As Germany heads into an election that will see Angela Merkel step down after 16 years as chancellor, she leaves behind a country profoundly changed — and anxious about changing more.
By Katrin Bennhold
Photographs by Lena Mucha
STUTTGART, Germany — The small silver star at the tip of Aleksandar Djordjevic’s Mercedes shines bright. He polishes it every week.
Mr. Djordjevic makes combustion engines for Daimler, one of Germany’s flagship carmakers. He has a salary of around 60,000 euros (about $70,000), eight weeks of vacationand a guarantee negotiated by the union that he cannot be fired until 2030. He owns a two-story house and that E-class 250 model Mercedes in his driveway.
All of that is why Mr. Djordjevic polishes the star on his car.
“The star is something stable and something strong: It stands for Made in Germany,” he said.
But by 2030 there will be no more combustion engines at Daimler — or people making combustion engines.
parental leave in Catholic Bavaria. The married gay couple raising two children outside Berlin. The woman in a hijab teaching math in a high school near Frankfurt, where most students have German passports but few have German parents.
successive crises and left others unattended, there was change that she led and change that she allowed.
phase out nuclear power in Germany. She ended compulsory military service. She was the first chancellor to assert that Islam “belongs” to Germany. When it came to breaking down her country’s and party’s conservative family values, she was more timid but ultimately did not stand in the way.
Konrad Adenauer anchored Germany in the West. Willy Brandt reached across the Iron Curtain. Helmut Kohl, her onetime mentor, became synonymous with German unity. Gerhard Schröder paved the way for the country’s economic success.
Ms. Merkel’s legacy is less tangible but equally transformative. She changed Germany into a modern society — and a country less defined by its history.
She may be remembered most for her decision to welcome over a million refugees in 2015-16 when most other Western nations rejected them. It was a brief redemptive moment for the country that had committed the Holocaust and turned her into an icon of liberal democracy.
“It was a sort of healing,” said Karin Marré-Harrak, the headmaster of a high school in the multicultural city of Offenbach. “In a way we’ve become a more normal country.”
lingering inequality between East and West three decades after reunification is still evident, even though taxpayers’ money has flowed east and things have gradually improved. With the government planning to phase out coal production by 2038, billions more in funding are promised to help compensate for the job losses.
But as Mike Balzke, a worker at the nearby coal plant in Jänschwalde, put it: “We don’t want money — we want a future.”
Mr. Balzke recalled his optimism when Ms. Merkel first became chancellor. Because she was an easterner and a scientist, he expected her to be an ambassador for the East — and for coal.
Instead, his village lost a quarter of its population during her chancellorship. A promised train line from Forst to Berlin was never built. The post office shut down.
Mr. Balzke, 41, worries that the region will turn into a wasteland.
That anxiety runs deep. And it deepened again with the arrival of refugees in 2015.
Two Fathers and Two Sons
was up in arms, but only a decade later, it has become the new normal.
Ms. Merkel never backed same-sex marriage outright, but she allowed lawmakers to vote for it, knowing that it would go through.
Mr. Winkler left the party again in 2019 after Ms. Merkel’s successor as conservative leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, disparaged same-sex marriage. But he acknowledged his debt to the chancellor.
On June 30, 2017, the day of the vote, he wrote her a letter.
“It is a pity that you could not support opening marriage to same-sex couples,” he wrote. “Still, thank you that you ultimately made today’s decision possible.”
Then he invited her to visit his family, “to see for yourself.”
She never replied. But he and his family used to live just around the corner from Ms. Merkel, who never gave up her apartment in central Berlin. They would see her occasionally in the supermarket checkout line.
“There she was with toilet paper in her basket, going shopping like everyone else,” Mr. Winkler’s partner, Roland Mittermayer, recalled. Even after 16 years, they are still trying to figure the chancellor out.
“She is an enigma,” Mr. Winkler said. “She’s a bit like the queen — someone who has been around for a long time, but you never feel you really know her.”
The Post-Merkel Generation
Six hours northwest of Berlin, past endless green fields dotted with wind farms and a 40-minute ferry ride off the North Sea coast, lies Pellworm, a sleepy island where the Backsen family has been farming since 1703.
Two years ago, they took Ms. Merkel’s government to court for abandoning its carbon-dioxide emission targets under the Paris climate accord. They lost, but then tried again, filing a complaint at the constitutional court.
This time they won.
“It’s about freedom,” said Sophie Backsen, 23, who would like to take over her father’s farm one day.
Sophie’s younger brothers, Hannes, 19, and Paul, 21, will vote for the first time on Sunday. Like 42 percent of first-time voters, they will vote for the Greens.
“If you look at how our generation votes, it’s the opposite of what you see in the polls,” Paul said. “The Greens would be running the country.”
Pellworm is flush with the sea level and in parts even below it. Without a dike ringing the coastline, it would flood regularly.
“When you have permanent rain for three weeks, the island fills up like a bath tub inside the dikes,” Hannes said.
The prospect of rising sea levels is an existential threat here. “This is one of the most important elections,” Hannes said. “It’s the last chance really to get it right.”
“If not even a country like Germany can manage this,” he added, “what chance do we stand?”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.
STRALSUND, Germany — Only days before Germans cast their ballots for a new Parliament and with it a new government and leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the campaign trail this week — further proof that her conservatives are in a perilous position.
Ms. Merkel, of course, is no longer a candidate. She is stepping down and had hoped to stay away from the race. But instead she spent Tuesday in her own district stumping for the struggling candidate for her Christian Democratic Union, Armin Laschet. She even quipped about her smaller-than-average shoe size, hoping to convince voters that those shoes are best filled by Mr. Laschet.
The Green party, the unexpected early leaders in the race, are in third place at the moment.
The Social Democrats are running one of their strongest election campaign in years, marked by clear messaging on progressive issues from increasing the minimum wage to creating more affordable housing. And their front-runner candidate, Olaf Scholz, has been selling himself as the best fit for Ms. Merkel’s shoes.
shot and killed a 20-year-old gas station attendant who refused the man service because he did not wear a mask.
Speaking to the several hundred people who had gathered late Tuesday on the wet cobblestones of the Old Market Square in this city on the Baltic Sea coast, which Ms. Merkel has represented since 1990, Mr. Laschet honored the victim, then chided the several dozen anti-vaccine demonstrators who had shown up to protest the government with shouts and whistles.
“We do not want this violence,” he said. But neither his condemnation nor his pledge to increase security elicited much applause. He also didn’t manage to silence the noise beyond the barriers.
The rally was meant to shore up support for Mr. Laschet, but for townspeople and tourists alike, it turned into an opportunity to catch a last glimpse of the woman whose outsize role in their country and in Europe has influenced their lives since November 2005.
Christine Braun, a member of the Christian Democrats in Stralsund, said that Mr. Laschet would be getting her vote, but he was not the reason she was standing in the driving rain on a chilly September night.
“I came to honor Ms. Merkel, our chancellor and representative,” she said, adding that throughout her 30 years representing the constituency, Ms. Merkel would visit regularly, attending meetings and engaging with the community. “She remained approachable and down-to-earth.”
Vilana Cassing and Tim Taugnitz, both students in their early 20s, were vacationing in Stralsund and saw the posters advertising the event and Ms. Merkel’s attendance. They decided to attend more out of curiosity to see the woman who had shaped their lives than out of political interest.
They described their political leanings as “leftist-Green,” saying they would vote on Sunday, but not for Mr. Laschet.
“I think it is good if the Christian Democrats go into opposition,” Mr. Taugnitz said.
That could happen. On Sunday, voters will go to the polls, though many may have already done so, with the pandemic resulting in an unusually high number of requests for mail-in ballots — a form of voting that has been around in Germany since 1957 and that organizers assure is safe.
Should the Social Democrats emerge as the strongest party, they would still need to find at least one partner to form a government. While that means that the roles could be reversed, with the Christian Democrats as the junior partners under Mr. Scholz, more likely is a center-left alliance led by the Social Democrats together with the Greens and the business friendly Free Democrats.
Mr. Laschet has been warning against the threat posed by such an alliance, seeking to paint the other parties as a danger to the prosperity that Germans have enjoyed under Ms. Merkel.
