Children play ball among the rows of hundreds of beige tents, clothes drying on the fences. A little further on, people are queuing for the toilets.
In Ramstein, in western Germany, the largest US military base in Europe has been turned into a gigantic refugee camp, filled with people who have been flown from Afghanistan by the US Air Force.
For several days, those who have fled the country are now waiting to be transferred to another destination. They are Afghans who worked with US forces or who consider themselves “vulnerable” after the Taliban seized power.
For about 200 of them, already on the asphalt at the foot of a Boeing 767-300 that will take them across the Atlantic, the stopover is finished.
Some protect themselves with a blanket from the cold of what looks like an early German autumn. Others, too young to walk alone, are carried up the stairs in the arms of their parents.
Inside a hangar, Rasool, 27, waits his turn with his father, a former employee of the Afghan Interior Ministry.
“I feel great now that I am going to the United States,” he says. “We want to live there safely.”
For these refugees, it is one of the last stages of an exodus from Kabul that in most cases led them first to Qatar or Kuwait, used as transit bases by the Americans in their evacuation operation.
Ramstein became a 17,000-capacity facility overnight, set up between the air base and a nearby camp.
“The main limiting factor was the beds and tents,” said Gen. Josh Olson, in charge of the air base, where the first evacuees stayed an average of four days. “We were able to mobilize reserves of material in Europe and bring them here,” he said.
The main challenge is to get everyone to leave quickly and thus 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 few departures,” says the commander.
After landing, there is a mandatory medical examination for all 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 gunshot wounds, explains medical director Simon Ritchie. He has already witnessed three births among the refugees in Ramstein.
From there, there is a bus ride 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, women and children sleep in the base’s hangars, which often house military aircraft. Men occupy the 350 stores.
In the town, the arrival of thousands of evacuees has mobilized not only US troops.
To feed everyone, the base called “Die Bühne”, a restaurant in the city center. Last week it supplied vegetarian lasagna and, in one day, 1,000 servings of cheese noodles, a traditional German cheese noodle dish.
“It was a challenge,” coach 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 are happy to respond.”
“They have been our neighbors for 70 years,” explains the mayor, Ralf Hechler. “For us, it is a matter of honor.”
With the arrival of thousands more refugees, Die Bühne could again be called in as backup for meals, transported to the base by the city’s volunteer firefighters.
On Thursday, Ramstein had its “busiest day yet” with 10,000 arrivals in 12 hours.
And even after the Kabul airlift ends, “we will stay active as long as I am asked” to take responsibility for the planes leaving the Middle East, says General Olson.
However, also think ahead, once things have calmed down.
“At the moment, the adrenaline keeps us going,” he said. “But in a week, when it will be a matter of cleaning everything up and getting back to normal, that’s a little scary.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism