Walking down the runway of the US military air base in Al Udeid at 2:00 am, an Afghan woman pounced on an American airman to try to tear off a gun from his leg. As other soldiers rushed to contain her, the woman screamed and struggled, determined to kill herself. Then he cringed and began to cry.
Her family was decimated during the Taliban’s lightning takeover of Afghanistan, and she had barely been able to board one of the flights that pulled people out of Kabul. Now she was hundreds of miles from her country—completely alone. “Please, please,” she pleaded, panting, as the orange and yellow lights of the busloads of rescued people blinked on, illuminating her tear-drenched face.
Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the exodus of Afghans has gained strength like a flood, flooding US military bases in places like Qatar, which in the past two weeks has received tens of thousands of people for screening by US authorities.
But while international withdrawals are being ended, attention turns to the fate of those who are part of the massive, sudden and unforeseen exodus. In just two weeks, more than 5,000 US military personnel in Kabul helped rescue more than 114,000 people in a chaotic effort and at various times violent, reflecting the astonishing speed with which the Taliban took over the country.
When insurgents entered the capital, Kabul, crowds of desperate people flocked to the city’s international airport, scrambling to board the flights that took the rescued. Landing in Qatar, which has played a crucial role in these efforts, some Afghans knelt in tears, thinking they had arrived in the United States.
The flood of rescued promises to create many legal, bureaucratic and logistical problems. Many of the Afghans who board flights may not meet the requirements to be resettled in the US.
Those who meet the conditions risk overburdening the organizations responsible for meeting the basic needs of newly arrived refugees, such as housing, food and medical care. These entities typically only host a small, regular influx of newly arrived refugees.
In processing centers, people’s relief at having escaped Afghanistan under Taliban control collides with the difficulties of leaving their country and starting life anew. Amidst the exodus, the collective feeling of mourning for those who mourn what Afghanistan was in the past gives way to people’s fear of what will happen to their lives outside the country.
“When I think about my family, their situation, I don’t feel good mentally,” said Zahra, 28, who left last week on a flight to Doha, the capital of Qatar. “And when we get to America, we don’t know what’s going to happen there. Are we going to find a job, are we going to settle down in a good place, are we going to be able to build a better life?” Like others who were interviewed for this report, she asked that only her first name be used, to avoid reprisals.
Since arriving in Doha, Zahra has been replaying in her head what a Taliban guard told her: once she left the country, she could never return.
In Afghanistan, she spent nearly a week preparing to flee as she watched several provincial capitals fall in quick succession. So, two days after insurgents invaded Kabul, she rushed to the airport with her mother, brothers and their families.
They spent more than an hour pleading with Taliban guards outside the airport gate before insurgents let them through. But as the crowd behind her moved forward, she heard the Taliban firing into the air and felt her mother’s hand slipping away. When she turned to look, she saw the Taliban guards pushing the group back behind her. Her mother and the rest of her family were swallowed up by the crowd.
Only Zahra, her brother-in-law and his children made it through the gate. Last week, they joined the ranks of thousands of other Afghans who arrived at the processing center at Al Udeid air base.
Inside the hangar, exhausted children were sprawled across a patchwork of Army camp beds, some sporting stains left by babies in need of diapers.
With air conditioning in only part of the hangar, the atmosphere was stifling in the 46ºC heat. Plastic bottles and human waste piled up in the toilet cubicles. Mattresses covered the floor in the giant tents lit with fluorescent lights, and hundreds of people scrambled to settle down. A makeshift playground was set up for the children outside the tents.
Overworked US military personnel have been working around the clock to provide medical care, food and water to the flood of new arrivals, while immigration officials screen them. But the initial influx of Afghans has outstripped the screening capacity at the site, leading to fears that a humanitarian disaster is taking shape at processing centers.
Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby said on Tuesday: “We will be the first to admit that some conditions at Al Udeid could have been better.” He noted that the problems were exacerbated “by the huge number of evacuations and the speed with which they arrived.”
To ease pressure on the transitory stay center in Doha, the US military has begun sending Afghans to US bases in Germany, Italy, Spain and Bahrain, Kirby said. More than 100 additional toilets have been installed in Doha, as well as cleaning and meal delivery services.
After spending hours — or, in some cases, days — in Al Udeid, many Afghans are transferred to the As Sayliyah camp, a former army base in a suburb of Doha. The site includes shipping containers converted into temporary housing.
The camp was created to be used in the months-long process of screening Afghans who worked for the US government and applied for special immigration visas — a group that a few months ago was not expected to reach more than a few thousand. people.
Instead, in the frantic early days under Taliban control, when rumors circulated that American planes were taking Afghans directly to the US, thousands of people without passports, visas or documents crowded into Kabul airport and were loaded onto planes bound for Doha.
Mirwais, 31, arrived at the air base in Qatar after boarding a withdrawal flight last week. A former translator for US forces and international organizations, he went into hiding when the Taliban entered Kabul and decided to leave the country when insurgents came to his mother’s house looking for him.
“By this time, if I were in Afghanistan, I would be dead,” he said. But he said that with each more day he spends at the camp, he loses hope of starting a better life.
After spending days making desperate phone calls to relatives trying to organize the departure of his wife and 10-month-old son, Mirwais says he has all but given up hope of meeting them outside Afghanistan. And your chances of continuing your trip to the US are far from guaranteed.
“I left without a passport, without any documents,” he said. “But if I don’t go to the US, what will become of me? How am I going to support my family?”