Ramstein Air Base Becomes Temporary Refuge for Afghans

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – As the working day drew to a close at the US Air Base in southwestern Germany, “The Star-Spangled Banner” s...


RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – As the working day drew to a close at the US Air Base in southwestern Germany, “The Star-Spangled Banner” sounded from loudspeakers installed in the vast facility. .

A few minutes later the loudspeakers went up again, this time to the cadence of Arabic, calling Muslims to late afternoon prayers.

The registration is just one of the remarkable changes that have taken place at the sprawling Ramstein Air Base in Germany over the past two weeks. Teams from the US Army, State Department, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies rushed to greet, harbor, screen and send thousands of people – US citizens and Afghans – to the United States. .

After Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, the United States began sending thousands of people out of Kabul daily. Many were brought to US military installations in Qatar or Kuwait. But at the end of that week, those bases could no longer hold up safely. Ramstein, who served as a key transit point in Germany for troops and equipment throughout the 20-year war in Afghanistan, was called in on an additional mission.

When the first arrivals landed on August 20, Brigadier. General Joshua Olson, commander of the 86th Airlift Wing, told reporters the base could hold 5,000 evacuees. Two weeks later, it shelters nearly three times as many.

“When we got to Ramstein, I felt like, finally, I’m safe,” said Hassan, a young Afghan who had worked as an interpreter for US special forces at Helmand Province and managed to catch an evacuation flight last week. He refused to give his last name for security reasons, as he had left his family in Kabul.

After months of hiding and making unsuccessful trips to Kabul airport to catch a flight, Hassan said sharing a tent at a US airbase with several dozen other people didn’t matter. other than playing soccer, volleyball or waiting for the next meal. didn’t bother him.

“I’m just happy to be here,” he said.

Many of the soldiers and officials involved in the Ramstein evacuation mission had themselves spent time in Afghanistan, believing they were part of an effort to help the country build a brighter, more democratic future. For them, putting Ramstein’s Afghans at ease and getting them to the United States as quickly as possible is more than a mission. It’s personal.

“We all know someone who has been left behind,” said Elizabeth Horst, who spent a year in Afghanistan in 2008-09 and was sent from the US Embassy in Berlin to handle the civilian side of the evacuation operation in Ramstein. “Being a part of it helps,” she said.

Her workday begins with an interagency meeting in which about three dozen people crowd around an information table and update each other. The victories are highlighted – an unaccompanied infant reunited with the parents, for example – as are challenges like the number of people still lacking luggage.

The goal of the evacuation mission is to bring U.S. citizens and their families home and the Afghans to safety while ensuring the security of the U.S. air base and borders. This means that all arrivals undergo a health check before meeting with US border officials, who perform biometric checks on all passengers.

“No one who is not authorized gets on a plane,” Ms. Horst said. About 11,700 people had been airlifted to the United States or other safe location as of Wednesday. So far, none of the evacuees have been rejected for entry into the United States, she said.

It was not all transparent. After enlisting base personnel and volunteers to set up cots in the tents, many Afghans who arrived said they preferred to sleep on blankets on the floor as they did in Afghanistan. Others did not know how to use the portable toilets, which are arranged in long rows and which are cleaned six times a day.

“Sanitation is a constant battle,” said Lt. Col. Simon Ritchie of the 86th Medical Group, who is responsible for the initial screening of all new arrivals. Before going through biometric screening, people take their temperature and are checked for illness and injury.

Colonel Ritchie said he saw gunshot wounds and broken bones, people needing medication for diabetes or blood pressure, as well as a lot of diarrhea and dehydration, especially in children. Sometimes he notices a young child so stressed and overwhelmed that he takes him aside with a parent and sends him to a dark and quiet tent.

“What they need is a good nap,” he said. A special seating area has been set up for the family of a sick person to wait for the patient to be allowed to join them, meeting one of the overarching goals of the evacuation, keeping families together – and reuniting those who have been separated .

Most of the families have more than a dozen members and others have grown since they landed on the base. Air Force gynecologist and obstetrician Captain Danielle Holland said she sent three mothers in labor to a nearby military hospital, but three more babies were arriving so quickly they were delivered to the medical tent in emergency installed on the base.

“Almost any woman of childbearing age is pregnant, breastfeeding or both,” said Captain Holland, adding that an Afghan mother told her that the tented birth was the most enjoyable of her eight. childbirth. “These women are very stoic,” she said.

In addition to meeting the immediate needs of the evacuees by providing them with two meals a day and unlimited access to clean water, the team worked to ensure they understand where they are and where they are going.

Physically tired, many are worried about family members still in Afghanistan whom they have not been able to contact – the tents do not have sockets for recharging cell phones or access to communication – and have been stressed by the uncertainty of their future, said Captain Mir M. Ali, an imam stationed in Ramstein.

In addition to providing tents that can be used as mosques and organizing the regular call to prayer, Captain Ali spoke with the evacuees. “I remind them that with every step they took, their situation improved, like the Qur’anic verse, ‘With every trial comes ease’,” he said.

Ms Horst, the consular official, now hopes to reunite people with the luggage many had to leave on the way, as in Qatar. Many do not want to continue their new lives in the United States without the few personal items they may have put in plastic bags or bundled blankets from Afghanistan.

“Luggage is important to people,” Ms. Horst said. “It contains their last little corner of the house.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Ramstein Air Base Becomes Temporary Refuge for Afghans
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