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The U.S. Air Base At The Heart Of America's Biggest Airlift

Afghan evacuees wait in a fenced-in enclosure for the next flight to the United States in a hangar at the Ramstein Air Base, a large U.S. base in Germany. More than 25,000 Afghans have traveled through Ramstein to get to the U.S.
Afghan evacuees wait in a fenced-in enclosure for the next flight to the United States in a hangar at the Ramstein Air Base, a large U.S. base in Germany. More than 25,000 Afghans have traveled through Ramstein to get to the U.S.

Updated September 2, 2021 at 4:12 PM ET

RAMSTEIN, Germany — Hangar 5 at this giant U.S. air base can snugly fit some of the largest planes in the world. It was not meant to house people. But for the past two weeks as the United States conducts the largest airlift in its history, the base has hosted more than 25,000 Afghans waiting to be taken to America.

Hangar 5's nine-story-tall ceiling looms above a series of rectangular enclosures built of 8-foot-high wire fencing, separating groups of Afghans dressed in colorful robes and tunics.

In a corner of one of these enclosures, a woman in a black hijab cradles her newborn, who'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.

Fifteen days ago, Mustafa was born in a village outside Kabul. The next day his family whisked him to the frenzied gates of the Kabul airport, sleeping outside for four days packed among throngs of others, desperate to flee the Taliban.

When he was 5 days old, little Mustafa was rushed through the gates and carried onto an aircraft, ending up at Ramstein Air Base. Now he's waiting for a flight that, in a few hours, will take him to his new home in the United States.

A 15-day-old baby waits with his mother and siblings at Ramstein Air Base for a flight to the United States. The family fled Afghanistan because the baby's father worked for the Afghan army before the Taliban took over.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
A 15-day-old baby waits with his mother and siblings at Ramstein for a flight to the United States. The family fled Afghanistan because the baby's father worked for the Afghan army before the Taliban took over.

"I plan 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 still back home. "My husband worked with the Afghan army, and we were in too much danger to stay in Afghanistan."

Thousands of other Afghans who left for similar reasons have come to Ramstein. Here they prepare for outgoing flights to Virginia's Dulles International or Philadelphia International airports.

Their first stop after they arrive is a series of medical screening tents. Lt. Col. Simon Alexander Ritchie, an officer from Minneapolis who heads a medical unit at the base, is one of the first U.S. service members they meet.

He says there have been so many evacuees arriving from Kabul that a few days ago his team ran out of space.

Lt. Col. Simon Alexander Ritchie, who heads a medical unit at the air base, is one of the first U.S. service members the Afghans meet as they prepare to fly to the U.S.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
Lt. Col. Simon Alexander Ritchie, who heads a medical unit at the air base, is one of the first U.S. service members the Afghans meet after arriving at Ramstein to prepare to fly to the United States.

"So we built the festival tent over to the side, which holds about 1,200 people," Ritchie says. "We ran out of space there. We built another space that holds about 2,000 people on the other side of that building. Ran out of space there. Built a fifth space out that held in about another 2,000. So at one point in time here, we had 7,000 travelers approximately that were in this holding stage."

He says among the thousands who have 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. "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," he says.

Back at the departure hangar, a bus carrying Afghan families leaves for an awaiting Delta Air Lines aircraft that will take them to Dulles airport. Children hang out of the bus windows, smiling and waving goodbye to those who wait.

"If you saw that bus that left as they were going to load the aircraft, you see smiles," says Col. Adrienne Williams, who is helping manage the airlift. "It warms your heart. ... You see all the young children and young families, and you know that they have a future ahead of them."

Two children inside a series of wire-fenced encircled enclosures at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
Two children inside a series of wire-fenced encircled enclosures at Ramstein Air Base.

Among those waiting to leave is Jamila, a woman who only gives her first name for fear of Taliban retaliation on her family back home. She says at the Kabul airport, Taliban guards tore up her family members' documents and shot bullets over their heads, but they persisted and pushed through the checkpoint onto a plane.

"The Taliban beat up and arrested my husband and brother-in-law," she says. "Both of them worked for the former government." Jamila says she doesn't know what has happened to them and is worried sick.

Asked if she is scared of moving to the U.S., a place she's only heard about, operating in a language neither she nor her children speak, she shakes her head.

"I fought hard to get here, I'm interested, and I'm motivated to learn and to provide safe and normal lives for my children," she says. "And if someone has motivation, they can do anything."

Ali Reza Hussaini contributed to this report from Ramstein, Germany.

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