Many of the Afghans arriving here say they were both hopeful and shellshocked from split-second decisions to leave home, probably forever, and head to the U.S. They are being met by U.S. military personnel, whose missions were transformed overnight from fighting on the front lines to embracing evacuees fleeing the end of nearly 20 years of war.
Since Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, U.S. and allied forces have airlifted more than 124,000 people out of the country. The Biden administration wasn’t prepared for the scale of the evacuation, either at the airport in Kabul or at more than a dozen bases across the U.S. and around the world, which were hurriedly converted into temporary homes.
The strains from the new reality have begun to show. The Afghans at Ramstein get two meals a day, but at times, it was down to one because the military personnel weren’t sure how many more Afghans were coming.
A dental hygienist is running food lines. Soldiers work as police officers or tag baggage. The two gymnasiums on base now house some of the 7,000 additional personnel flown in to support the mission.
On other bases, including in the U.S., evacuees report long food lines and dormitory-style sleeping arrangements after some encountered unsanitary conditions leaving Afghanistan.
“It’s pretty fun for the kids but not for us,” said Abdul Parsa, 31 years old, of Daykundi province, now at Ramstein and traveling with his wife and two young sons. “The only problem we have is that we don’t have internet so we can’t reach out to our families.”
The strains won’t end there. In the U.S., they must find homes, jobs, schools and a new life. None of the Afghans at Ramstein knew precisely where they were headed next, or what had happened to those they left behind. As a security precaution, the base doesn’t provide the Afghans with Wi-Fi, though some have found ways to connect.
Mr. Parsa said he had learned hours earlier that his family could board a flight to the U.S., 12 days after he arrived here from Qatar. He wants to head to an Ohio city whose name he can’t pronounce because a soldier he met while working as an interpreter said his family could stay with him.
Zahra Ahmedi, 25, was an Afghan police officer for six years, part of the antiterrorism department that hunted for members of the Taliban. On Friday, as she awaited her flight to the U.S., she was thinking ahead. She said she didn’t know where she was headed to the U.S. but said she wanted a way to work, to earn money so she could send it back to her family.
“I never wanted to leave my country,” she said. “I don’t want to be treated like a refugee. I want to be treated like a person.”
Military personnel at Ramstein said they built three makeshift tent cities in four days and transformed a hangar designed to hold a large cargo plane into a makeshift airport terminal. They found ways to screen the arriving Afghans and to clothe those who came with what they had on their back.
At least 15 babies have been delivered at Ramstein. The base also has faced other medical challenges, stopping flights last week because of a measles outbreak.
Air Force Col. Amy Glisson, 86th Mission Support Group Commander, is in charge of the makeshift city. During the war, Col. Glisson was assigned to help set up Air Force facilities at places like Bagram Air Base and Kandahar Air Field. But she had never met an Afghan until it was her job to welcome thousands of them.
Now she is a part-time counselor and full-time city planner. She shuttles daily into the tent cities, listening to stories and working with elders. One Afghan journalist she met was trying to write down as many stories as she could, until she started crying, realizing she had become the story.
“Her mom is still in Afghanistan, and she doesn’t know what’s going to happen. And so there she is amongst us, American women and Afghan women, she’s crying, and I’m like, ‘This is OK. You have to let this emotion out then you will find your strength again,’” said Col. Glisson. “We honestly did a group girl hug after. And their smiles are just so endearing and so real.”
Col. Glisson added: “There’s a lot that’s happening out there. Every day, folks are breaking down, folks are frustrated. There are still so many unknowns yet to come.”
Ramstein is one of several locations that military officials call “lily pads,” hubs in Europe and the Middle East where evacuees are brought from Afghanistan to remain temporarily until they can be transported to the U.S. With major evacuation operations now over, these lily pads have begun to empty out, with about 2,600 evacuees still in the Middle East and nearly 10,000 in Europe, most in Germany.
About 50,000 evacuees are already at eight military bases in the U.S., where the military is building capacity to house at least 65,000 people, defense officials said. That has required about 9,000 service members to build the tent communities, create other facilities for dining and pull general security duty, officials said. Of the 9,000 troops, about 2,000 have been deployed from other bases to help in the effort, they said.
Afghan evacuees also are trying to adjust to life on military bases inside the U.S. Asadullah, a 21-year-old former U.S. Special Forces interpreter, and his extended family are staying at Fort McCoy, in Wisconsin, in a 30-bed dormitory shared with another family. The facilities are good, he said, but he spends three or four hours waiting in line for meals along with thousands of others. The meals are free, as each person on the base is given a meal card to use when collecting food.
At the base, staff have collected the evacuees’ biometric data. No one has been able to tell him how long the family will be kept there.
“They don’t tell us what is going to happen next,” he said.
He is hopeful that his family will soon be released. He plans to move to North Carolina and join the Army. His long-term goal is to become a Green Beret, like the American soldiers that he worked with in Afghanistan.
On military bases, personnel improvise with available material and facilities to deal with the influx. At Ramstein, the hangar that has been converted into an airport for U.S.-bound Afghans is a cavernous space. With the help of fences and plastic tarps, there is now a security check, baggage tag area, customs line and food line. “Gates” were created using fencing and folding chairs.
Outside each fence is a dry-erase board with the flight number, number of passengers and estimated time of departure. Outside the gate are interpreters and police officers, identified with neon vests. Inside each gate are hundreds of Afghans, often with children running between them or lying on blankets on the floor. There are piles of donated clothes, food and diapers nearby.
Most aren’t wearing masks.
One 31-year-old man at a gate said he was eager to share his story. He was working as an interpreter for the Americans in Kabul when a bus transported him to the airport, he said. He said he was happy to escape but worried for his family, which he left behind.
“I cannot say I am excited because the situation is not very good,” he said, smiling as he answered questions. “I hope in the United States it gets better.”
Minutes later, he tracked down the reporters who interviewed him and made a plea, suddenly aware that even thousands of miles away, he wasn’t free yet.
“Please don’t use my name. I am scared of what the Taliban will do to my family,” he said.
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