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As Afghan airlift accelerates, evacuees say they are facing 'nightmare' conditions in transit limbo

"There were not a lot of bathrooms, people would take showers with bottles of water," Sara Frotan, an American teen, said.

KABUL, Afghanistan — As thousands more people were evacuated from Kabul's airport Wednesday, reports have emerged that dire conditions await them in transit hubs like Qatar.

A "nightmare," said Sara Frotan, 14, who was airlifted with her family to the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar's capital, Doha.

“There were not a lot of bathrooms, people would take showers with bottles of water," Sara, an American citizen who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, said.

She said that her family feared the Taliban because they held American passports and her father had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. government. So they had fled from Afghanistan's capital, she added.

Image: Service members prepare to board evacuees onto a C-17 Globemaster lll on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
Service members prepare to board evacuees onto a C-17 Globemaster lll at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on Sunday. Airman 1st Class Kylie Barrow / AP

"It was very sad because we had to leave our family without saying goodbye," she said.

After touching down in Doha, Sara said, passengers had been held on board the aircraft for seven hours and the intense heat had caused her and some others to faint.

Her complaint echoed those made by Afghan citizens, who said they were met with "unsanitary conditions and overcrowding," once they arrived in Qatar, according to a State Department cable issued Saturday and obtained by NBC News.

“Some claimed they slept on the floor for days and feared contracting Covid-19 in crowded facilities amid a lack of medical care,” the cable said.

Images of Afghans being housed in un-airconditioned facilities with too few lavatories and no toilet paper had been circulated among local U.S. Embassy staff and had reinforced their reluctance to consider evacuation despite intense fear of the Taliban takeover, the cable added.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday that the United States was aware of the situation and “as concerned as anybody about what have been terrible sanitation conditions at Qatar that were facilitated by the sheer numbers and the speed with which those numbers got there.”

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Navy Capt. William Urban, U.S. Central Command spokesman, told NBC News on Tuesday that capacity to provide essential humanitarian assistance to evacuees in Qatar has been rapidly built up, but it has been challenging to keep up with the flow.

More than 10,000 people were still waiting to be evacuated on Wednesday, Army Major General William Taylor, told a news briefing Wednesday. He said that in the previous 24 hours, 90 U.S. military and other international flights had evacuated 19,000 more people, bringing the total evacuation number so far to about 88,000. He said one plane had departed every 39 minutes.

Despite growing pressure from his European allies to allow more time for people to leave, President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he would stick to his Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, leaving a narrow timeline to finish evacuating Americans and Afghan allies.

On Wednesday, a group of Republican and Democratic members of Congress called on Biden to extend it so that the military could finish its evacuation mission.

Calling the deadline "arbitrary," Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas. said Biden should "let the military accomplish their mission and then we will get out.”

Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., said that the conditions in Afghanistan have worsened.

“The Taliban is not cooperating in terms of allowing Afghans to come to the airport, and yet the reality on the ground is still that our military is operating under an order that we are leaving on August 31 despite what the president suggested. And I think that's absolutely wrong,” he said.

"The question before us now is, are we going to keep our deadline, or are we going to keep our promise? Are we going to allow the mission to determine the timetable, or are we going to let the timetable, determine the mission?"

With time running out, thousands remain around the perimeter of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport. On the civilian side, American soldiers were searching the bags and belongings of Afghan evacuees Tuesday, just 50 yards away from the first airport gate, where the Taliban were also managing crowds.

NBC News saw Taliban fighters leading long lines of evacuees toward the airport, including pregnant women, men and children in a process that appeared calm and orderly on Tuesday. In a line of traffic at the airport gate, military-style vehicles with mounted machine guns, adorned with white Taliban flags, could be seen.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a press conference Tuesday the group would not agree to U.S. forces staying past Aug. 31 to continue evacuations.

He also urged Afghan skilled workers to stay in the country to prevent a massive brain drain, and warned that the Afghans would not be allowed to go the airport anymore.

Gabe Joselow reported from Kabul, Fallon Gallagher from Chantilly, Va., Yuliya Talmazan from London and Abigail Williams from Washington.