‘A matter of honour’: Ramstein rallies to help Afghans evacuated from Kabul to US air base

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Children play ball between lines of hundreds of beige tents, clothes drying on fences. A little further on people are queuing for the toilets.

At Ramstein in western Germany, the largest American military base in Europe has been turned into a gigantic refugee camp, full of people who have all been flown from Afghanistan by the US Air Force.

For several days, those who have escaped the country now wait to be transferred to another destination. They are Afghans who worked with American forces, or who are considered as “vulnerable” following the Taliban’s seizure of power.

For around 200 of them, already on the tarmac at the foot of a Boeing 767-300 which will take them across the Atlantic, the stopover is finished.

Some protect themselves with a blanket from the cold of what feels like an early German autumn. Others, too young to walk alone, are carried up the steps in their parents’ arms.

Inside a hangar, Rasool, 27, awaits his turn with his father, a former employee of the Afghan Interior Ministry.

“I feel great now that I’m going to the United States,” he says. “We want to live there in safety.”

For these refugees, it’s one of the last stages of an exodus from Kabul which in most cases took them first to Qatar or Kuwait, used as transit bases by the Americans in their evacuation operation.

Ramstein turned overnight into a centre to accommodate up to 17,000 people, set up between the airbase itself and a nearby camp.

“The main limiting factor was the beds and the tents,” said General Josh Olson, in charge of the airbase, where the first evacuees stayed an average of four days. “We were able to mobilise reserves of material in Europe and bring them here,” he said.

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The main challenge is getting everyone to leave quickly and so free up space for the next arrivals.

More than 3,500 people have already passed through Ramstein. But there are still “too many arrivals, and not enough departures”, the commander says.

After landing, there’s a compulsory medical examination for all the refugees — men, women and children — who often have little more than a simple backpack.

Many arrive dehydrated. Some are in a more serious condition, especially those with bullet wounds, explains the chief medical officer Simon Ritchie. He’s already witnessed three births among the refugees at Ramstein.

From there, there’s a trip by bus to the makeshift village, where the American Red Cross provides essential supplies.

During the day, the camp is mixed. The site is guarded by soldiers, often armed. At night, the women and children sleep in the hangars of the base, which usually accommodate military planes. The men occupy the 350 tents.

In the town, the arrival of thousands of evacuees has mobilised not only American troops.

To feed everyone, the base called on “Die Bühne”, a city-centre restaurant. Last week it supplied vegetarian lasagne and, on one day, 1,000 servings of Käsespätzle, a traditional German noodle dish with cheese.

“It was a challenge,” manager Andreas Guhmann told AFP. But “we responded to a cry for help from the Americans, we know each other and if they need our support we’re pleased to respond.”

“They have been our neighbours for 70 years”, explains the mayor, Ralf Hechler. “For us, it is a matter of honour.”

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With the arrival of thousands more refugees, Die Bühne could once again be called in as a backup for meals, transported to the base by the city’s volunteer firefighters.

On Thursday Ramstein had its “busiest day so far” with 10,000 arrivals in 12 hours.

And even after the Kabul airlift ends, “we will remain active for as long as they ask me” to take responsibility for planes departing from the Middle East, General Olson says.

He does, however, also spare a thought for the future, once things have calmed down.

“At the moment, the adrenaline keeps us going,” he said. “But in a week’s time, when it’ll be a question of cleaning everything and getting back to normal, that’s a bit scary.”

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