“It’s completely wrong what the S.P.D. and the Left and the Greens are planning,” Mr. Laschet told the crowd on Tuesday, referring to pledges to increase taxes on the country’s highest earners. “They should invest and create jobs.”
Ms. Merkel instead sought to praise Mr. Laschet and Georg Günther, who hopes to win the seat in Parliament that she is vacating after 30 years, for their achievements. She expressed confidence that both men would continue the course that she had set and urged her supporters to back them.
“Several times today I have reported my shoe size,” Ms. Merkel told the crowd in Stralsund. Nodding to Mr. Günther and smiling, she said that he could “manage” to fill her shoes — European size 38, or U.S. 7 and a half. Then she turned to Mr. Laschet and added, “he is the one who can do it,” at the chancellery.
Listening from the sidelines, Thilo Haberstroh, a native of the southwestern city of Karlsruhe who was in Stralsund on business and only happened on the rally by chance, said he wasn’t convinced that anyone in the running had what it takes to be the next chancellor of Germany.
“This was interesting, but none of them have really made an impression on me,” he said. “I still don’t know who I will get my vote on Sunday.”
U.S. Embassy warned Americans to stay away from the Kabul airport and told anyone outside the perimeter to “leave immediately,” citing unnamed security threats.
The British and Australian governments issued similar warnings, with Australian officials describing “an ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack.”
The warnings came as the last of the estimated 1,500 Americans and countless other foreigners still in Afghanistan try to make it to the airport to leave before the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 31. Thousands of Afghan nationals are camped outside the perimeter of the airport in desperate attempts to escape on the last flights out, some with documents allowing them to leave.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about confidential assessments, confirmed that the United States was tracking a “specific” and “credible” threat at the airport from the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which has carried out dozens of attacks in recent years, many targeting ethnic minorities and other civilians.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul cited three areas of particular concern in its advisory.
“U.S. citizens who are at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, or North Gate now should leave immediately,” the statement said, without further detail.Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, said at a news conference Thursday that the Taliban will allow Australian citizens and visa holders to leave safely but added, “Our travel advice remains: You should not come to Hamid Karzai airport because it is not safe to do so, and if you are in Kabul, you should shelter in place, move to a safe location and await further advice.”
The U.S. government has been warning about potential security threats at the airport, and access to the airport has been adjusted accordingly, with some gates temporarily closed.
WASHINGTON — About 1,500 American citizens remain in Afghanistan, and about a third of them are in contact with the U.S. government and hope to leave in the coming days, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Wednesday.
Some of the remaining 1,000 may not want to leave, Mr. Blinken said, describing an ever-changing estimate that the Biden administration has tried to pin down as American troops wind down an evacuation effort that has overwhelmed the airport in Kabul, the capital.
That number does not include legal permanent American residents or green card holders, he said.
Mr. Blinken said more than 4,500 U.S. citizens have so far been flown out of Afghanistan since Aug. 14, as the Taliban bore down on Kabul. He said the State Department has sent more than 20,000 emails and made 45,000 phone calls to identify and locate Americans in Afghanistan ahead of an Aug. 31 withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country after 20 years of war.
But Mr. Blinken sought to assure that any Americans or Afghans who have worked with the U.S. mission and want to leave after that date should be free to do so.“That effort will continue every day,” he said.
U.S. and allied planes flew an additional 19,200 people out of Kabul in the past 24 hours, officials said on Wednesday, as the Biden administration made substantial inroads into evacuating American citizens and Afghans who worked for the United States over the last 20 years.
More than 10,000 people were still inside the international airport in Kabul awaiting flights out of the country on Wednesday, and Afghans with proper credentials continued to be cleared into the airfield, Pentagon officials said.
With President Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of American troops rapidly approaching, tens of thousands of Afghans who qualify for special immigration visas are also waiting to be evacuated.
As of 3 a.m. in Washington, the United States had evacuated about 82,300 people from Kabul’s international airport since the government fell to Taliban forces.
John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that American officers in Kabul, including the top commander, Rear Adm. Peter G. Vaseley, were talking daily with Taliban counterparts to ensure safe passage of Americans and Afghan allies with proper credentials.
Experts predict that hundreds of thousands of Afghans will be targeted by the Taliban if they stay, including Afghan security forces, government officials, women’s rights advocates and other defenders of democracy. Those Afghans are desperately hoping to join the U.S. military’s airlift before it begins to wind down, potentially as soon as this weekend.
For the third time in a week, American military helicopters rescued Americans inside Kabul. On Tuesday, about 20 American citizens who were flown onto the airfield from a location inside the city, Maj. Gen. William Taylor told reporters. A similar flight rescued 169 Americans from a Kabul hotel meeting place last week.
Though Mr. Biden has vowed to stick to the Aug. 31 exit plan, as the Taliban have demanded, he also has instructed Mr. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin to draw up plans to push back the date if necessary.
The Taliban have warned of potential reprisals should the United States renege on its promise to withdraw its forces by the deadline, and Mr. Biden on Tuesday noted the danger to American troops should they remain much longer.
Beyond the Taliban, extremists affiliated with the Islamic State are also believed to pose a threat to the evacuation effort that has drawn crowds of people to Kabul’s airport gates, clamoring to be allowed on one of the flights that are departing every 45 minutes.
“I’m determined to ensure that we complete our mission,” Mr. Biden said at the White House on Tuesday. “I’m also mindful of the increasing risks that I’ve been briefed on and the need to factor those risks in. There are real and significant challenges that we also have to take into consideration.”
But the dwindling hours are weighing heavily on the minds of people seeking to flee Afghanistan and members of Congress who want the United States to retain a presence there until Americans and high-risk Afghans can get out.
The Pentagon spokesman, Mr. Kirby, said that the military would put high priority on flying out American troops and equipment in the mission’s final days. “There will be a transition more toward getting military assets out as we get closer to the end, but again, we’re going to continue to work the evacuation mission right up until the last day,” he said.
KABUL, Afghanistan — In his first sit-down interview with a Western media outlet since the Taliban took full control of Afghanistan, one of the group’s leaders on Wednesday offered a portrait of a group intent on rebuilding a country shattered by decades of war.
“We want to build the future, and forget what happened in the past,” the spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in an interview with The New York Times. He rejected widespread fears that the Taliban are already exacting vengeance on those who opposed them and want to reimpose the harsh controls on women that made them notorious when they ruled the country 20 years ago.
The interview came just a day after Mr. Mujahid warned the women of Afghanistan that it might be safest for them to remain home until more rank-and-file Taliban fighters have been trained in how not to mistreat them.
It was a notable acknowledgment of the many changes to Afghan society that greeted the Taliban when they re-entered a city they had not controlled for two decades.
Many of those changes involve women. Not only have they been free to leave home unaccompanied — dressed as they see fit — they have also returned to school and jobs, and their images can be seen on everything from billboards to TV screens.
On Wednesday, Mr. Mujahid suggested that longer-term, women would be free to resume their daily routines.
Concerns that the Taliban would once again force them to stay in their homes or cover their faces are baseless, he said. He added that the requirement they be accompanied by a male guardian, known as a mahram, was misunderstood. It applies only to journeys of three days or longer, he said.
“If they go to school, the office, university, or the hospital, they don’t need a mahram,” said Mr. Mujahid, who also serves as the Taliban’s chief spokesman.
He also offered assurances to Afghans trying to leave the country, saying — contrary to news reports based on his news conference on Tuesday, including in The Times — that those with valid travel documents would not be prevented from entering the airport.
“We said that people who don’t have proper documents aren’t allowed to go,” Mr. Mujahid said. “They need passports and visas for the countries they’re going to, and then they can leave by air. If their documents are valid, then we’re not going to ask what they were doing before.”
He also denied allegations that the Taliban have been searching for former interpreters and others who worked for the American military, and claimed that they would be safe in their own country. And he expressed frustration at the Western evacuation efforts.
“They shouldn’t interfere in our country and take out our human resources: doctors, professors and other people we need here,” Mr. Mujahid said. “In America, they might become dishwashers or cooks. It’s inhuman.”
