JIYYEH, Lebanon (AP) — When Mustafa Kinno felt the ground shake and heard the deafening blast toward the port, he frantically called his brother living nearby.
No reply. He tried a neighbor, who said the family was sitting outside their apartment across from the port when it exploded. Terrified, Mustafa ran more than two miles (four kilometers) to his brother, glass crunching under his feet.
When he arrived, first he spotted his niece Sedra’s head poking out of the rubble. He collapsed and crawled toward her but couldn’t move her. Then he found his younger niece, Hoda, slung her over his shoulder and started walking.
An image of the two, captured by Associated Press photographer Hassan Ammar, has come to symbolize the devastation of the Aug. 4 blast at the Beirut port, which took 193 lives and wounded 6,500. In the photo, a dust-covered Hoda, 11, holds her body stiffly against her uncle’s shoulder, a gash bleeding from her forehead, eyes half-closed and face set in a grimace.
The story behind the photo reflects the particular pain of Syrian refugee families like Hoda’s. At least 43 Syrians were among those who died in the explosion, plunging a war-weary community into further misery. Lebanon now hosts nearly one million Syrian refugees — about one in five people.
“It was always bad even before the explosion, but we were getting by,” said Mahmoud, the girls’ older brother. “Now, life is unbearable.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Ali Kinno, 45, moved from the Aleppo region of Syria to Lebanon in 2008 to find work, determined to provide a better life for his family. The residential tower facing the port was still under construction then, and he soon got a job as a concierge.
In 2011, after Syria’s civil war erupted, he fretted for his family’s safety. A year later, after northern Aleppo became a frontline, he asked them to join him in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon.
But the family never quite settled there. Syrian refugees faced resentment and discrimination — his daughter was harassed on the street, and his sons found it increasingly difficult to get jobs, he said. The situation got worse as the country’s economic crisis set in, culminating in a local currency collapse.
Ali was so protective and scared for his children, especially the two girls, that he didn’t let them go to school, despite Sedra’s pleas. Cooped up in their tiny apartment, the children grew closer. The girls became inseparable. Because their mom suffered back pain and asthma, they took care of the apartment, especially Sedra.
“She cooked, made tea, she looked after her younger brother Ahmad, gave him his bath. She was everything,” said Ali’s wife, Fatima, choking on the last sentence.
It was just after 6 p.m. on Aug. 4 when Ali Kinno asked his son Qoteiba to turn off the generator which provides electricity to their 20-floor residential building. He also asked 15-year-old Sedra to prepare the tea.
It was that time at the end of the day when the sun begins to soften, and Ali and his family sit outside the building where he works as a concierge, drinking tea and watching the highway that runs parallel to the port. Only this time, smoke was pouring out of the facility.
Sedra brought the tea and put it on a small table but didn’t pour it – the family was animatedly discussing the pink-tinged smoke. The flames grew bigger, and the fire began making popping sounds. A convoy of red fire engines, sirens screaming, zipped past on the highway.
Alarmed, Ali’s wife called for them to go inside the apartment. That’s when they heard the first explosion. But it was the second blast seconds later that seemed to lift the earth under the port and throw it in their direction.
“It was as if the port came to us,” says Ali.
In a flash, the middle-class neighborhood housing the headquarters of one of Lebanon’s most famous fashion designers turned to a hell on earth, tossing everyone and everything in the air and showering them with debris.
“Tiles, stones, aluminium, glass. Everything fell on us,” said Ali, who suffered a brain hemorrhage, several broken ribs, loss of vision in his left eye and damaged hearing in his right ear that day.
Sedra, who was standing near the entrance to the apartment, died instantly, pinned by tile cladding that rained down from the building. Hoda suffered a fracture in her neck and other injuries. Fatima fractured her spine, shattered a leg and could not move.
That was the scene Mustafa saw when he arrived from across town and carried Hoda away. Another of Ammar’s photos captured Sedra’s dead body, in a long flowered dress, carried by her older brother Qoteiba and brother-in-law Fawaz.
In the chaotic aftermath of the explosion, the Kinno family separated, each of them taken to a different hospital.
A man with a scooter offered to take Sedra to the hospital, and Fawaz jumped behind him with Sedra in the middle. But she was pronounced dead on arrival.
Mustafa put Hoda in an army vehicle that was ferrying the injured to the hospital. But the hospital was so overwhelmed with victims that they couldn’t operate on her neck and advised that he take her elsewhere. Eventually he took her in a taxi to a hospital in the Bekaa region, miles away.
Later that night, a Syrian man sat on the pavement in tears outside the hospital where Hoda was initially taken. He said one of his sisters was killed, another sister’s neck was fractured. He didn’t know where his injured mother and father were taken and was making calls trying to track them down. It was Mahmoud, Ali and Fatima’s eldest son.
He had been at his job as a foreman in Kfour, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Beirut. Unable to reach any of his family in the wake of the explosion, he sat in a taxi for 45 minutes to Beirut. When the traffic got blocked, he abandoned the car and ran the remaining few miles home.
“I saw people dead in their cars along the way… The more I saw the more I imagined something horrible has happened to the family,” he said.
That’s when Fawaz called him and broke the news that Sedra had died.
A month after the explosion, the family has been reunited in temporary shelter in an apartment south of Beirut. They are devastated, still getting treated for injuries and trying to make ends meet as the medical bills pile up.
Hoda, wearing a neck brace, barely speaks. She says she doesn’t remember the explosion and its aftermath.
Fatima, her mother, says Hoda is obsessed with watching video clips of the blast on social media. She wakes up several times at night, sometimes crying.
Fatima is dealing with her own demons.
“Everything scares me now, I see a door and imagine it will collapse on me,” she says, seated on a sofa with a bandaged leg and a back brace.
Mahmoud, the 21-year-old eldest brother, is saddled with responsibilities, now that his father has lost his job. With his own 4-year-old son to worry about, he says he is looking to smuggle himself out of Lebanon, joining others escaping poverty who recently began attempting to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.
“I don’t want to stay here another day,” he says.
The youngest child, 6-year-old Ahmad, was sleeping at the time of the blast, and miraculously escaped virtually unscathed even though the glass in the apartment shattered and his room was badly damaged. But he is now very quiet. He told his father that when the family gets well, they will go back home and bring Sedra.
Ali keeps going back in his mind to that moment when he lost control over his family’s life, feeling utterly helpless. Ten days after the explosion, he went to the building, stood in front of it and cried for his daughter.
“She was always in the kitchen. She loved to cook,” he said. “I imagined her there.”