First Afghan evacuees arrive in Germany in one of the largest airlift operations in history
Ramstein is one of the largest US air bases outside of the United States and has now been turned into a temporary transit point for people evacuated to the United States.
The United States is undertaking “one of the most important and difficult airlifts in history,” US President Joe Biden said on Friday, acknowledging that despite the presence of thousands of American troops at Kabul airport , the situation remains dangerous.
The US military hopes to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 people per day, but has yet to meet that goal. There were delays of several hours at the airport on Friday as destinations receiving Afghans were saved.
Other countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy and Australia, have also evacuated hundreds of Afghans and nationals from the country.
At Ramstein Air Base, the evacuees will stay for about 48 to 72 hours, Brig. General Josh Olson told CNN on Saturday, adding that according to the US deal with Germany, they would not stay longer than 10 days.
Less than 10 minutes after the gigantic C-17 Globemaster plane landed in Ramstein on Saturday afternoon, tired but happy passengers boarded buses heading for the base’s reception center. An imam is the first person to greet them as they get off the bus and to a world far from the chaos and violence of Kabul airport.
Most carry a backpack. There are Afghan men dressed in traditional clothes, women wearing loose scarves trying to line up for small children. A woman swings a huge bundle of cloth over her head as she goes through security.
There are quick security checks as bags, water and snacks are distributed, and temperatures are checked for Covid-19.
But there are also clues to the terror they left behind – a man and a woman with bandaged ankles, as if they had sprained each other. A little boy with his arm in a sling.
Ramstein Air Base can accommodate 5,000 people. But with flights arriving every 90 minutes, it fills up quickly, and Olson said the team is building more facilities in a sort of tent city that will house 2,500 more evacuees.
Living quarters are segregated by gender – women and children stay in tents inside the hangar, men in tents outside, with a yard where families can meet.
Makeshift mosques have separate entrances for men and women.
Inside the tents, yellow power cables allow evacuees to charge their phones, with a few of the new arrivals clustered around these outlets and checking their cell phones.
Elsewhere, a wall of military folding beds is distributed, and dozens of portable toilets are lined up.
Among the evacuees is Haseeb Kamal, 31. Kamal is an American citizen from Richmond, Virginia who returned to Kabul to work as a translator and get married.
Kamal’s wedding took place a week ago, on August 14. When the Taliban entered the city, he took his new wife and family to the airport. But there was such chaos that they went their separate ways. In the end, he could only get his father and older sister through the doors, he told CNN.
“I rushed like everyone else,” Kamal said, describing frantic scenes at the airport. “The American forces were shooting, the Taliban and the Afghan forces too … People were injured left and right. It was a bad situation,” he said.
Kamal’s wife and the rest of the family are stranded in Kabul. The only time he’s spoken to them since their split was in a two-minute conversation on Saturday morning when he landed in Ramstein. They are safe, but scared, he said.
Kamal said his family asked him what was to happen to them. His only response was, “I don’t know.
Kamal and his brother both worked as translators, and his father was a colonel in the Afghan army. They fear the Taliban will target them. And while he’s grateful for the evacuation effort, he says he’s moving too slowly.
Back in Kabul, there is still deep uncertainty for thousands of people who still hope to catch a flight like hers.
Volatile situation at Kabul airport
Taliban checkpoints and chaos at the gates outside the airport have barred thousands of people from entering the facility, let alone the planes, subjecting them to harsh conditions and Taliban violence .
Meanwhile, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban movement, arrived in Kabul from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, according to a Taliban tweet on Saturday. Baradar led the negotiations in Doha on behalf of the Taliban and arrived in Afghanistan last week for the first time in 20 years.
On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a security alert stating that U.S. nationals should not come to Hamid Karzai International Airport without instructions from the U.S. government.
The number of people at the airport is now 14,000, a source familiar with the matter said on Saturday. The figures given by those in charge of the base are often difficult to reconcile and change frequently.
The source said flights were once again going to Qatar, Europe, possibly Hungary, and Kuwait had agreed to accept special immigrant visa applicants, provided they were on their way. to the United States.
In the last day, the U.S. military evacuated around 3,800 people aboard six C-17 and 32 charter planes from Kabul airport, said General Hank Taylor, deputy director of the kabul airport, on Saturday. joint staff for regional operations.
Since the end of July, 22,000 people have been evacuated – 17,000 of them have been evacuated in the last week since August 14. Of those 17,000, 2,500 are US citizens, Taylor said.
C-17 military planes “are now moving between Qatar and Germany,” Taylor added.
Some, like those arriving at Ramstein, have been fortunate enough to catch one of these planes.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the first name of one of the interviewees.