For the past decade, Mr. Mujahid had been a key link between the militants and the news media, but remained faceless. On Wednesday, he granted the interview at the Ministry of Information and Culture as Taliban leaders and other Afghan power brokers were engaging in protracted discussions about the future shape of the country.
Mr. Mujahid is seen as likely to be the future minister of information and culture. Fluent in both Pashto and Dari, the country’s principal languages, Mr. Mujahid, 43, described himself as a native of Paktia Province and a graduate in Islamic jurisprudence from the well-known Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa in Pakistan.
Despite the tense situation at the airport on Wednesday, where thousands of people were still crowded around most entrance gates, Mr. Mujahid expressed hope that the Taliban would build good relations with the international community, pointing out areas of cooperation around counterterrorism, opium eradication and the reduction of refugees to the West.
Although he sought to convey a much more tolerant image of the Taliban, Mr. Mujahid did confirm one report: Music will not be allowed in public.
“Music is forbidden in Islam,” he said, “but we’re hoping that we can persuade people not to do such things, instead of pressuring them.”
— Matthieu Aikins and Jim Huylebroek
The Americans are all but gone, the Afghan government has collapsed and the Taliban now rule the streets of Kabul. Overnight, millions of Kabul residents have been left to navigate an uncertain transition after 20 years of U.S.-backed rule.
Government services are largely unavailable. Residents are struggling to lead their daily lives in an ecconomy that, propped up for the past generation by American aid, is now in free fall. Banks are closed, cash is growing scarce, and food prices are rising.
Yet relative calm has reigned over Kabul, the capital, in sharp contrast to the chaos at its airport. Many residents are hiding in their homes or venturing out only cautiously to see what life might be like under their new rulers.
Even residents who said they feared the Taliban were struck by the relative order and quiet, but for some the calm has been ominous.
A resident named Mohib said that streets were deserted in his section of the city, with people hunkering down in their homes, “scared and terrorized.”
“People feel the Taliban may come any moment to take away everything from them,” he said.
WASHINGTON — The United States has been battling the Taliban and their militant partners in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, for 20 years.
But the biggest immediate threat to both the Americans and the Taliban as the United States escalates its evacuation at the Kabul airport before an Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline is a common rival that is lesser known: Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
Created six years ago by disaffected Pakistani Taliban, ISIS-K has carried out dozens of attacks in Afghanistan this year. American military and intelligence analysts say threats from the group include a bomb-laden truck, suicide bombers infiltrating the crowd outside Hamid Karzai International Airport and mortar strikes against the airfield.
These threats, coupled with new demands by the Taliban for the United States to leave by Aug. 31, probably influenced President Biden’s decision on Tuesday to stick to that deadline. “Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Mr. Biden said.
The threats lay bare a complicated dynamic between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, and their bitter rival, ISIS-K, in what analysts say portends a bloody struggle involving thousands of foreign fighters on both sides.
A United Nations report in June concluded that 8,000 to 10,000 fighters from Central Asia, the North Caucasus region of Russia, Pakistan and the Xinjiang region in western China have poured into Afghanistan in recent months. Most are associated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, the report said, but others are allied with ISIS-K.
“Afghanistan has now become the Las Vegas of the terrorists, of the radicals and of the extremists,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, a former Afghan security official. “People all over the world, radicals and extremists, are chanting, celebrating the Taliban victory. This is paving the way for other extremists to come to Afghanistan.”
Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Paris.
Germany will maintain support for Afghans who remain in their country after the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal and evacuation mission passes in six days, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday. She also called for talks with the Taliban to preserve progress made in Afghanistan in the last two decades.
Speaking to a session of Parliament convened to discuss the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, the chancellor defended Germany’s decision to join the international intervention there in 2001.
“Our goal must be to preserve as much as possible what we have achieved in terms of changes in Afghanistan in the last 20 years,” Ms. Merkel told lawmakers. “This is something the international community must talk about with the Taliban.”
She cited changes such as improved access to basic necessities, with 70 percent of Afghans now having access to clean drinking water and 90 percent having access to electricity, in addition to better health care for women.
“But what is clear is that the Taliban are reality in Afghanistan and many people are afraid,” Ms. Merkel said. “This new reality is bitter, but we must come to terms with it.”
Germany pulled its last contingent of soldiers, about 570 troops, out of Afghanistan in June, but several hundred Germans were still engaged in development work funded by Berlin, and the German government believed they would be able to remain in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces.
Ms. Merkel defended her government’s decision to leave development workers on the ground, saying that they had hoped to continue to provide essential support for Afghans after the troop withdrawal, and that an earlier retreat could have appeared as if they were abandoning people.
“At that time there were very good reasons to stand beside the people in Afghanistan after the troops were gone,” Ms. Merkel said.
But the opposition leaders criticized her government for not developing a plan to bring people to safety in the spring, when other European countries were evacuating citizens and Afghan support staff.
“The situation in Afghanistan is a catastrophe, but it did not come out of nowhere,” said Christian Lindner, the head of the Free Democratic Party, which together with the Green Party petitioned Parliament in June to begin evacuations of German staff and Afghans who could be in danger.
Ms. Merkel did not apologize, instead calling for a deeper examination of where the West went wrong in Afghanistan and what lessons could be learned. That will be the work of the next government, as she is stepping down after the German elections on Sept. 26.
“Many things in history take a long time. That is why we must not and will not forget Afghanistan,” said Ms. Merkel, who was raised in communist East Germany.
“Even if it doesn’t look like it in this bitter hour,” she said, “I remain convinced that no force or ideology can resist the drive for justice and peace.”
When President Biden briefly referred to the Berlin airlift — the operation 73 years ago to feed a city whose access had been choked off by the Soviet Union — in describing the United States’ evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, he was revealing the inspiration for a broader plan to redeem America’s messy exit.
After 10 days of missed signals, desperate crowds and violence around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Mr. Biden and his team are eager to shift the narrative about the chaotic end of America’s longest war.
Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, said on Monday that the scores of rescue flights the United States was initiating each day were likely to be regarded as “one of the largest airlifts in history.”
“There is no other country in the world who could pull something like this off — bar none,” he said.
As of Tuesday evening, 12,000 people had been evacuated from Kabul during the previous 12 hours, Biden said. That brought the total number evacuated since the end of July to 75,900 people, the president said.
The comparison to the rescue operation in Berlin is not a bad one. Berlin had been divided since the end of World War II, and tensions were growing. The United States and Britain took to the sky to carry in material by plane.
The two countries managed to get just shy of 300,000 flights into Berlin over 11 months, from June 24, 1948, to May 11, 1949, and the State Department’s record notes that “at the height of the campaign, one plane landed every 45 seconds at Tempelhof Airport,” which until recently was Berlin’s main air hub.
The United Nations leadership faced growing anger from staff unions Wednesday over what some called its failure to protect Afghan co-workers and their families, who remain stuck in Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban even as the majority of the organization’s non-Afghan staff have been relocated to other countries.
Many of the Afghan employees, their foreign colleagues say, are in hiding or are reluctant to keep working, fearful of reprisals by triumphant Taliban militants who may perceive them as apostates, traitors and agents of foreign interference.
That fear has persisted even though the Taliban’s hierarchy has indicated that the U.N. should be permitted to work in the country unimpeded during and after the forces of the United States and NATO withdraw, a pullout that is officially scheduled for completion in less than a week.
An internal U.N. document reported by Reuters on Wednesday said Taliban operatives had detained and beaten some Afghan employees of the United Nations. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Secretary General António Guterres, did not confirm or deny the report but said it was “critical is that the authorities in charge in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan realize that they have the responsibility to protect U.N. premises and for the safety of U.N. staff.”
Mr. Guterres has repeatedly said the U.N. fully supports the Afghan staff, who are said to number between 3,000 and 3,400, and that he is doing everything in his power to ensure their safety. Mr. Dujarric said about 10 percent of those Afghan workers are women, who are especially at risk of facing Taliban repression.
The secretary general reiterated his assurances during a private virtual town hall meeting on Wednesday with staff members, said Mr. Dujarric, who told reporters that Mr. Guterres “understands the staff’s deep anxiety about what the future holds.”
