'She had fought all the way at Kabul airport, to bring the treasured little thing with her.'
Amid the torrent of heartbreaking news coming out of Afghanistan since the Taliban's takeover, an unusual tale involving a French ambassador, a young Afghan refugee and her pet bird stood out as a rare beacon of hope. Xavier Chatel, the French ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, took to Twitter a few months ago to share a story he had "been meaning to tell for a while." In a series of now-viral tweets, Chatel recounted how he'd come to be in possession of the bird. It all began, he explained, when a young woman—whom he called "Alia"—fled Afghanistan amid the deadly fallout from the U.S. withdrawal and arrived at Abu Dhab's Al Dhafra airbase.
There is a story I have been meaning to tell for a while. During the Afghan evacuation operation, a girl arrived at Al Dhafra airbase, exhausted, with an unusual possession: a bird. She had fought all the way at Kabul airport, to bring the treasured little thing with her.— Xavier Chatel (@Xavier_Chatel_) October 5, 2021
Alia, one of the lucky few eligible to resettle in France, was at the stopover point—where Afghans were processed by the French military and then flown to France—when she encountered a problem concerning someone very close to her heart. She was informed that her pet bird, a myna named Juji that she had fought to get out of Afghanistan with her, could not accompany her on the flight to France due to sanitary regulations. Faced with the prospect of parting with her beloved companion in an unknown land, Alia (whose real name has been withheld due to fears for her safety) began to silently cry.
During that heavy fortnight at the base, I was sleeping 2 or 3 hours a day, so intense was the evacuation organization. On a dizzy interlude I took Juji - the bird's name - to the French residence. This energetic little mynah escaped his box and made a big mess in the car.— Xavier Chatel (@Xavier_Chatel_) October 5, 2021
"The hangar in which this was happening was pretty much looking like a refugee camp," Chatel told The Washington Post. "We had kids arriving without parents, and parents without their kids. In the midst of this, this military woman comes to me and she says, 'Sir, we have a clandestine.' I was like, 'Okay, that's a problem.' So I go to see the clandestine, and they bring me this cardboard box in which there was a slit, and in the slit I could see the golden eyes of the myna." Chatel said he was moved by Alia's determination not to abandon her bird in Afghanistan, given the overcrowded scenes and dangerous Taliban checkpoints around Kabul airport.
He hid beneath the seat and wouldn't budge. When I tried to talk him into coming back, the fierce little fellow showed me that if he survived the Kabul airport, I was no match.— Xavier Chatel (@Xavier_Chatel_) October 5, 2021
"Through all this, she had kept this cardboard box and this bird like a treasure with her. Of course, she was so sad not to be able to take him to France... I just thought that this entire experience had already been so cruel on this girl and on so many other people that it would be heartless to add an additional and unnecessary cruelty," he said. Chatel decided to step up and offered to take in the yellow-beaked creature at the French residence. "I won't forget her look of desperate gratefulness," he said. Chatel took Juji under his wing on August 26, a mere 24 hours before the end of Operation Apagan, the French military evacuation of nearly 3000 French nationals and Afghan refugees from Kabul airport.
I tried a few minutes every day to teach him 🇫🇷 words, starting with "Bonjour", but the thing is: Juji doesn't like men. He frowned at me and looked angrily, while he giggled at females. I went on trying hopelessly my daily "Bonjour" - but sure enough he wouldn't listen.— Xavier Chatel (@Xavier_Chatel_) October 5, 2021
Although he initially put up a fight over the change of humans, Juji soon settled into his new home. "I bought him a nice cage, fed him, took him out in the cool mornings so he could see other birds. He has a girlfriend now - a dove that visits him every day. So he loosened and started, at night, to say mysterious things, in a language we couldn't understand. He spoke!" Chatel tweeted. He then began trying to teach Juji some French words, starting with "bonjour." After days of what seemed like a pointless effort, Juji changed his tune one day. "One day, the female manager of the French residence sent me this 'Bonjour' that went straight to my heart," Chatel tweeted.
Today, from Paris, the bird's owner, "Alia", found me on Twitter. She was so happy to see her bird thus cared for. She wanted me to teach him 🇫🇷. Alia, your bird has become the embassy's mascot, but he is here for you, and if I can, I'll take him personally to you one day.— Xavier Chatel (@Xavier_Chatel_) October 5, 2021
Now, Chatel revealed, the bird has come to symbolize efforts by the French Embassy in Abu Dhabi to save Afghans during those harrowing weeks. When he hosted a reception for his staff at the end of Operation Apagan to thank them, Chatel put Juji’s cage on a table in the center of the room and shared the bird's story with them all. The operation "was hard [for the staff] but it was also great as a collective human experience, and the bird became a bit of an emblem of that," Chatel said. With the Twitter thread about Juji going viral, Alia—who is believed to be between ages 18 and 20, found Chatel on Twitter. When he shared photos of Juji with her and reassured her that she could "come any time to see him and collect him," she sent him a "moving" reply: "She told me, 'In this evacuation, I lost everything. I lost my home, I lost my home country, I lost my life. But the fact that the bird is alive and so well-looked after gives me hope to restore it.'"