff in plastic luggage, or blankets tied in bundles from Afghanistan.

“Luggage is important to people,” Ms. Horst stated. “It holds their last little bit of home.”



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