But rank-and-file staff members of the United Nations have grown increasingly skeptical of Mr. Guterres’s pronouncements. A resolution passed on Tuesday by the U.N. staff union in New Yorkurged Mr. Guterres to take steps that would enableAfghan staff members to avoid “unacceptable residual risks by using evacuation from Afghanistan as soon as possible.”
U.N. officials have said they are powerless to issue visas to Afghan personnel without cooperation from other countries willing to host them. U.N. officials also have said the organization remains committed to providing services in Afghanistan, where roughly half the population needs humanitarian aid. Such services, including food and health care, are impossible to conduct without local staff.
The town hall was held a few days after a second batch of non-Afghan U.N. staff had been airlifted from Kabul. Many of the roughly 350 non-Afghan U.N. personnel who had been in the country, including Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, are now working remotely from Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The unequal treatment of non-Afghan and Afghan personnel working for the U.N. has become an increasingly bitter sore point between management and staff at the global organization. An online petition started this past weekend by staff union members calling on Mr. Guterres to do more to help Afghan employees and their families had, as of Wednesday, garnered nearly 6,000 signatures.
An earlier version of this item misidentified the U.N. staff union organization that passed a resolution urging the U.N. secretary general to help Afghan employees evacuate Afghanistan. It was the U.N. staff union in New York, not the coordinating committee of the association of staff unions.
When the Taliban were last in power, Afghan women were generally not allowed to leave their homes except under certain narrowly defined conditions. Those who did risked being beaten, tortured or executed.
In the days since the Taliban swept back into control, their leaders have insisted that this time will be different. Women, they say, will be allowed to work. Girls will be free to attend school. At least within the confines of their interpretation of Islam.
But early signs have not been promising, and that pattern continued on Tuesday with a statement from a Taliban spokesman that women should stay home, at least for now. Why? Because some of the militants have not yet been trained not to hurt them, he said.
The spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, called it a “temporary” policy intended to protect women until the Taliban could ensure their safety.
“We are worried our forces who are new and have not been yet trained very well may mistreat women,” Mr. Mujahid said. “We don’t want our forces, God forbid, to harm or harass women.”
Mr. Mujahid said that women should stay home “until we have a new procedure,” and that “their salaries will paid in their homes.”
His statement echoed comments from Ahmadullah Waseq, the deputy of the Taliban’s cultural affairs committee, who told The New York Times this week that the Taliban had “no problem with working women,” as long as they wore hijabs.
But, he said: “For now, we are asking them to stay home until the situation gets normal. Now it is a military situation.”
During the first years of Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, women were forbidden to work outside the home or even to leave the house without a male guardian. They could not attend school, and faced public flogging if they were found to have violated morality rules, like one requiring that they be fully covered.
The claim that restrictions on women’s lives are a temporary necessity is not new to Afghan women. The Taliban made similar claims the last time they controlled Afghanistan, said Heather Barr, the associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch.
“The explanation was that the security was not good, and they were waiting for security to be better, and then women would be able to have more freedom,” she said. “But of course in those years they were in power, that moment never arrived — and I can promise you Afghan women hearing this today are thinking it will never arrive this time either.”
Brian Castner, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International who was in Afghanistan until last week, said that if the Taliban intended to treat women better, they would need to retrain their forces. “You can’t have a movement like the Taliban that has operated a certain way for 25 years and then just because you take over a government, all of the fighters and everyone in your organization just does something differently,” he said.
But, Mr. Castner said, there is no indication that the Taliban intend to fulfill that or any other promises of moderation. Amnesty International has received reports of fighters going door to door with lists of names, despite their leaders’ public pledges not to retaliate against Afghans who worked with the previous government.
“The rhetoric and the reality are not matching at all, and I think that the rhetoric is more than just disingenuous,” Mr. Castner said. “If a random Taliban fighter commits a human rights abuse or violation, that’s just kind of random violence, that’s one thing. But if there’s a systematic going to people’s homes and looking for people, that’s not a random fighter that’s untrained — that’s a system working. The rhetoric is a cover for what’s really happening.”
In Kabul on Wednesday, women in parts of the city with minimal Taliban presence were going out “with normal clothes, as it was before the Taliban,” said a resident named Shabaka. But in central areas with many Taliban fighters, few women ventured out, and those who did wore burqas, said Sayed, a civil servant.
Ms. Barr, of Human Rights Watch, said that in the week since the Taliban said the new government would preserve women’s rights “within the bounds of Islamic law,” the Afghan women she has spoken to offered the same skeptical assessment: “They’re trying to look normal and legitimate, and this will last as long as the international community and the international press are still there. And then we’ll see what they’re really like again.”
It might not take long, Ms. Barr suggested.
“This announcement just highlights to me that they don’t feel like they need to wait,” she said.
A group of Afghans who worked for The New York Times, along with their families, touched down safely early Wednesday — not in New York or Washington, but at Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City.
Mexican officials, unlike their counterparts in the United States, were able to cut through the red tape of their immigration system to quickly provide documents that, in turn, allowed the Afghans to fly from Kabul’s embattled airport to Qatar.
The documents promised that the Afghans would receive temporary humanitarian protection in Mexico while they explored further options in the United States or elsewhere.
“We are right now committed to a foreign policy promoting free expression, liberties and feminist values,” Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said in a telephone interview.
He cited a national tradition of welcoming people including the 19th-century Cuban independence leader José Martí, German Jews and South Americans fleeing coups, and he said that Mexico had opened its doors to the Afghan journalists “in order to protect them and to be consistent with this policy.”
But the path of the Afghan journalists and their families to Mexico was as arbitrary, personal and tenuous as anything else in the frantic and scattershot evacuation of Kabul.
Just days after the Taliban swept into Kabul and toppled Afghanistan’s government, a group of former mujahedeen fighters and Afghan commandos said they had begun a war of resistance in the last area of the country that is not under Taliban control: a narrow valley with a history of repelling invaders.
The man leading them is Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of the storied mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. And their struggle faces long odds: The resistance fighters are surrounded by the Taliban, have supplies that will soon start dwindling and have no visible outside support.
For now the resistance has merely two assets: the Panjshir Valley, 70 miles north of Kabul, which has a history of repelling invaders, and the legendary Massoud name.
Spokesmen for Ahmad Massoud insist that he has attracted thousands of soldiers to the valley, including remnants of the Afghan Army’s special forces and some of his father’s experienced guerrilla commanders, as well as activists and others who reject the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.
The spokesmen, some of whom were with him in the Panjshir Valley and some who were outside the country drumming up support, said that Mr. Massoud has stocks of weapons and matériel, including American helicopters, but needs more.
‘‘We’re waiting for some opportunity, some support,” said Hamid Saifi, a former colonel in the Afghan National Army, and now a commander in Mr. Massoud’s resistance, who was reached in the Panjshir Valley by telephone on Sunday. “Maybe some countries will be ready for this great work. So far, all countries we talked to are quiet. America, Europe, China, Russia, all of them are quiet.’’
Two members of Congress secretly flew to Kabul without authorization on Tuesday to witness the frenzied evacuation of Americans and Afghans, infuriating Biden administration officials and prompting Speaker Nancy Pelosi to urge other lawmakers not to follow their example.
The two members — Representatives Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Peter Meijer, Republican of Michigan, both veterans — said in a statement that the purpose of their trip was “to provide oversight on the executive branch.” Both lawmakers have blistered the Biden administration in recent weeks, accusing top officials of dragging their feet on evacuating American citizens and Afghan allies.
“There is no place in the world right now where oversight matters more,” they said.
Today with @RepMeijer I visited Kabul airport to conduct oversight on the evacuation.
Witnessing our young Marines and soldiers at the gates, navigating a confluence of humanity as raw and visceral as the world has ever seen, was indescribable. pic.twitter.com/bWGQh1iw2c
— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) August 25, 2021
But administration officials were furious that Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer had entered Afghanistan on an unauthorized, undisclosed trip, arguing that efforts to tend to the lawmakers had drained resources badly needed to help evacuate those already in the country.
The trip was reported earlier by The Associated Press.
Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer said that they had left Afghanistan “on a plane with empty seats, seated in crew-only seats to ensure that nobody who needed a seat would lose one because of our presence,” and that they had taken other steps to “minimize the risk and disruption to the people on the ground.” They were in Kabul for less than 24 hours.
Still, Ms. Pelosi pressed other lawmakers not to do the same.
“Member travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding countries would unnecessarily divert needed resources from the priority mission of safely and expeditiously evacuating Americans and Afghans at risk from Afghanistan,” Ms. Pelosi wrote in a letter. She did not refer to Mr. Moulton and Mr. Meijer by name.
In their statement on Tuesday night, the congressmen sharpened their criticism of the administration’s handling of the evacuation, saying that “Washington should be ashamed of the position we put our service members in” and that the situation they had witnessed on the ground was more dire than they had expected.
“After talking with commanders on the ground and seeing the situation here, it is obvious that because we started the evacuation so late,” they wrote, “that no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time.”
“People are going to die, and they are going to be left behind,” Mr. McCaul said.
Mr. Biden has emphasized that he was taking the threats to the safety of Americans in Kabul seriously. In a closed-door meeting with leaders of the Group of 7 nations on Tuesday, the president told them that the danger of a terrorist attack was “very high,” according to a senior American official.
A deadly attack against American and Afghan civilians by ISIS-K would be a disaster not only for the United States, but also for the Taliban, who are moving to consolidate control over Kabul. The Taliban and the Islamic State have been enemies, fighting each other on the battlefield for control of parts of the country.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.
What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.
ISIS-K refers to the Islamic State’s Khorasan affiliate in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who led the meeting, sought to put a good face on the discussions, saying the evacuation had been remarkably successful. He said leaders had agreed on a road map for dealing with the Taliban in the long term, vowing to use Afghan funds held in Western banks as a lever to pressure the Taliban.
“The No. 1 condition is that they’ve got to guarantee, right the way through to Aug. 31 and beyond, safe passage for those who want to come out,” Mr. Johnson said to the BBC after the meeting.
But Mr. Johnson failed in his effort to persuade Mr. Biden to extend the evacuation beyond Aug. 31, and it was not clear what other options the allies had to protect their own citizens and Afghan allies without American military might.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said that plans were being made to find a way to ensure that “afterward we can still get as many local employees and people needing protection to be allowed to leave the country.” But her downbeat tone laid bare the sense of futility felt by Western leaders about Afghanistan.
“How can it be that the Afghan leader left the country so quickly?” Ms. Merkel said. “How can it be that Afghan soldiers who we trained for so long gave up so quickly? We will have to ask these questions, but they were not the most pressing today.”
BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday met with survivors and thanked volunteers as she made her way through a village wrecked by the extraordinary floods that have killed at least 183 people in Germany and Belgium, calling the level of destruction “surreal and eerie.”
As rescue teams continued searching for victims amid the wreckage and debris, heavy rains in the southern German region of Bavaria caused still more flooding on Sunday. The authorities said they expected the number victims to rise, as many hundreds of people remained unaccounted for, though it was unclear how many were simply unreachable by friends or family amid the chaos of the calamity and lost communications.
Helicopters buzzed overhead as Ms. Merkel arrived in Schuld, a formerly quaint village of half-timbered homes and cobbled streets on the banks of the Ahr River, rendered an unrecognizable tangle of debris covered in sticky brown mud by gushing waters last week. German meteorologists called the flooding the worst in 500 years, if not a millennium.
“The German language has no words, I think, for the devastation,” Ms. Merkel told reporters after touring the village. She pledged that her government would organize aid, immediately and in the midterm, as well as help to rebuild infrastructure.
was in Washington when the worst of the flooding struck on Thursday. She held video conferences with the leaders of the worst-affected regions after she returned on Friday. Saturday was her 67th birthday.
Despite her relative absence, Ms. Merkel has been shielded from public criticism by the sudden timing of the floods, the significance of her trip to Washington — considered an important step to restoring ties with the United States after the tumultuous Trump administration — her formidable political stature well into her fourth term as chancellor, and now her status as a lame duck.
Instead, most of the German news media have focused on how the candidates to replace her in September’s election have responded to the tragedy. All three of the main candidates in the race visited the stricken areas last week.
Still, after 16 years of guiding Europe’s largest and most powerful country through one calamity after the other — including the global economic downturn in 2008, the European debt crisis that followed, the arrival of more than one million migrants six years ago and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic — Germans have become accustomed to her approach of analyzing and contemplating a situation before deciding to act.
Ms. Merkel’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, said the government was working to organize several hundred million euros, or dollars, of immediate relief for those who lost their homes and their livelihoods in the floods.
Flooding in Western Europe
On Saturday, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany visited the city of Erftstadt, where the raging waters washed away several homes and triggered a landslide; at least 16 residents there remain unaccounted for. He was accompanied by Armin Laschet, 60, the head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union and the leading contender for the chancellery, who is the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia state.
in a message on Twitter.
“The fate of those affected, which we heard about in many conversations, is important to us,” he wrote, and he thanked Mr. Steinmeier for his visit. “So I regret all the more the impression that arose from a conversational situation. That was inappropriate and I am sorry.”
Even as the country struggled to come to terms with the extent of the damage to the states of Rhineland-Palatinate, where Schuld is, heavy rains caused more flooding in Germany’s east and south, killing at least one person, in addition to the 112 people pronounced dead in Rhineland-Palatinate.
In North-Rhine Westphalia, where the interior minister said 45 people had died, more storms ripped through the south of the country.
Flooding in Belgium killed at least 27 people, local news media reported the authorities as saying. Dozens remained missing there, and rescue workers spent much of the day going door to door looking for anyone who had not been able to escape the rising waters in time.
That the authorities still lacked clarity on Sunday over how many people were missing four days after the floods struck reflected the severity of the damage caused to local infrastructure in Rhineland-Palatinate, said Malu Dreyer, the state’s governor.
“The water was still flowing up until a couple of days ago, we have mud and debris,” Ms. Dreyer said. “Now we have the police, soldiers and firefighters who are systematically combing through the whole region searching for the missing.”
Ms. Merkel said that in addition to the financial support from the government, the German Army and other emergency assistance organizations would remain in the area as long as needed.
“Everything we have is being put to use,” she said, “and still it is unbelievably painful for those who have lost loved ones, for those who still don’t know what has happened and for those facing the destruction of their livelihoods.”
an ambitious proposal to cut carbon emissions, how will those who hope to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel respond?
If only because of their sheer scale, analysts say, the floods are likely to play a significant role for voters when they go to the polls on Sept 26 to replace Ms. Merkel, who has led the country for 16 years.
The death toll in Germany climbed to at least 143 on Saturday, while the toll across the border in Belgium stood at 27, its national crisis center said. The count rose most sharply in Germany’s Ahrweiler district in Rhineland-Palatinate State, where the police said that more than 90 people had died. The authorities feared that number could yet grow.
In Germany, Europe’s largest economy and a country that prides itself on its sense of stability, the chaos wrought by nature was likely to reverberate for months, if not years.
But on Saturday, residents and rescue workers in flood-hit areas faced the more immediate and daunting task of clearing piles of debris, unclogging roads and salvaging some of the homes that had survived the deluge.
Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for, but officials have struggled to offer precise numbers.
Electricity and telephone services remain inaccessible in parts of Germany, and some roads are still impassable. That lack of access may account for the high tallies of those still considered missing. And some of those who are not accounted for could simply be away, on vacation or work assignment. In Belgium, police officers started knocking on doors to try to confirm the whereabouts of residents.
Still, officials said they expected to find additional victims.
Extreme downpours like the ones that hit Germany are one of the most visible signs that the climate is changing as a result of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have shown a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, generating more rainfall.
Floods of this size have not been seen in 500 or even 1,000 years, according to meteorologists and German officials.
Rhineland-Palatinate was one of the two hardest-hit German states in the west, along with North Rhine-Westphalia. The Rhine River flows through the two regions, and the rain fell so rapidly that it engorged even small streams and tributaries not typically considered flood threats.
Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, traveled on Saturday to the town of Erftstadt, southwest of Cologne, where the flooding destroyed homes. Ms. Merkel planned to travel on Sunday to Schuld in Rhineland-Palatinate, which was badly hit, even as all of its 700 residents managed to survive.
There were scenes of devastation from all around Western Europe, the floods having caused damage from Switzerland to the Netherlands. But Germany was hardest hit.
Days before roiling waters tore through western Germany, a European weather agency had issued an extreme flood warning, as models showed that storms would send rivers surging to levels that had not been seen in hundreds of years.
The warnings, however, did little good.
Though Germany’s flood warning system, a network of sensors that measure river levels, functioned as it was supposed to, state and local officials said the amount of rain was unlike anything they had ever seen, causing even small streams and rivers to flood their banks.
Survivors and officials said many areas were caught unprepared as normally placid brooks and streams turned into torrents that swept away cars, houses and bridges. About 15,000 police officers, soldiers and emergency service workers have been deployed in Germany to help with the search and rescue.
Dr. Linda Speight, a hydrometeorologist at the University of Reading in Britain who studies how flooding occurs, blamed poor communication about the high risk posed by the flooding as contributing to the significant loss of life. “There should not have been so many deaths from this event,” she said.
Residents returning home, only to find their homes no longer there. Roads submerged by landslides. Loved ones still unaccounted for.
As the weather improved on Saturday and rescue workers searched for missing residents, many people in flood-hit areas of Germany were trying to re-establish some order amid the chaos and destruction.
Friends and relatives mobilized to help, maneuvering around blocked roads and washed-out bridges. Crushed cars and mounds of ruined goods were carted away, or piled by the side of muddied, cracked roads.
Many expressed amazement at how so much could have been destroyed so quickly. For Lisa Knopp, 19, who was helping to empty the flood-ruined basement of her grandmother’s home in Sinzig, a small town between the Rhine and Ahr rivers, the scenes of destruction “will stay with me a long time.”
Kim Falkenstein said her mother lost her home in Ahrweiler, one of the hardest-hit spots. Ms. Falkenstein, who was born in Ahrweiler and now lives in New York, said several friends had also lost their homes, and a classmate had died.
“I am heartbroken,” she said.
“Seeing my city being destroyed, people who I am close with losing their existence, and knowing I will never return to something I once called home,” Ms. Falkenstein said, “gives me goose bumps.”
In a country that is among Europe’s most prosperous, where orderliness is highly prized, many Germans were unnerved by the helplessness wrought by nature.
Bertrand Adams, a local official in Trier-Ehrang, a town in western Germany, stared in disbelief at the swirling waters only now receding from his community.
“It is beyond anything that could ever be imagined,” he told ZDF television. “We have a very good flood protection system that we developed only five years ago. We were so certain that nothing can go wrong.”
Daniela Schmitz, who has a ranch in Erftstadt, a town southwest of Cologne, was relieved that her property was not destroyed by the floods and that her horses had been evacuated. Others, she said, weren’t that fortunate.
“We were warned early enough — other stables are not doing so well,” she wrote in a WhatsApp message. “Many animals have drowned, entire stalls destroyed, and feed is becoming scarce. The conditions are really catastrophic in many places.”
On Saturday, German television channels carried wall-to-wall coverage of the flooding, as rescue workers continued searching for those who had been trapped by rising waters, with 143 confirmed dead in Germany and hundreds still missing.
As the official response picked up speed on Saturday, electricity, water and internet coverage were slowly being restored. Hundreds of police, fire and emergency vehicles crammed the roads into the most afflicted areas of Rhine-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia.
devastation from the floods came from all around Western Europe as the death toll passed 125 on Friday, with another 1,300 people still missing. Roads buckled and washed away. Cars piled atop one another. Houses were inundated to the roof tiles. Frightened residents were being evacuated in the shovels of earth movers.
But nowhere was affected more than Germany, where hundreds were still unaccounted for and the death toll had reached 106 and was expected to rise as rescue workers combed through the debris. At least 20 were reported dead in Belgium.
A European weather agency had issued an “extreme” flood warning after detailed models showed storms that threatened to send rivers surging to levels that a German meteorologist said on Friday had not been seen in 500 or even 1,000 years.
German officials said Friday their warning system, which includes a network of sensors that measure river levels in real time, functioned as it was supposed to. The problem, they said, was an amount of rain they had never seen before — falling so rapidly that it engorged even small streams and rivers not normally considered threats.
Extreme downpours like the ones that occurred in Germany are among the most visible and damaging signs that the climate is changing as a result of warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have found that they are now occurring more frequently, and scientists point to a simple reason: A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which creates extreme rainfall.
In Central Europe rescue efforts were hampered, with electricity and communications networks down, roads and bridges washed out, and drinking water scarce. The worst hit were thinly populated, rural areas.
In the city of Schleitheim, Switzerland, where a river burst its banks, residents recorded videos of cars being washed through the streets in a swirling flood of muddy water and debris.
Germans struggled even to grasp the scale of the calamity in their country. Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her shock and solidarity from Washington, where she was visiting the White House. Politicians of all stripes called for a truce in the German election campaign. The focus was on how to deal with a disaster that was growing by the hour, with thousands left homeless, in addition to the missing.
In Belgium,the Meuse river overflowed its banks, flooding villages and the center of Liège, leaving thousands without power. The official death toll stands at 20 dead and 20 missing, the authorities said.
“We are still waiting for the final assessment, but these floods could have been the most disastrous that our country has ever known,” Alexander De Croo, Belgium’s prime minister said on Friday.
Relatives of those missing grappled with the fear of the unknown. The authorities in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate said late Thursday that 1,300 people remained unaccounted for in their region, where the Ahr river swelled to an angry torrent late Wednesday, ripping through the towns and villages that hugged its banks.
One of the places in Germany hardest hit by the flooding was tiny Schuld, where the destruction arrived with remarkable speed in the once-tidy village. After the river swelled, vehicles bobbed like bath toys, six houses collapsed and half of those that remained standing had gaping holes torn by floating debris.
“It went so fast. You tried to do something, and it was already too late,” a resident of Schuld told Germany’s ARD public television.
At least 50 people were confirmed dead in the Ahrweiler district, where torrents of water rushed through towns and villages, washing away cars, homes and businesses.
In Sinzig, a town in the district, efforts to evacuate a care home for people with severe disabilities came just moments before the gushing waters swept through the lower levels, killing 12 of the residents.
BERLIN — Days before roiling waters tore through western Germany, a European weather agency issued an “extreme” flood warning after detailed models showed storms that threatened to send rivers surging to levels that a German meteorologist said on Friday had not been seen in 500 or even 1,000 years.
By Friday those predictions proved devastatingly accurate, with at least 125 people dead and 1,300 unaccounted for, as helicopter rescue crews plucked marooned residents from villages inundated sometimes within minutes, raising questions about lapses in Germany’s elaborate flood warning system.
Numerous areas, victims and officials said, were caught unprepared when normally placid brooks and streams turned into torrents that swept away cars, houses and bridges and everything else in their paths.
“It went so fast. You tried to do something, and it was already too late,” a resident of Schuld told Germany’s ARD public television, after the Ahr River swelled its banks, ripping apart tidy wood-framed houses and sending vehicles bobbing like bath toys.
Extreme downpours like the ones that occurred in Germany are one of the most visible signs that the climate is changing as a result of warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have shown a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, generating more, and more powerful, rainfall.
The floods that cut a wide path of destruction this week through Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands were bigger than any on record, according to meteorologists and German officials.
German officials said Friday their warning system, which includes a network of sensors that measure river levels in real time, functioned as it was supposed to. The problem, they said, was an amount of rain they had never seen before — falling so rapidly that it engorged even small streams and rivers not normally considered threats.
To describe the events of recent days as a 100-year flood would be an understatement, said Uwe Kirsche, a spokesman for the German Weather Service.
“With these small rivers, they have never experienced anything like that,” Mr. Kirsche said. “Nobody could prepare because no one expected something like this.”
On Tuesday, Felix Dietsch, a meteorologist for the German Weather Service, went on YouTube to warn that some areas of southwest Germany could receive previously unimaginable volumes of rain.
