“My Photo Heroes”: an interview with journalist and Zaventem survivor Ketevan Kardava

On 22nd March 2016 special correspondent for the Georgian Public Broadcaster, Ketevan Kardava, was standing at the Brussels Airlines ticket desk at Zaventem Airport when two bombs detonated just metres away from her. In the minutes that followed, Kardava, miraculously unscathed, took twelve photographs of her fellow survivors, which were circulated internationally on social media and in the press. These iconic images quickly became synonymous with the terrorist attack on Brussels, and gave the world unparalleled insight into the nail bomb explosions and their victims. In an interview with Alexandra James, Kardava discusses her experience, the effect it has had on her since and the criticism she has received for taking the photographs.

“I was going to Switzerland, to Geneva, to cover Georgian-Russian international talks,” Ketevan Kardava explains during our conversation. “I missed the first flight. I was waiting for a call from my office and then I was trying to get some information about the second flight… It was just a chain of events which led to me being there at the time of the first explosion.”

On the morning of the 22nd March 2016, the departure hall of Zaventem Airport was crowded and bustling. Kardava recalls seeing people standing around, checking their flights and drinking coffee. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except perhaps for one thing: “When I looked to my right, I saw something black. It was a… I don’t know, a suitcase or some luggage. It was a bag and no-one was standing near it… I was thinking about it because the armed soldiers and police were walking around… When the police questioned me that day in the airport, I told them that maybe it [the device] was the suitcase.” I ask her whether they thought it was a possibility at the time. “It was possible, yes.”

We now know that the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers, but Kardava’s awareness of the unattended bag and the presence of armed soldiers and police serve to highlight the context of the attack and the prevailing tension in Brussels. Just four days earlier, Salah Abdeslam, a key player in the Paris attacks of November 2015, was arrested in Molenbeek, 11 miles from Zaventem Airport. For Ketevan Kardava, a journalist living in Brussels, this was all the more relevant: “The day before, I covered the Molenbeek story so these details were all around me… that’s why the first thing I thought was that it was a terrorist attack.”

The Brussels Airlines ticket desk where Kardava was standing was located directly in between where the two nail bombs were detonated. The closest (the second bomb) was just a few metres away. Fortunately, Kardava did not run from the site of the first explosion as this would have meant running directly towards the second bomb, which was detonated eight to nine seconds later.

“The second explosion was much stronger. The sound, the voice; I had never, never, never heard anything like it before.”
The explosions, which killed 11 people and injured over 100, left Kardava shaken but, incredibly, without injury.

“The most shocking moment for me was that I was standing and looking seconds before and there were so many people, and in one minute, less than one minute, I was looking in the same direction and… nobody was standing there. Nobody. Everything had changed.”

After the second explosion, Kardava tells me she ran to a photo booth where she sought shelter from debris falling from the ceiling. She spotted a Japanese woman nearby, uninjured but clearly in shock, who she dragged into the booth with her. “I think we were standing for maybe one minute, maybe one minute and a half. Everything was very quick. And then… we were waiting for the third blast.” Kardava had correctly assumed that there would be a third bomb but, fortunately, it failed to detonate and was later neutralised by the bomb squad after evacuation. While taking cover in the photo booth Kardava also assumed, fortunately incorrectly, that the bombs would be followed by gunfire: “Maybe terrorists will come with their Kalashnikovs and kill us,” she remembers thinking, “because everyone is talking about it…. we remember what happened in Paris.”

It was at this point inside the photo booth, precisely five minutes after the bombs had been detonated, in shock and believing that she was about to be shot, that Kardava reached for her iPhone and started to take the now all too familiar photographs that would illustrate to the world what occurred at Zaventem that morning.