12 months of upheaval, pain and pride: on watching New Zealand from afar

It is hard to remember a year in which New Zealand was so repeatedly in global headlines, writes Kamahl Santamaria, a Kiwi journalist based in Doha.

Time zones are a strange thing. You go to sleep, and then for eight hours or so, you miss out on everything happening on the other side of the world – just by virtue of the fact the earth turns while you snooze. Of course years ago this wasn’t a problem, but in our now-hyper-connected world the FOMO can take over.

But it’s even stranger when your home is on that other side of the world, because that first bleary-eyed scroll through Twitter at around 6am can result in some pretty rude awakenings.

And so it has been for the past 12 months. New Zealand – that “rugged individual, glistening like a pearl, at the bottom of the world” – has made global headlines in ways and in frequency it hasn’t before. I can’t imagine how challenging it’s been for all of you back home – but I assure you from where I sit, eight time zones westward, some of those 6am wake ups have been pretty jarring.

Grace Millane

It should have been a name the world never knew. Grace Millane should have come to New Zealand, enjoyed herself, and gone back to the UK when she was good and ready. Instead her parents had to repatriate her 21-year-old body after she was killed by a man whose identity, for some reason, is still protected. She became the unwitting poster-child for the threats faced by women everywhere, and though much has been made by the media and courts of her sexual preferences, that is absolutely no reason a bright young girl should have lost her life on our fair shores – or any shores, for that matter.

The #HerLightOurLove hashtag, although brief, was a lovely way to see people connect with Grace. Sunsets and sunrises filled my timeline, with people posting the most thoughtful and uplifting messages during a time of grief. Hashtags don’t always make a difference – they are symbolic by their very nature – but sometimes a sense of community is all we need.

There was also something incredibly moving about the way Jacinda Ardern addressed Millane’s death by saying, “On behalf of New Zealand, I would like to apologise to Grace’s family. Your daughter should have been safe here and she wasn’t and I’m sorry for that.”

In no way did she need to offer the apologies a nation for the actions of one man, but she did. As someone who has the job of reporting the news and views of the world’s leaders every day, I was struck by the compassion and and humanity she showed – qualities sadly missing in so many of her counterparts. Not only that, it reinforced our international reputation as a good and humble people.

Of course she didn’t know it then, but the prime minister was to face an even tougher test only three months later.

The Christchurch mosque attacks

On March 15, all I was looking forward to was, for the first time in seven years, seeing a friend from the BBC who was visiting Doha. I went to check her flight status, but instead the 6am social scroll said things like #PrayforChristchurch. My immediate thought was, “God not another bloody earthquake,” but it soon became apparent this event was going to be a very different challenge.

The mosque attacks were surreal to watch from afar. Because as we all “knew”, these things don’t happen in New Zealand. Only now, they do. One of my colleagues asked me, “Why would they attack a place like New Zealand?” And my simple answer was “because they can”. In hindsight our quiet little country, tucked away from the rest of the world, was an easy target.

But once again, we stepped up. I was so impressed by the many New Zealand reporters I saw not only on Al Jazeera but on many international news networks, telling the story calmly and clearly. The response from the public, who put love and inclusion over hatred and anger, was inspiring. And without wanting to turn this into a PR piece for Jacinda Ardern, her response was truly inspiring. Some world leaders ban Muslims from entering their country; our leader literally wrapped herself in their culture and embraced them. You don’t get your image projected onto the world’s tallest building for nothing.

It was a surprisingly cold afternoon in Doha that day, but as I welcomed my friend to the Middle East I proudly sat outside wearing my black New Zealand t-shirt. It was a tiny defiant stand from 14,000 kilometres away, against the cold evil winds that had swept through Christchurch. I shed tears for my country that day, but a lot of them were tears of pride.

The cricket world cup final

Is a sporting defeat worthy of consideration in this review? Of course it is trivial measured against tragedy, but we’re New Zealanders, it’s going in. And once again, it’s because of the way we – in this case, the team – conducted themselves.

I see no point in rehashing the details of the Black Caps agonising loss to England in the Cricket World Cup final. It’s up there with Emirates Team New Zealand’s loss in San Francisco in 2013, and the All Blacks’ knockout defeats in the World Cups of 1999 and 2007. We just don’t need to go there.

But the character shown by Kane Williamson and the team in not actually losing the match but still not winning the trophy was exemplary. I work with people from all over the world – 70 different nationalities at last count – and anyone with even a passing interest in cricket has massive respect for New Zealand, and the way we play the game.

Whakaari / White Island eruption

There’s been much disbelief about how this could happen, with many asking me, “why would you be visiting the crater of an active volcano?” A fair question, and one I didn’t really have an answer to. All I can remember of White Island is that it seemed to always be gently puffing away, and that it was pretty normal.

I think, in this instance, New Zealand and its leadership have reacted in a manner anyone would – with a commitment to recovering the bodies and to finding out what warnings were missed. Goodness knows by the end of this year, the police and political leaders should be well versed in how to keep the public informed and the media sated.

Maybe that’s the legacy of the past 12 months. An ability to react quickly to a crisis, and to do so both in an empathetic and humane manner, and in the the knowledge that the rest of the world is watching. Because there’s nowhere to hide in this world anymore – not even at the bottom of the South Pacific, where the only thing beyond you is ice.

I haven’t lived in New Zealand for nearly 20 years. But let me tell you, I’m still damn proud to be a Kiwi. And every event which has thrust the country onto the world stage this past year – even the ones which have left us hurt, confused, or desperate – has made me even prouder, because of the way people have responded.

Kia kaha New Zealand. #SoProud.


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