Exhausted families spilling out of overcrowded planes, carrying their last worldly possessions. Children missing both their shoes. Grown men and women sobbing hysterically after losing their loved ones in the crush at Kabul Airport.
These were the scenes that Xavier Chatel, French Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, came out to greet three times a day for a fortnight on the tarmac of Al Dhafra airbase.
From August 17 to August 27, France evacuated around 2,600 at-risk Afghans from their country of birth after the Taliban swept through Kabul and back into power.
The 40-strong French diplomatic team at the airbase south of Abu Dhabi worked around the clock to support the often traumatised Afghan citizens, none of whom are likely to ever see their homes again.
Amid the tumult, though, the French Ambassador also somehow became the custodian of an unusual arrival: a mynah bird named Juji, brought to the UAE on one of the 26 evacuation flights in the arms of a young Afghan woman who is now safe in Paris.
On Tuesday, for the first time, Chatel publicly shared the story of how Juji went on to become the French Embassy’s official mascot and learned to say “Bonjour” – and how its former owner miraculously got back in touch with him again this week.
The story went viral on social media, as a rare instance of joy in a time of untold human suffering. Speaking to Euronews, Chatel said: "I thought there was something magical to it.”
Rapid-fire decisions as the Taliban swept in
The French military operation in Afghanistan ended in 2012. Unlike many other nations, France had started evacuations early.
Anticipating that the final withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan – agreed in principle in February 2020, and with the final deadline set in April 2021 – would not go to plan, the country had already repatriated 1,400 citizens and allies before the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover in mid-July.
Those still inside when Kabul fell on August 15 were mostly Afghans who had worked with French military and diplomatic missions over the past two decades.
Xavier Chatel had only become French Ambassador to the UAE in December 2020. Prior to this posting, he served for three years in the private offices of the French Defence Minister.
The UAE was asked to be France’s point of transit, he said, because of the “excellent” relations between the two countries; the authorities immediately accepted when the request was put to them on August 12 or 13.
Trauma at Al Dhafra airbase
A total of 2,800 people – mostly Afghans but also around 200 French and dual-national citizens, people with connections to France, and at-risk individuals such as human rights activists – were evacuated by France in the two weeks after the Taliban’s return to power.
They arrived in the UAE in planeloads of 130 to 250 at a time, three to four times a day. The French team assessed their needs, signposting them to medical and psychological support.
They also provided food, water, clothes and even new shoes to the fleeing Afghans before they were taken to Paris on larger, more comfortable planes.
“I could see how tired they were,” Chatel told Euronews. “Especially at the late stage of the operation, when they had spent a long time queueing at the airport: trying to get in, becoming dehydrated and being subjected to violence.
“They were also fearful that the tap would be turned off at some point, and they wouldn’t be able to get out. They were consumed by a sense of guilt for the ones they had left behind.”
The hardest thing about that fortnight, Chatel said, was being confronted by such an outpouring of personal distress.
One woman, he said, was crying uncontrollably on arrival. When he tried to comfort her, she told him: “The Taliban shot at us. I got scared. I got on [the plane]. I forgot my parents.”
“I thought it was such a hard thing to say,” Chatel said. “It was also such a hard thing to listen to.”
The Ambassador gave each group of new arrivals a briefing in the airport hangar, telling them where they were, how long they could expect to be there and the process they would be following. At each talk, a French-speaking Afghan from the crowd would be sought to translate for them.
One man, he said, had served as interpreter all day. “Then at the last sentence, his voice died in his throat. He couldn’t speak and he started sobbing.
"He’d left his son and his three daughters. He was just consumed by the worry and the guilt.”
A new guest at the French Embassy
One of those 2,800 bewildered arrivals was a young woman whom Chatel has chosen to call Alia. She had left everything she owned behind in Afghanistan, save for her beloved pet mynah bird.
For sanitary reasons, the bird was not allowed to board the plane to Paris. Seeing Alia's tears, a military officer brought her to the team, who agreed to take the creature into their care.
“During that heavy fortnight at the base,” Chatel wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, “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.
“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.”
Installed at the French residence in Abu Dhabi, well-fed, watered and taken on daily walks, Juji eventually began to speak – but not in a language that French officials could understand.
Every day Chatel tried to coax the bird into speaking French. Juji resisted – then finally burst into a chorus of “Bonjour” in the presence of the French embassy manager. She sent him a video of the bird’s greeting, Chatel wrote, that “went straight to my heart”.
Then out of the blue on Tuesday, October 5, Alia got in touch with him on Twitter. “I was debating internally how to find her,” Chatel told Euronews. “But she found me and asked me for news of the bird. She saw he was in good shape and was so happy.
“She told me that she had lost everything. She’d lost her country, her life, her possessions… everything. But the fact that her bird was still alive and well looked after gave her hope to start again.”
Looking back now, Chatel says he has nothing but pride for how both the French embassy in Kabul and the team in the UAE managed the evacuation during that horrendous two weeks.
“We did it as efficiently as we could," he said. "But more than anything, we did it projecting as much humanity as we could.”