Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby says the US is working on improving conditions for Afghan evacuees at a US airbase in Qatar after video footage obtained by media outlets showed them living in inhuman conditions.
Photos and video footage shared with Al Jazeera showed hundreds of Afghans crowded together in unsanitary conditions in a hangar at Al Udeid airbase in Qatar.
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Afghan refugees who sent the pictures to Al Jazeera said they were being kept in the sweltering heat where several people had fainted as they waited in long queues to use the toilet or receive food and water. Most did not have any spare clothes and were unaware of what their final destinations would be.
Responding to the reports, Kirby said nobody was making excuses for the conditions at the base.
“Everybody’s focused on trying” to improve the conditions, Kirby told Axios on Tuesday.
On Friday, a US Central Command (Centcom) official had launched a scathing attack in an internal email obtained by Axios over the deplorable conditions and treatment of Afghan refugees at the American-run facilities in Qatar.
‘Dire conditions at Doha’
The email – subject line “Dire conditions at Doha”- described human waste and rubbish threatening to overwhelm the hangar where refugees were housed, as well as an infestation of rats. It went to officials at the State Department and the Pentagon and described “a life-threatening humanitarian disaster”.
“While not in any way downplaying the conditions in Kabul nor the conditions the Afghanis [sic] are escaping from, the current conditions in Doha are of our own doing,” he said.
He also shared excerpts from communication from US embassy staff in Doha, including one note that read: “A humid day today. Where the Afghans are housed is a living hell. Trash, urine, fecal matter, spilled liquids and vomit cover the floors.”
Responding to reports, William Urban, a spokesperson for Centcom said: “We recognise this is a challenging and difficult situation for these vulnerable individuals and families, and we remain committed to providing a secure, safe and sanitary environment.”
A US Department of State spokesperson told Axios they were working to reduce bottlenecks and have deployed extra staff to Qatar “to alleviate current conditions”.
Meanwhile, staff at the US embassy in Kabul also harshly criticised the treatment of Afghan refugees at American-run facilities in Qatar, according to the Middle East Eye website.
According to the cable sent by embassy staff, refugees who arrived at the US base were being kept in “un-airconditioned housing with too few lavatories – especially for women”.
According to the Centcom, the situation at the base has improved considerably over the past few days as more equipment and facilities were provided to the Afghan refugees as they arrived.
The State of #Qatar is committed to tackling humanitarian issues, offering housing and healthcare to evacuees from #Afghanistan residing in the country temporarily. It has facilitated the safe passage of Afghan civilians, journalists, diplomats, and international officials. pic.twitter.com/fnGmTpPDq1
— مكتب الاتصال الحكومي (@GCOQatar) August 24, 2021
As of Sunday, the US and its allies announced they had evacuated 70,000 people since 14 August, many transiting through Al Udeid. The base is home to the headquarters of Centcom and US Air Force Central Command.
Qatar has helped facilitate the transit of US citizens, embassy staff, and at-risk Afghans through Doha as it hosts an American processing centre for people arriving from Afghanistan.