Harrowing

The story of the women in this dramatic photo from the attacks in Brussels

“It felt like my duty to use every single second that I was in that airport. To take pictures and show the face of terrorism to the world.”

Women injured by blasts during a terror attack at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem, Belgium, on Tuesday, March 22, 2015. (Ketevan Kardava/Facebook)

It’s a photo that was seen round the world: two women, both bloodied and covered in dust, sitting with bewildered looks on their faces just minutes after two deadly blasts on Tuesday rocked the Brussels airport. One of the women pictured, as well as the woman who took the photo, have now spoken out about their horrifying experience.

Ketevan Kardava, a journalist for Georgia’s public broadcaster, told Belgian newspaper De Standaard that she was waiting to check in for her flight to Geneva when the first explosion occurred. Less than a minute later, a second “much more powerful” explosion happened and she saw “smoke and dust, glass and doors flying around, people laying on the floor, many of them without legs.” That’s when she decided to take cover in a small photo booth, pulling in an older woman along with her. After just a minute, she thought the attacks “were over” and, rather than run away, immediately pulled out her iPhone and started taking pictures. “I needed to report first,” she explained. “It felt like my duty to use every single second that I was in that airport. To take pictures and show the face of terrorism to the world.”

The first thing she saw were those two women sitting on the seats — one of them with a ripped yellow jacket, one shoe missing and blood running down her face. “She was in shock, speechless,” Kardava told Time. “There was no crying, no shooting. She was only looking around with fear.” The woman has since been identified as Nidhi Chaphekar, a Jet Airways employee, who has been hospitalized and was undergoing surgery according to the Times Of India. Her family stayed glued to the television once they found out she was hurt in the blast, but have not been able to talk to her yet. “For the whole day we did not have any information. All they told us was she is safe,” Rupesh Chaphekar, Nidhi’s husband, told the newspaper. “But how do I know if they are not just giving us false hopes? I just want to hear her voice once. Only the airline’s base manager is contacting us with information. We are not able to get through any of the helpline numbers.”

The woman next to Chaphekar in the photo, seen talking on the phone with a bloodied hand while clutching her neck, has been identified as Stefanie Hoeilaart, a Belgian woman who was on her way to Haiti for an assignment with Doctors Without Borders. “I could never have imagined that I would be featured on the front pages in this way,” she told Belgian public radio station Radio 2. She explained that she was standing by a Starbucks in the departure hall going through her backpack when the first explosion happened. “At first, I did not realize that a bomb had gone off. I saw people starting to run, but that didn’t feel right to me, I was afraid the terrorists might come and shoot everyone with their kalasjnikovs, so I hid under those seats. It felt safer than just running along with the crowd. I covered my ears and head, and right then the second blast occurred.”

“When I saw the soldiers, I knew everything was over. My mother had dropped me off at the airport and I wanted to let her know right away that I was safe. I felt my head and was surprised to see that my hand was covered in blood and wondered why I was bleeding so profusely. That’s why the photo shows me pushing my hand against my head, to stop the bleeding” she told Radio 2. “Right after that call, my Doctors Without Borders instincts surfaced and I started helping people around me. The woman sitting next to me [Chaphekar] was very badly hurt, so I made sure she was in a comfortable position and pinched off her leg which was in a pretty awful state. I saw incredible havoc around me, so I did the same for other people too. I mostly saw heavily injured people, whose face or limbs had been badly hurt by parts of that nail bomb.” Hoeilaart remained defiant, however, and said in the interview that she hopes to return to work soon. “Right now I need some time to let all of this sink in. I will need to do whatever’s necessary to give this a place, but I am already talking to Doctors Without Borders to plan my return to Haiti.”

Meanwhile, photographer Kardava hasn’t stopped working, continuing to report on the terrorist attacks from Brussels for Georgian television. “Yesterday, I was way too busy to even think about myself. I was talking the entire time. But when I went home at night, the memories surfaced and I was in shock. This morning, as I looked in the mirror, I did not even recognize myself,” she told De Standaard. “It’s hard to explain, but I saw a different person, someone who went through something momentous. I suddenly realized that I came very close to the moment where I would never see my daughter, who is 15 and lives in Tbilisi, again. I survived, but can barely believe it. I called her up in tears.”

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