A little girl in a gold sequined dress and sneakers can’t hide the huge smile on her face, as her temperature is checked upon arrival at the Ramstein US Air Base in southwestern Germany on Saturday.
She is one of more than 2,000 evacuees who have arrived at the airbase from Kabul since Friday evening, part of a chaotic scramble to airlift people out of Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover.
Ramstein is one of the largest US airbases outside America, and has now been transformed into a temporary transit point for evacuees to the US.
The US is undertaking “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” US President Joe Biden said Friday, acknowledging that despite the presence of thousands of US troops at Kabul airport, the situation remains dangerous.
The US military hopes to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 people per day, but so far has not met that goal. On Friday there were hours-long delays at the airport as destinations receiving Afghans got backed up.
Other countries — including Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy and Australia — have also evacuated hundreds of Afghans and nationals out of the country.
At Ramstein Air Base, evacuees will stay roughly 48 to 72 hours, Brig. Gen. Josh Olson told CNN Saturday, adding that as per the US agreement with Germany, they would not stay longer than 10 days.
Within 10 minutes of the mammoth C-17 Globemaster plane landing in Ramstein on Saturday afternoon, tired but happy passengers disembarked onto buses headed to the base’s welcome center. An Imam is the first person to greet them as they step down from the bus and a world away from the chaos and violence of Kabul airport.
Most carry one backpack. There are Afghan men in traditional dress, women in loose headscarves trying to corral small children into line. One woman balances an enormous cloth bundle on her head as she goes through security.
There are quick security checks of bags, water and snacks are handed out and temperatures are checked for Covid-19.
But there are also clues to the terror they left behind — a man and woman with bandaged ankles, as if sprained. A little boy with his arm in a sling.
At Ramstein Air Base there is capacity for 5,000 people. But with flights arriving every 90 minutes, it’s filling up fast, and Olson said the team is building more facilities in a kind of tent city that will house another 2,500 evacuees.
Living quarters are separated by gender — women and children stay in tents inside the hangar, men in outside tents, with a courtyard for families to meet.
Makeshift mosques include 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 power outlets and checking their mobiles.
Elsewhere, a wall of folding military cots are distributed, and dozens of portable toilets are lined up.
Among the evacuees is Hammed Kamal, age 31. Kamal is a US citizen from Richmond, Virginia, who came back to Kabul to work as a translator and get married.
Kamal’s wedding was one 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 they got separated. In the end, he could only pull his father and older sister through the gates, he told CNN.
Kamal’s wife and the rest of the family are stuck in Kabul. The only time he’s spoken to them since they were separated was in a two-minute conversation Saturday morning when he landed in Ramstein. They are safe, but frightened, he said.
Both Kamal and his brother 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 to the evacuation effort, he says it’s moving too slowly.
Back in Kabul, there is still deep uncertainty for thousands still hoping to catch a flight like his.
Volatile situation at Kabul airport
Non-governmental groups and lawmakers have been racing to get those in danger out of Afghanistan, finding some success but also crushing frustration as people have been turned away from the airport or, worse, beaten by the Taliban as they try to flee Afghanistan.
Taliban checkpoints and chaos at the gates outside the airport have stopped many thousands from getting inside the facility, let alone on planes, subjecting them to harsh conditions and violence from the Taliban.
Meanwhile, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban movement, has arrived in Kabul from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, according to a tweet from the Taliban on Saturday. Baradar led negotiations in Doha on behalf of the Taliban and arrived in Afghanistan last week for the first time in 20 years.
On Saturday, the US Embassy in Kabul issued a security alert stating that US nationals should not come to Hamid Karzai International Airport unless instructed by the US government.
The number of people at the airport is now 14,000, a source familiar with the situation said Saturday. Numbers given by officials on the base are often hard to reconcile and change frequently.
The source said flights were going again to Qatar, Europe, possibly Hungary, and that Kuwait had agreed to accept special immigrant visa applicants, provided they were en route to US.
Over the past day, the US military has evacuated approximately 3,800 people on six C-17 planes and 32 charter planes from Kabul airport, Gen. Hank Taylor, Deputy Director of the Joint Staff for Regional Operations said on Saturday.
Since the end of July, 22,000 people have been evacuated — 17,000 of those have been evacuated over the past 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 in Ramstein, have been lucky enough to catch one of those planes.