Separation mixes with hope and uncertainty in the U.S. base hosting Afghan evacuees
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, GERMANY - Sixteen-year-old Dunya Walizada last saw her parents at the gate of Kabuls airport.
It was a seething crush of people.
"We lost my family," she recounted Tuesday afternoon, sitting outside a hangar on Ramstein Air Base, the largest U.S. Air Force base in Europe and now an evacuation hub for thousands of Afghans fleeing the Taliban advance. "I don't know if they are alive, where they are. I don't have any information."
Hers is just one in a sea of stories here that underscore the complications of the mammoth effort to extract both Afghans at risk and Americans who were stranded in Kabul and get them to safety. Some of the Afghans worry that they lack the documentation to make it to the United States.
The effort at the base is unprecedented in its history, officials say. In just a few days, Ramstein has been transformed: 323 beige military tents have been erected on its grounds, largely lined with cots to sleep the men. Around 1,000 women and children are staying in three huge aircraft hangars.
In all, this sudden way station has about 6,500 people. The first flights for those who have been vetted for onward travel begin Monday. For others, there's uncertainty as their cases are processed.
"What should we do? Where should we go?" Walizada asked. She had managed to escape with her 28-year-old sister and her 4-year-old nephew, Avina. Her parents were lost in the chaos after being stopped by Afghan forces, and another sister and brother-in-law were also left behind.
Her father worked at Kabul University. Walizada said she presented her English diploma and an ID to show she'd done some translation work with a nongovernmental organization to get on the plane. The family plan had been to try getting to the United States.
"But now it's just me and my sister," she said, as her nephew played with a bottle cap on tarmac. "Can we go to other countries, like Canada?"
Reuniting families is a "complex challenge," noted Lt. Col. William Powell, chief of public affairs at the base. He said he did not have a number for unaccompanied minors at the camp, but "anecdotally, I know they exist." A State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with protocol, said the U.S. government will do "everything in its power" to bring families back together, but the "reality on the ground" is daunting.
In one corner of an accommodation "pod" set up to house evacuees, Wahedullah Popalai said he and his wife had been separated from their 2-year-old son in the melee at the airport entrance. "One son is here," he said. "One is, I don't know where."
Wahedullah said he'd been a welder on the Baghram base in Afghanistan for two years but didn't have any documents about his work there. Such cases will test the U.S. authorities processing evacuees.
"The situation was super chaotic in Kabul. Our fundamental mission was to get people that we decided were vulnerable to somewhere that was safe," the State Department official said. The Department of Homeland Security, State Department and Department of Defense now are working together to gather information on the circumstances of the individual evacuees, which will help determine who falls into categories allowed to travel on: citizens, green-card holders, those who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas because of their work with the U.S. military or other agencies, or those particularly at risk.
The future for anyone who is deemed to not qualify remains unclear, as is the number of evacuees with limited documentation. The State Department official said that is up to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to an immediate request for comment.
Officials face a deadline to decide cases, which adds to the pressure. An agreement with the German government allows Afghans to stay on base for only 10 days after their arrival. The first evacuation flights touched down Friday.
And more people are coming every day; the first direct flight from Kabul arrived Tuesday.
The base can house 12,000 evacuees. Medical stations have been thrown up, with hundreds of auxiliary service members redeployed from assignments in the United Kingdom helping with logistics. The news that Ramstein would be transformed into an evacuation hub came just two days before the first planes took off from Kabul, Powell said, and by Sunday, around 7,000 people had landed. Resources quickly were almost exhausted. Scuffles were reported over food and a lack of facilities.
A local company now is supplying 30,000 hot meals a day. While men and women have separate sleeping areas because of cultural sensitivities, families are allowed to meet and eat together in certain areas.
"Most people arrive very tired, and there's a lot of fear along with it," said Jami Malcolm, a volunteer with the American Red Cross, which is providing food and hygiene items to evacuees after landing. "I think they are a little bewildered."
All individuals are going through medical screening, including temperature checks and coronavirus tests for anyone showing symptoms of infection. They're then processed, biometrically scanned and directed to their accommodation.
Some already are making the final journeys in their ordeal to escape Afghanistan. Between Monday and Tuesday morning, 700 departed on four flights to the United States.
Even as families wait, unsure of what their next steps will be, there is relief.
It was difficult to leave without her family together, Walizada said. "But it was more difficult for us to live in Kabul."