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3-year-old girl who died in Beirut chemical explosion becomes symbol of a tragedy

"I don't know why or how, but she has become a symbol of this tragedy," said Tracy Awad Najjar.
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They don't understand why their 3-year-old daughter's face has gone viral.

Their daughter, Alexandra Najjar, was one of the more than 170 people killed in the colossal chemical explosion that rocked Beirut, Lebanon's capital, on Aug. 4, injuring thousands and deepening Lebanon's political crisis.

"She was the first young child to die. She is not the youngest, but she was the first," said her mother, Tracy Awad Najjar.

"I don't know why or how, but she has become a symbol of this tragedy," she added.

Spunky, chatty and kind, Alexandra, or "Lexou," as she was called, is seen sitting on the shoulders of her father, Paul Najjar, and waving a Lebanese flag at an anti-government protest last fall in images that have been shared widely on social media in the two weeks since the blast.

Alexandra's face has become a rallying cry against what is seen as government incompetence and neglect that led to a warehouse fire that ignited 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizer and bombs, in Beirut's port.

Image: Alexandra Najjar
Alexandra Najjar was injured in the Beirut port explosion this month and died 72 hours later. Reuters

Her parents said that as a family, they frequently attended such demonstrations, calling for a change in the country's leadership and an end to sectarian politics.

It was a "happy moment," Paul said of the time the pictures were taken, adding that his daughter was having "fun."

The family lived less than a half-mile from the port in Gemmayzeh, a bustling neighborhood in the city's center known for its historic buildings, bars, restaurants and art galleries.

Their apartment normally was filled with the sound of Disney movie soundtracks. Alexandra was going through a princess phase, Paul said.

Just after 6 p.m. on Aug. 4, the blast shattered their big glass windows, throwing Tracy and Alexandra to the round. They hit their heads and passed out.

Paul, who was not in the apartment at time, rushed home. Injured himself, he grabbed his barely conscious daughter and joined the thousands of people making their way to the city's hospitals.

After hailing a motorcycle, they headed to St. George Hospital, not realizing that the emergency room had been mostly destroyed.

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An emergency room doctor turned them around before flagging down an ambulance. Climbing into the back of the ambulance with them, she administered oxygen to Alexandra.

"I don't know her name. I wish I would, to thank her again," Paul said. "It was mayhem."

On the way to the Hôtel-Dieu de France hospital, the doctor said Alexandra had a serious brain injury and was unlikely to make it, he said.

Image: Alexandra Najjar
The image of Alexandra Najjar sitting on the shoulders of her father, Paul, has been shared numerous times on social media. Reuters

They were trapped in traffic just blocks from the hospital, so a Red Cross worker took Alexandra from Paul's arms and ran inside, "bashing through the doors," he said.

"They tried to kill us," Tracy told her daughter. "Show them that you can be the miracle of this tragedy and wake up."

Alexandra died within 72 hours, with her parents by her bedside.

The Najjars buried their daughter last week in her favorite Snow White dress.

"She wanted to wear it all the time, so we thought that it would be good," said Paul, who had two bandages on his face. His wife had bruises below her eyes.

Both blame the government and the elite political class they protested against for their daughter's death.

"Imagine if, God forbid, there was the third-largest bomb in the history of the world placed in Central Park and nobody would do anything about it? And it just sat there for years?" Paul said.

Image: Alexandra Najjar
Alexandra Najjar, 3, sits on the shoulders of her father, Paul, at an anti-government protest in Beirut before the colossal chemical explosion this month.

The ammonium nitrate arrived in the fall of 2013 on a Russian-owned cargo ship, the Rhosus, en route from the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi to Mozambique, where it was to have been used as fertilizer. The ship was impounded for safety reasons because it was overloaded and listing, Boris Prokoshev, the captain at the time, said this month.

The ship's Russian owner, Igor Grechushkin, abandoned it, refusing to pay docking fees, and the ship was eventually seized by a court to sell to pay off the owner's debts. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the chemical stockpile had been stored at the port for six years without any "preventive measures" to protect it.

"We live in a country today that has its people and a ruling system, and there is no trust or faith in the ruling system — none at all," Paul said. "Who is going to investigate? Who is going to read the report? The same criminals that killed our daughter?"

Tracy, who has dual Canadian citizenship, said the Canadian consulate phoned them immediately offering condolences and assistance.

They have not heard from anyone in the Lebanese government. If nothing changes, they plan to leave Lebanon for good.

"We have lost a child. A home. And we're fighting," Tracy said. "So, guys, fight with us. Fight with us."