The U.S. Air Base At The Heart Of America's Biggest Airlift
Here's what it's like at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where many of the tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated from Kabul over the past few weeks are awaiting travel to the United States.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The Pentagon says it's executing the largest airlift in U.S. history as tens of thousands of Afghans flee their country's new Taliban rulers. Many are waiting to travel to the United States at the U.S. Air Base in Ramstein, Germany. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: This hangar, which can snugly fit some of the largest planes in the world, was not meant to house people but it is today. Its nine stories tall ceiling looms above a series of rectangular enclosures constructed of 10-foot-tall wire fencing separating groups of Afghans dressed in colorful robes and tunics who are allowed to leave these massive cages when it is time for their flight to America.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING, CROSSTALK)
SCHMITZ: A woman in a black hijab cradles her newborn. He's wrapped tightly in a linen cloth on the hangar's cold floor. The infant's name is Mustafa, and his short life has been hectic. Two weeks ago, he was born in a village outside Kabul. The next day, his family whisked him to the frenzied gates of the Kabul airport, where they slept outside for four days packed among throngs of others desperate to flee the Taliban. When he was five days old, little Mustafa was rushed through the gates and carried onto an aircraft ending up here at Ramstein Air Base. Now he's waiting for a flight that, in a few hours, will take him to his new home, America.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
WORAHMEENA: (Non-English language spoken).
SCHMITZ: "I planned to build a life for my son and his siblings in America," says Mustafa's mother, Worahmeena, who only gives her first name for fear of reprisals by the Taliban on family back home. "My husband worked with the Afghan army, and we were in too much danger to stay in Afghanistan."
There are nearly 15,000 others here who left for the same reasons. Their first stop after they arrive is here, a series of medical screening tents. Lieutenant Colonel Simon Alexander Ritchie is one of the first officers they meet. He says there have been so many evacuees arriving from Kabul that a few days ago, his team ran out of space.
SIMON ALEXANDER RITCHIE: So we built the festival tent over to the side, which holds about 1,200 people. We ran out of space there, built a fifth space out that held in about another 2,000. So at one time, one point in time here, we had 7,000 travelers approximately that were in this holding stage.
SCHMITZ: He says among the thousands who've come through here, six babies have been born, one of them on the plane ride over. The newborn girl's parents named her Reach after the call sign of the C-17 aircraft that flew them out of Kabul. Ritchie says he's never been a part of something this big.
RITCHIE: You know, I've been in the Air Force for a while and done, you know, hopefully some good things but nothing to this scale or magnitude.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUS PASSING BY)
SCHMITZ: Back at the departure hangar, a bus carrying Afghan families leaves for an awaiting Delta Airlines aircraft that will take them to Dulles Airport in Virginia. Children hang out of the window smiling and waving goodbye to those who wait. Among them is Jamila, who only gives her first name for fear of Taliban retaliation on her family back home.
JAMILA: (Non-English language spoken).
SCHMITZ: She says at the Kabul airport, Taliban guards tore up her family's documents and shot bullets over their heads, but that they persisted and pushed through the checkpoint onto a plane. She says the Taliban beat up and arrested her husband and brother-in-law, both who worked for the former government. She says she doesn't know what's happened to them and that she's worried sick. I ask her if she's scared and moving to America, a place she's only heard about.
JAMILA: (Non-English language spoken).
SCHMITZ: She says no. She says she's fought hard to get here. She's interested. And she's motivated to learn and to provide safe and normal lives for her children. And if someone has motivation, she says, they can do anything.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.