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U.S. Airbase In Germany Processes Thousands Of Afghans Evacuated From Kabul

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. government evacuated at least 120,000 people from Afghanistan before its withdrawal from the country Tuesday. For those Afghans, getting on the planes was a massive relief. But where did they land? How do they begin to imagine their next steps in countries many have never seen before? Many of those evacuees are being processed at the giant U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany. Our Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz joins us now. Hey, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: You just got back from a visit to Ramstein. Tell us what you saw.

SCHMITZ: I did. Well, you know, as you mentioned, this is the largest airlift in U.S. history. And more than 25,000 evacuees from Afghanistan have come through Ramstein. When they arrived, they spent time in a medical screening area for checkups, and then U.S. officials processed them, verified their identities, biometric data. And then they prepare them for outgoing commercial flights from the airbase to either Dulles International or Philadelphia International Airport in the United States. This whole process typically takes less than 10 days. And during that time, the evacuees are housed in rows upon rows of massive beige tents that line the 2-mile-long runway at Ramstein. And that's where I had a chance to speak to Colonel Adrienne Williams, who's helping manage this airlift. We had just waved goodbye to several dozen Afghans who were on their way to Dulles Airport on a Delta flight. And here's what she said.

ADRIENNE WILLIAMS: I see hope. So if you just saw the bus that left as they're going to load one of the aircraft, you see smiles. It warms your heart, right? You see all the young children and all the families, and you know that they have a future in front of them.

MARTIN: You also had a chance to talk to some evacuees themselves, right? What did they tell you?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. As you can imagine, these folks have been through so much trauma in the past week or two. They've managed to get through a horrific situation at the gates of the Kabul airport to flee their home country. Many of them brought children, and they came with very little except for the clothes on their backs. Air base officials wouldn't allow us to view the living quarters, but they did let me enter a massive airplane hangar where several hundred Afghans were waiting to fly to the U.S. But I could only speak to them through a 10-foot-tall wire fence that separated several groups of them. They look like big cages. I met a woman named Jamila there. She would only use her first name for fear of Taliban reprisals on her family back home. And she was there with her two children. But like many evacuees, she left family members back home. Here's what she said.

JAMILA: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And Rachel, she's saying here that at the Kabul airport, the Taliban guards tore up her family's documents, and then they shot bullets over their heads, but that they persisted and got 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. And she says she doesn't know what's happened to them and that she's worried sick.

MARTIN: Did you learn more about these people's backgrounds in Afghanistan?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. You know, many of those that I spoke to were family members of what they called the 01 or 02 brigades. These were security forces of the former Afghan government that often assisted U.S. troops. And this was why they were desperate to get out of Kabul, because many of them told me that they would likely be targeted by the new Taliban government should they have been left behind.

MARTIN: And now they're going to start new lives in the U.S. I mean, all kinds of uncertainty with that, right?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I mean, nobody really had a clear sense of what lies ahead. I got the sense that most folks were still in a state of shock about having to leave family and friends and everything else behind. And the reality was sinking in that they'd likely not return. You know, that said, most of the people in the hangar were children. And the parents of those children all said the same thing. They said they just want a normal life for these kids - that life in Afghanistan under the Taliban would not be safe for them. They weren't sure if their daughters would be able to attend school and that, for them, a new life in America would allow them to have safe, normal lives.

MARTIN: NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz. Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.