Let us hope the sentence of life without parole handed down today allows the victims and their families to breathe a little easier. Their courage should inspire us to rise to the challenge that faces us now, writes Abbas Nazari.
March 15, 2019 is a day I’ll remember forever. I remember reading about how our brains recall the tiny details of traumatic experiences. The time, place, weather, colours, facial expressions; the details that escape us when we try to recall everyday memories. Ask any Cantabrian what they were doing when the earthquakes struck, and they’ll recall in vivid detail the rumblings that jolted their lives.
It was a Friday afternoon. I’d flown in from Wellington that morning to spend some time with family and to catch the last of the summer sun trekking in Arthur’s Pass before winter cut the days short. Midway through lunch with my sister at Riccarton Mall, I received a news alert: “BREAKING: Reports of an active shooter in Christchurch. More to come”. My mind immediately drifted to a time in high school when we were placed in lockdown as there were reports of a man waving a gun close to school grounds. We remained inside our classrooms for the afternoon and chatted excitedly until the Armed Offenders Squad had given the all-clear. I didn’t think too much of the alert, and we got back to our conversation. A few minutes later, I received another alert that the shooter had targeted a mosque in Riccarton. I froze. A flood of questions came to mind at once.
New Zealand doesn’t have shootings – surely this can’t be real?
Where was my little brother? Friday lunchtime is a classic time to skip school, and I know Mostafa and his friends would be hanging around Riccarton.
We quickly made for the car. I was driving and as we turned toward Hagley Park, I saw a convoy of police cars and ambulances screaming down Deans Ave. They were heading towards Al Noor mosque.
I’d been inside the mosque once before when we first arrived in Christchurch in 2001. One of the English tutors at my dad’s language school took us there for a cultural festival. I remember the cream carpet and the wood panelling, with neat arches on one wall. The Canterbury primary school winter sports league was held across the road at Hagley Park, and for several years, the school bus unloaded us in front of Al Noor. The mosque’s golden dome gleaming in the crisp winter afternoon as schoolchildren in colourful uniforms from across Canterbury gathered for sports.
I got to Deans Ave to a row of police cars blocking the road, and a man rolling out caution tape. I got out of the car, told my sister to get home and that I’d see her later. The police were on full alert, rifles in hand, listening intently to the radio receiver strapped to their shoulders. There was a small crowd of bystanders, many of whom had received the same news alert. I spoke with Somalian friends who I’d met plenty of times on the soccer field. I saw an Egyptian girl who I recognised from high school. At this point, there were no confirmed deaths and no idea of the carnage that had unfolded. Everyone was glued to their phones. During any abnormal event when facts are thin, rumours begin to spread like wildfire.
“There are multiple shooters.”
“My friend is at the university and he says he heard a large explosion.”
“The hospital is under attack.”
Amid the fog of uncertainty, it is hard to cut through the chaos, making the shock of the moment all the more unsettling.
Slowly, people emerged from the direction of the mosque, from between cars, over fences and from behind hedges. Their faces were pale projections of terror, as if what they had seen had been imprinted in their eyes like they were watching a never-ending horror film.
To preserve the sanctity of the mosque, it’s customary to take off one’s shoes when entering, and so in their escape, many were barefoot. Of the groups of people that emerged, one man stuck out in particular. He was older and dressed in a white shirt which matched his silver beard. I looked down at his bare feet thinking they were coated in henna, the traditional ochre dye that some South Asians are fond of. I looked closer to see that it wasn’t henna, but blood. He had run through pools of blood, and his feet – up to the hem of his pants – were soaked in crimson.
Although no deaths had yet been confirmed, I knew then it would be a dark day to come.
There are many stories of grief and terror from that day, as the killer unleashed his reign of terror at a place and time when the victims should’ve felt most at peace. Fittingly, instead of focusing on the killer, the conversation focused on the lives of the victims. They were teachers, students, social workers, and loved family members. Every one of them contributed to the fabric of New Zealand, either born here or rebuilding a new life at the bottom of the world. The youngest victim was only three years old.
In the days and weeks that followed, we heard from the survivors, such as the magnanimous Farid Ahmed, and the uplifting message of togetherness by the imam of Al Noor mosque, Gamal Fouda. I did not lose any family members that day. But Hajji Daoud, a 71-year-old Afghan who was killed as he welcomed the gunman with the words “hello brother”, was one of our earliest friends when we arrived in Christchurch as refugees in 2001.
Watching the injured and the families of those slain, deliver their victim impact statements this week, I was in awe of the courage on display. Many spoke of how hard it had been to breathe since the attacks. I hope that the whole of life sentence will allow them to breathe a little easier. We must continue to support the families and communities who will continue to bear the true weight of this tragedy.
As we move forward, let us not underestimate the scope of the challenge facing our societies today. Identarian and white supremacy movements are spreading from the dark corners of the internet to the real world, with deadly consequences. The extremist who massacred 77 people in Norway inspired the Christchurch killer, who was himself referenced in the manifesto of the gunman who killed 22 people (mostly Latinos) in Texas just a few months later. It is up to us to tackle the challenge of white supremacy to ensure a tragedy such as March 15 doesn’t happen again.
We can do this by electing leaders that are focused on a politics of unity, not ones who peddle division or conspiracies about this tragedy.
We can do this by looking out for the young men who are likely to be radicalised online.
We can do this by reading the forthcoming report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attacks.
While media attention will inevitably move on and Cantabrians will pick themselves up as we’ve always done, the real work begins now. The horror and torment of the day will be with us for a long time to come, but let us also remember the aroha and compassion that brought everyone together on that fateful day.
Abbas Nazari, from Christchurch, is a Fulbright New Zealand scholar in the Security Studies programme at Georgetown University, Washington DC