TORONTO — The U.S.’s largest overseas military community, Ramstein Air Base in Germany, has become the de facto crossroads for rescued Afghans, as thousands of evacuees unload from planes to be processed on the tarmac.
Many will ultimately go on to the U.S., the final leg of a dangerous journey from the Taliban.
More than a dozen arrivals are unaccompanied minors who found themselves airlifted out of Kabul without their parents or guardians – and who are now the wards of air base personnel.
“The other day we had a young man hurt his arm, and so the doctor picked him up and said, ‘Where’s your parents?’ And he didn’t have his parents [with him], and the translators realized he was an unaccompanied minor,” said U.S. Brig. Gen. Josh Olsen in a press scrum Thursday.
“When you see one of those kids come off [the plane] and smile, that’s my new neighbour,” Olsen said. “I have to take care of every single one of them and protect them.”
Olsen said the main issue at the base is “flow,” estimating there are 17,000 evacuees in their care, as flights arrived to the base every 40 minutes on Thursday.
“Just in the last 24 hours we’ve been able to double our outbound flow,” Olsen continued. “So we’re up to just under 2,000 that we’re able to push out with our partners, our interagency folks.”
But in the chaos that comes hand-in-hand with a mass evacuation effort, questions remain on which passengers are going where.
Olsen had no answer for CTV National News when asked at Thursday’s scrum how many evacuees bound for countries other than the U.S. they were expecting in the coming days.
“That’s a great question, I would have to refer to (the State Department),” Olsen said. “I wish I knew, I don’t even know which are coming here.”
Some of the passengers arriving to the base are injured and need immediate medical assistance – a few arrived with gunshot wounds sustained days earlier.
Olsen said air base personnel are taking care of the passengers the best they can through “five lenses.”
“First and foremost, it’s about security,” he said. “The next is human needs; we’ve got to take care of both food, water, shelter. The last one is hygiene. And so as we focus on those five pillars, making sure that they’re taken care of. This is about humanity.”
Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan ended Thursday, the same day two suicide bombers detonated their explosives near Kabul airport, killing 11 U.S. marines and one U.S. navy medic, and leaving upwards of 70 Afghans dead – an attack claimed by ISIS-K shortly afterwards. Another U.S. service member died hours later.
“My people want calm, peace in Afghanistan,” a former hospital nurse who escaped the Taliban told CTV National News. “Afghanistan always is war.”
Another rescued man at Ramstein, Azziz Ahmed, who said he worked for an international trust that clears landmines, expressed how being able to escape made him feel.
“I am very happy yes,” Ahmed said. “I am very lucky to be out of the country right now.”
And while many of the stories coming from Ramstein are those of pain and anguish for family, friends and communities left behind in Afghanistan – there has been moments of joy too.
An Afghan woman who went into labour on the flight from Qatar to Ramstein air base Saturday was able to safely deliver the baby girl – nicknamed Baby Reach 828, the call sign of the aircraft her mother was on – when she arrived in Germany, according to a press release issued Thursday.
“She was a beautiful, healthy baby girl and she reminded me why we are here conducting our mission,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Allison Pascual in the release. “To help the evacuees see the light at the end of the tunnel.”