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A tribute near Al Noor mosque, March 17 2019. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
A tribute near Al Noor mosque, March 17 2019. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

SocietyMarch 18, 2019

As NZ Muslims prepare to bury loved ones, some wait still for the dreaded news

A tribute near Al Noor mosque, March 17 2019. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
A tribute near Al Noor mosque, March 17 2019. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

After the terrorist atrocity in Christchurch, supporters including Sikhs are rallying around the Muslim community to ensure bodies can be buried as quickly as possible. Madeleine Chapman reports from Christchurch

On Sunday morning the roads were reopened. The mound of flowers at the corner of Deans Ave and Riccarton Rd, perched as close as the cordon would allow to Al Noor Mosque, had been cleared overnight to allow traffic to flow steadily down the street, past Christchurch Hospital, where families waited to be told they could take their loved ones’ bodies home.

Early Sunday morning, police commissioner Mike Bush confirmed that 50 bodies had been recovered from the two mosques. Next of kin had been notified.

Ahmed had been on his way to the mosque on Friday when he got a call from a friend telling him to turn around. “He said, ‘don’t come here, someone is firing.’ I thought he was joking but I stayed away.”

On Saturday night, Ahmed, who came to New Zealand from Egypt ten years ago, left Christchurch hospital still unsure of when he would see some of his friends again. He felt sure they had died but he hadn’t received confirmation. “We know there were six from Egypt at the mosque that day. But we aren’t sure, they only moved the bodies this morning.”

The wait had been excruciating. First there were promises of updates on Saturday morning, then noon, then evening. Many had expressed their frustrations to the police and visiting ministers. “It’s not an update, it’s just a quick pain relief. Then we wait again.”

The update they all sought was “the list”. Uttered throughout the day by mourning friends and families, “the list” referred to a confirmed accounting of victims’ names. When Ahmed drove home after 9pm on Saturday, he hadn’t seen any list.

At two o’clock on Sunday morning, an unconfirmed list was shared with the Muslim community by an Imam. A confirmed list is not expected to be made public until all formal identification processes have been completed.

For some, it was the first confirmation that their loved one, or loved ones, had died.

Speaking to media early on Sunday evening, deputy police commissioner Willy Haumaha said that their “full focus” was on “getting the dear loved ones back and to follow the cultural traditions such as the washing and shrouding of the loved ones”.

Islamic custom dictates that a person be buried within 24 hours of their death, after being washed and clothed. It is a collective effort undertaken by a number of family members and friends. By Sunday it had been 48 hours since the victims’ deaths, with the prime minister telling media that the returning of bodies to families would begin that night, estimating “all bodies will be returned to families by Wednesday”.

In such unprecedented circumstances, with as many as 50 people needing burial in the space of a week, a call for assistance was put out. Guru Nanak Free Kitchen, a volunteer page run by an Auckland Sikh community, asked its members if they could help with such tasks as “washing bodies”, “transportation of families and bodies to the cemetery”, and “digging graves”. The page received over 400 responses from Aucklanders willing to fly to Christchurch at a moment’s notice.

On Sunday, a group arrived and set up their seva camp. In Sikhism, seva refers to selfless service for altruistic purposes on behalf of, and for, the betterment of a community. They had visited the community centre where friends and families of those at the hospital were based, and introduced themselves as volunteers offering up their services. Kunal Bhalla, one of the members, said the camp was there to provide “food and transportation in Christchurch, temporary shelter, emergency clothing, blood donation, and financial help with repatriation and or funeral services.”

It is typical for Muslims to be buried near to their place of death. But many of the victims’ families live overseas and wish to bury them in their homelands. Friends of the deceased spent the weekend acting as mediators between distressed families back home and officials in Christchurch.

While a formal decision hadn’t been made yet, Ahmed suspected those who had moved to Christchurch from Egypt who’d died would be returning to their families. “They’ll want to take them home to Egypt. There are six from Egypt, I know them all, they’re all friends,” he said. “I won’t go with them but we will be praying here for them and doing things here.”

He wasn’t sure who would pay for the returning of the bodies, but didn’t expect the New Zealand government to fund it. “It’s very expensive, I think maybe the Egyptian government would pay for it.”

On Sunday afternoon, having seen the list, Md Mehedi was organising for two of his friends to be flown home to Bangladesh. Mohammad Omar Faruk, 36, was killed on Friday. He was in New Zealand on a work visa and expecting a child later this year. His wife, whom he married last year, was living back home in Bangladesh. There was no question as to where he would be buried.

Mehedi and his two friends hadn’t thought much about the cost of repatriation. “The New Zealand government has these funds to send anybody back to their home country so that is not the problem,” said one. Mehedi added, “otherwise the Bangladeshi government will help.”

The prime minister announced on Sunday evening that the families of those killed would each receive a funeral grant of $10,000, regardless of whether the family lived in New Zealand or abroad. The cost of flying a body overseas has been reported at between $10,000 and $15,000.

For some, the waiting continues. Not only was Mehedi focused on returning four friends’ bodies, he was searching for another. A fifth friend, whom they knew was at Al Noor on Friday, had not been in contact since. “We know he was at the mosque that day. I’m almost 100% he has died and I don’t know why his name is not on the list and not on the injury list.”

Mehedi had spoken to the police and they were investigating, but he believed there were more names unaccounted for, and was waiting to be called on to identify his friend.

On Sunday evening Haumaha confirmed that at least four bodies were yet to be identified. Processes were under way, he said, and they were seeking to return bodies “as expediently as we can”.

When the bodies of those killed are returned to their families this week, there will be much still to do. Many hands will be required to complete the Muslim burial processes in as short a time as possible. Non-Muslim communities have extended their arms to help. Speaking for the Sikh community, Bhalla offered no hesitation. “Whatever their faith is, we are happy to follow that and do whatever we can.”

Mehedi wasn’t surprised to see non-Muslims signing up as volunteers. “We saw people at the centre volunteering. I expected the love from people, we know what the people here are like and we have seen the love.”

As Mehedi spoke, his friend received a phone call and motioned that they needed to go back to the hospital. As they walked back the way they came, Mehedi said, “We have seen the love. But right now we continue waiting.”

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