The weather service, a government agency, assigned its most extreme storm warning, code purple, to the Eifel and Mosel regions, one of numerous government warnings issued on Twitter and other media earlier this week and transmitted to state and local officials.
But the waters rose so swiftly that some communities’ response plans were insufficient while others were caught off guard entirely.
Medard Roth, the mayor of Kordel, in the hard-hit state of Rhineland-Palatinate, said that he activated his town’s emergency flood response once Kyll River approached dangerous water levels. But the waters rose too rapidly to be held back by the usual measures.
“By 6 p.m., everything was already under water,” Mr. Roth told Bild, a German newspaper. “Nobody could have predicted that.”
Ursula Heinen-Esser, the environment minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said on Friday that floodwaters had reached “levels never before recorded.”
The German flood warning system leaves it up to local officials to decide what action to take, on the theory that they are best informed about local terrain and what people or property lies in the path of an overflowing river.
In the Ahrweiler district of neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, regional officials issued their first warning to residents living near the banks of the river as it approached its record level of 3 meters, or nearly 10 feet. Three hours later, a state of emergency was declared.
By that time, many people had fled to the upper levels of their homes, and those who could not move fast enough died, including 12 handicapped people in an assisted living home in Sinzig.
“The warnings arrived,” Mr. Kirsche of the German Weather Service said. “But the question is why didn’t evacuations take place sooner? That’s something we have to think about.”
MÜSCH, Germany — The bridge that spans the River Ahr washed away last night at around 10:00, said Michael Stoffels, 32, whose own house got flooded by about 12 feet of water.
Müsch, a village of 220 people at the junction of the Ahr and Trierbach rivers, was clobbered by the flash floods that have inundated this part of Germany. Only one person has died, but Müsch on Friday evening was without electricity, running water or cellphone coverage.
Residents and their friends were trying to clean up their battered homes, cracked streets and ruined cars. Local firefighters, like Nils Rademacher, 21, were managing the traffic of bulldozers, small trucks and backhoes, while instructing drivers that roads farther into the river valley were blocked with trees or made impassable by fallen bridges.
“A lot of good cars crashed or got crushed,’’ said Maria Vazquez, who works in a nearby auto repair shop. “I work with cars, so that’s sad, but I just hope that all the people are OK.”
The water rose to flood the village in less than two hours on Wednesday, and came halfway up the houses, Ms. Vazquez said.
The riverbanks were scenes of devastation, with crushed cars and thick tree stumps, while many of the cobbled streets were covered with mud and debris. Truckloads of broken furniture, tree branches and chunks of stone were being driven slowly over downed power lines.
The yellow road sign that tells drivers that they have entered Müsch was pulled out of the ground, laying bent and nearly adrift in the Trierbach River.
Mr. Stoffels said that he had no warning from the government, but that he rushed home from the retail store he manages nearby when a neighbor called. He was lucky, he said, since he has storage on the ground level and his living area is above that. The children’s playground next to his home, along the Ahr, was shattered, as was the main village electrical station, even before the bridge washed away.
He and his brother, who traveled 100 miles to help, and his friends, all wearing boots and muddy clothes, were trying to clean up as best they could. It helped, he said, that Müsch, in the Ahrweiler District of Rhineland-Palatinate close to the border with North Rhine-Westphalia, is farming country.
“Nearly everyone has a small tractor or a bulldozer of some kind,’’ he said. And it was true — the local firefighters were there, but there was little government presence, residents said. On Thursday, Mr. Stoffels said, “a couple of soldiers came for a time and a policeman looked around.”
Not far away, larger villages and towns were devastated, and more than 1,000 people are reported missing by the authorities.
Roger Lewentz, Rhineland-Palatinate’s interior minister, was unable to give an exact number of missing in his state.
“We do not yet know for sure whether some of them may be on vacation or simply unavailable. After all, the power and telephone connections are down in many affected locations,” he told Der Spiegel.
“There haven’t been floods like this here in 100 years,’’ said Sebastian Stich, 28, an office worker from nearby Barweiler who came to help his neighbors. “The bridges, the power, it’s all gone.’’
The floods devastating Europe have killed scores of people, leaving at least 1,300 missing, uprooting families, causing massive financial damage and reducing homes and cars to the state of floating bath toys.But it is not the first time the continent has been buffeted by a deluge. Here are some of the other major lethal floods and flooding caused by storms in recent years:
February and May 2014
A 7-year-old boy dead after falling ill in a flooded home in Surrey. A kayaker drowned on a swollen Welsh river.A coastal railroad ripped up by waves in Cornwall.In a matter of months in 2014, at least 5,000 houses in Britain were damaged in what was then seen as one of the rainiest seasons in nearly 250 years. While some blamed the flooding on the austerity measures of David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, others pointed to climate change. In May of that same year, the heaviest rains and floods in 120 years hit Bosnia and Serbia, killing at least 33 people, forcing thousands out of their homes, and cutting off power in 100,000 households in Serbia, as several months’ worth of rainfall fell in a matter of days.
Germany is no stranger to flooding. In Bitterfeld, in eastern Germany, some 10,000 people were asked to leave their homes in June 2013 after a levee on the Mulde River burst, amid some of the worst flooding that some German regions had seen in centuries. More than 600 residents of Dresden were brought to safety as electricity and water services to the city’s affected center were cut off. Chancellor Angela Merkel, now tested by the current flooding, showed her mettle at the time, touring three of the hardest hit areas to wade through ankle-deep floodwaters and visit victims of the flood.
The storm was called Kyrill by German meteorologists, and it spurred unrelenting rain in Britain, Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The howling gale churned through the British Isles and Northern Europe, uprooting trees, shattering windows, flooding beaches and forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights at airports from London to Frankfurt. According to the European Environment Agency, Kyrill killed 46 people and resulted in overall losses worth 8 billion euros. At the time, it was one of the most damaging extreme weather episodes ever recorded in Europe. The name Kyrill stemmed from a German practice of naming weather systems. Anyone may name one, for a fee, and three siblings had paid to name the system as a 65th birthday gift for their father, not realizing it would grow into a fierce storm.
Such was the deluge in Central and Southern Europe in 2005 that in the Alps, military helicopters were deployed to ferry in supplies, evacuate stranded tourists and even stranded cows in mountain pastures threatened by rising water. The floods left dozens dead. In Romania, which was badly affected by the flooding, victims were drowned as torrents of water rushed into their homes. Austria, Bulgaria, Germany and Switzerland were also buffeted by the flooding. The scenes of devastation were visceral and shocking. The Aare River broke through the windows of a children’s clothes shop in Bern, leaving baby strollers and toys floating in muddy water. Much of the historic old city of Lucerne remained underwater. Meanwhile, in southern Poland, rivers broke their banks and at least seven bridges collapsed.
In 2002, some of the worst rains since 1890 pelted the Czech Republic, putting part of the historic center of Prague underwater and resulting in 50,000 residents being ordered to evacuate, as rivers swelled by near constant rain. The death toll from the floods, which ravaged East and Central Europe, including Germany and Austria, and southern Russia, was more than 110. The flooding caused billions of dollars worth of damage. The floods helped propel Germany’s chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to re-election because of his management of the crisis. In Austria, the Salzach River burst its banks south of Salzburg and threatened to inundate the city at the height of its famous summer festival, forcing the authorities to close most bridges and major roads. Floodwaters rose in Hungary and Germany, and in northern Austria the authorities halted river traffic on parts of the Danube.
Was the flooding caused by climate change?
Tying a single weather event to climate change requires extensive attribution analysis, and that takes time, but scientists know one thing for sure: Warmer air holds more moisture, and that makes it more likely that any given storm will produce more precipitation.
For every 1 Celsius degree of warming, in fact, air can hold 7 percent more moisture.
On average, the world has warmed by a little more than 1 degree Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 19th century, when societies began pumping huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“Any storm that comes along now has more moisture to work with,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist with the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts. “That’s the straightforward connection to the increased frequency of heavy downpours.”
And, although it is still a subject of debate, some scientists say climate change might be causing storms to linger longer.
