Brussels attacks victim Nidhi Chaphekar testifies in court
Nidhi Chaphekar, the victim of the 2016 Brussels terror attacks whose picture appeared on front pages around the world, testified in court on Tuesday. The Indian flight attendant told her story "to close this chapter once and for all".
"I want to tell what I saw, what I felt and what my family went through," Chaphekar told the Brussels courtroom. Her testimony is part of the trial into the 2016 Brussels terror attacks, which has been ongoing in Belgium since December 2022. Ten defendants are on trial for the attacks, which left 32 people dead and around 340 injured.
The flight attendant became a victim of the two explosions at Brussels Airport on the morning of 22 March 2016. Later the same morning, another explosion occurred at the Brussels metro station of Maelbeek. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, a picture of an injured Chaphekar circulated around the world. The image of the shaken 'woman in yellow' came to symbolise the horror of the attacks.
'You have to get up'
"I was working for Jet Airways, flying was my passion and I used to come to Brussels regularly," said Chaphekar, now 47. On 22 March 2016, she was supposed to report to the airport at 08:00, but arrived early as she was the head of the flight. When the first explosion occurred at 07:58, she saw "something flying up, all smoke and colours and smaller pieces coming down". "I wanted to go and help, but my colleague pulled me back. I saw the crowd coming towards me, I heard crying, people were restless, I was afraid we were going to be trampled".
Just before the second explosion, Chaphekar tried to run, but it was too late. "The explosion felt like a ball of fire falling on me. The sound was terrible and damaged my ears, and the light was like a lightning bolt in my eyes."
"I lost consciousness and thought of my son, who had an exam that day. 'You have to get up,' I told myself, 'you have to let your family know you are alive. When the woman finally opened her eyes, she could see nothing through the smoke. She tried to get up, but her legs did not work and she started calling for help. "Someone shouted, 'Come on miss, get up' and this person put me on a chair. That's where the photo was taken that went around the world." The image of the woman was also shown in court on Tuesday.
After the explosion, all Chaphekar could think about was contacting her family in India. The family eventually found out there had been an explosion, but it took 10 hours to find out which hospital the flight attendant was in. When they arrived, they were told that Chaphekar's situation was worrying. "When he saw me in the hospital, my husband started crying, he was in shock," she said. "He told my family that I was in a deep sleep."
Closing the chapter
After 23 days, Chaphekar awoke from her coma. "My husband was allowed to enter my room, but he left immediately. He saw someone with no hair, scars and wounds. He thought I was someone else and told the nurse that he wanted to see his wife. At first, Chaphekar did not recognise her husband either. Eventually her memory returned, but she still has gaps in her memory.
Chaphekar then spent another 100 days in hospital in India. "The attack has had a psychological, mental, financial and social impact," she said. "I still have my legs, but I have scars and itching. I limp because one leg is shorter than the other, which causes problems with my knee, back and shoulders. I have tinnitus, which gives me headaches, and too little pressure in my left ear. I also have metal pieces all over my body, including in my eye."
The financial impact on the flight attendants was also severe. "You have to be beautiful to fly in India. When my company was still around, I could work on the ground, but now I can't. Nobody wants to employ me anymore. They think maybe I'm mentally weak and can't be 100%," says Chaphekar. "People ask: why don't you do something else? But it's hard to hear that every time. I'm not responsible for what happened, but people don't care.
Chaphekar ended her testimony by thanking those present for their willingness to listen. "What I have told you comes from the heart. I don't talk about this to anyone, only my husband knows my story. I don't want everyone to think that I suffer. I am suffering, but it is important to close this chapter.
Nidhi Chaphekar, victim of the 2016 Brussels terror attacks, after giving testimony at the Brussels-Capital Assizes Court on 7 March 2023 © BELGA PHOTO LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