It all began when a young woman, whom he called “Alia,” fled Afghanistan amid the deadly fallout from the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s takeover. She was one of the lucky ones — eligible to resettle in France.
But when she arrived at Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra air base, a stopover point where Afghans were processed by the French military and then flown to France, she encountered a problem. She was told 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 due to sanitary regulations.
Exhausted and defeated, Alia, whose real name has been withheld by the ambassador amid fears for her safety, began to cry — much to the concern of a military officer who alerted Chatel.
“The hangar in which this was happening was pretty much looking like a refugee camp,” Chatel told The Washington Post on Thursday, adding that the chaotic site was overrun with people, many who felt guilty for leaving their loved ones behind.
“We had kids arriving without parents, and parents without their kids,” he said.
“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 felt “moved” by Alia’s determination to take her bird with her out of Afghanistan, given the overcrowded scenes and dangerous Taliban checkpoints around Kabul airport.
“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.”
So, he 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,” Chatel recalled.
Chatel took in Juji on Aug. 26, a mere 24 hours before the end of Operation Apagan, the French military evacuation of nearly 3,000 French nationals and Afghan refugees from Kabul airport.
Even the journey back from the air base to the French residence had a touch of drama.
Juji, Chatel recounted on Twitter, tried to escape the car during the journey back, making a mess and pecking him when he tried to talk it out from under a seat.
“The fierce little fellow showed me that if he survived the Kabul airport, I was no match.”
Despite putting up a fight initially, Juji soon settled into his new home. In the mornings, he enjoys the cool breeze from the garden and interacting with other birds — one of which the ambassador suspects has become his girlfriend.
The dove, Chatel said, visits Juji every day. It even banged its head against the residence’s glass doors one day when trying to see Juji, who was inside.
Some types of mynas are known as talkers because they can imitate human language. As the bird became more settled, it began speaking in what appeared to be either Pashto or Dari, Afghan languages that the ambassador did not understand.
Chatel said he tried to teach Juji some French words — much to the bird’s annoyance. However, the bird, which appeared skittish around men, happily bonded with women at the French residence, including the one managing it.
One day, Juji changed his tune, saying “bonjour,” or hello in French, when prompted by the manager.
It “went straight to my heart,” said the ambassador of the bird’s French greeting. He later also managed to bond with Juji by playing music for him.
Now, he says, the bird has come to symbolize efforts by the French Embassy in Abu Dhabi to save Afghans during those harrowing weeks. When Chatel hosted a reception for his staff at the end of Operation Apagan to thank them, he put Juji’s cage on a table in the center of the room and told everyone the bird’s story.
The evacuation involved about 40 embassy staff working 24/7 in shifts, the ambassador said, processing hundreds of refugees arriving on three aircraft a day.
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 added.
On social media, people celebrated the feel-good story, praising Chatel for keeping his promise to the young refugee and offering some hope amid a time of widespread destruction and uncertainty.
“I was really struck by the reaction to this story, because it was just a few tweets, and literally millions of people saw it,” said Chatel, who added that he received hundreds of messages from people giving him advice on cages for Juji.
“Looking at all these comments and all these thousands of people who got interested in this little story, I just thought, people are in need of humanity,” Chatel said.
He hastened to add: “I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t have a job. I’m not a bird carer, I have a job as an ambassador.”
As of July, Afghans are the second-largest refugee population in the world, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which estimates that around 2.5 million people have fled the country.
As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August, French President Emmanuel Macron and dozens of the country’s mayors vowed to help Afghan refugees, although the government did not specify a precise number of people it would take in.
While Chatel appears to be enjoying his new pet, which he called the embassy’s “new mascot,” he said he hopes to personally reunite Juji and his real owner soon.
This month, Alia, whose age Chatel estimates is between 18 and 20, found him on Twitter. He has sent her photos of Juji, 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.’ ”