Some studies suggest that rapid warming in the Arctic is affecting the jet stream. One consequence of that, said Hayley Fowler, a professor of climate change impacts at Newcastle University in England, is that the river of wind is weakening and slowing down at certain times during the year, including summer. And that, in turn, affects weather systems farther south.
“That means the storms have to move more slowly,” Dr. Fowler said. The storm that caused the flooding was practically stationary, she noted.
The combination of more moisture and a stalled storm system means a lot of rain can fall over a given area.
Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, one of the primary scientists with World Weather Attribution, a group that quickly analyzes specific extreme weather events to see whether they were made more likely, or not, by climate change, said the group was discussing whether they would study the German floods.
Beyond the speed of a weather system and its moisture content, there are many factors that affect flooding that can make an analysis difficult. Local topography has to be taken into account, as that can affect how much runoff gets into which rivers.
Human impacts can complicate the analysis even further. Development near rivers, for instance, can make runoff worse by reducing the amount of open land that can absorb rain. Infrastructure built to cope with heavy runoff and rising rivers may be under-designed and inadequate.
An increasingly hot, dry and deadly summer has gripped much of the Western United States, with heat claiming lives in the Pacific Northwest and Canada in record numbers, and a deepening drought threatening water supplies — all of which is setting the stage for another potentially catastrophic fire season in California and neighboring states.
A fourth major heat wave was forecast to roast parts of the region again this weekend. It comes two weeks after a record-shattering spate of high temperatures — which scientists said would been virtually impossible without climate change — killed hundreds of people in the United States and Canada.
A week ago, Death Valley hit a 130-degree high, matching a reading from last year that may be the highest reliably recorded temperature on earth. Also this past weekend, Las Vegas tied its record high, 117 degrees, and Grand Junction, Colo., topped its previous record, hitting 107 degrees.
At least 67 weather stations from Washington State through New Mexico have recorded their hottest temperatures ever this summer, the National Weather Service said this week. Those records stretched back at least 75 years.
The heat helped drive the rapid growth of a wildfire in southern Oregon, known as the Bootleg Fire, that has burned more than 240,000 acres — about a third the size of Rhode Island, America’s smallest state. The fire, the largest of dozens across the West, has destroyed about two dozen homes, threatens 1,900 more and has set off a wave of evacuations.
The fire also burned across a power line corridor that serves as a major contributor to the electrical grid in California, where officials have issued warnings this week asking residents to conserve power by turning up their thermostats and turning off appliances, or risk rolling blackouts.
One part of the West saw some relief from the crushing heat this week, as monsoon rains fell on the Southwest, including New Mexico and Arizona. But the result was yet another disaster: flash flooding that left some city streets in Arizona awash in muddy water and propelled a torrent of water through part of the Grand Canyon, washing away a camp where about 30 people on a rafting trip were spending the night, killing one.
As the Earth warms from climate change, heat waves are becoming hotter and more frequent. “And as bad as it might seem today,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, recently told The New York Times, “this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”
A breach in the dike along the Juliana Canalin the southern Netherlands on Friday was closed by the Dutch military by dumping hundreds of sandbags into the growing hole. Hours before, thousands had been told to evacuate after the dike was breached along thecanal, a 22-mile waterway that regulates the Meuse River.
The river’s water level is at heights not witnessed since 1911, the Dutch national broadcaster NOS reported.
That is no small thing is a water-logged country where taming water has been a matter of survival for centuries and the imperative to keep levels under control is inextricably bound up with Dutch identity.Much of the country sits below sea level and is gradually sinking. Climate change has also exacerbated the twin threats of storms and rising tides.
Residents of the villages of Brommelen, Bunde, Geulle and Voulwames were ordered to evacuate immediately, after initially being told to move to higher floors in their homes. About 10,000 people live in the area.
The local authorities said there was “a large hole” in the dike, prompting fears that the entire area would be flooded. While parts of the area were flooded, a disaster was averted after the breach was closed. NOS said the dike was still unstable and continued to be monitored.
Upriver, near the city of Venlo, evacuations were ordered for whole neighborhoods and surrounding villages, in total10,700 people and 7,100 houses, the municipality said in a tweet. People have until 6 p.m. local time to leave their homes.
Record water levels are moving through the Meuse River, prompting evacuations andfresh inspections of dikes along the river that empties into the North Sea. The river is a key waterway for European shipping connections.
Following flooding in recent decades, the Dutch authorities have designated special areas that can be flooded with excess water when critical levels are reached.
The Netherlands has so far been spared much of the death and destruction that this week’s flooding has caused in Germany and Belgium. But in Valkenburg, a city in the south of the Netherlands with about 16,000 residents, damage was severe. Hundreds of houses were without power, and the center of the city was flooded.
“The damage is incalculable,” Mayor Daan Prevoo of Valkenburg told the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper. He predicted that repairs would take weeks.
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In Liège, Belgium’s third-largest city, much of the early panic eased on Friday as residents said the waters of the Meuse river seemed to recede, at least a bit.
Fears that a major dam might break led the mayor to call for parts of the city to be evacuated late Thursday. But on Friday, people were allowed back, though they were told to stay away from the river, which was still lapping over its banks.
“The situation is now under control, and people can return to their homes,” Laurence Comminette, the spokeswoman for the mayor, said in an interview. “Of course not everyone can go back, because many homes have been destroyed. But there is no longer an imminent danger of more flooding.”
Georges Lousberg, 78, said he thought the crisis was largely over in the city. “It did not rain much today, and the weather is supposed to be better the rest of the week.”
He said there had been times when the Meuse was even higher, especially before walls were built along its banks. “The worst flooding was in 1926,” he said.
Prasanta Char, 34, a postdoctoral student in physics at the University of Liège, said he had been anxious about rain overnight after the mayor’s evacuation call.
He had gone looking to buy water, but had a hard time because so many stores were closed. He finally found a small convenience store in the shuttered city.
“It’s much worse in Germany, and a lot of the roads are shut and the trains are stopped,” he said, “I’m still a bit anxious about rain, but today it seems better.”
Forecasts predicting improved weather for Western Europe over the weekend offered some hope amid the deluge, potentially aiding search-and-rescue efforts in areas devastated by floods.
The heavy rain in Germany in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate was forecast to let up later Friday and over the weekend, after flooding left 1,300 people unaccounted for in the region. Emergency workers put sandbags in place to stem the rising waters in the region’s remote villages, like Schuld, where heavy flows of water washed away six homes and left more close to collapse.
On Saturday and Sunday, there is about a 20 percent chance of rain in that area, and temperatures are expected to rise above 70 degrees Fahrenheitwith partial sunshine later in the day, according to Weather.com. Conditions are likewise expected to improve in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, also in western Germany, where at least 43 people have died in the flooding.
Andreas Friedrich, a meteorologist for Germany’s national weather service, said that dry, sunny weather was likely over the next few days in the western states hit by floods. The weather service has issued a warning about possible floods in the touristy area of southeastern Germany, north of the Alps, over the weekend, but conditions are not expected to be as bad as they were in the western part of the country, he said.
In Belgium, the weather is also expected to clear up over the weekend. The Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium forecast only light rain in the hilly Ardennes region, which experienced heavy flooding over the past few days. In Liège, which was also hard hit, there was a 3 percent chance of precipitation on Saturday, according to the AccuWeather forecasting service.
Alex Dewalque, a spokesman for the meteorological institute, said water levels in the worst-hit parts of Belgium were already falling, making it easier for emergency workers to rescue stranded people and search for casualties. He said the coming days would be much drier and with warmer temperatures, and that there were no flood warnings.
More rain was expected in Switzerland’s northern Alps on Friday, however, and officials warned of more potential flooding in parts of the country. Lake Lucerne reached critical levels, forcing the closing of some bridges and roadways.
Sarah Schöpfer,a meteorologist at Switzerland’s Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss, said she expected rainfall over the affected areas of Switzerland to lighten.
“We expect that tonight the precipitation activity weakens further and tomorrow it mainly affects the eastern Swiss Alps (mainly regions that did not get the highest amounts of rain during the last few days),” she said in an email. “So apart from the last showers today and tomorrow, the following days will be dry.”