One Question Quiz
MD Faysal and Tofazzal Alam. Photo: Toby Manhire
MD Faysal and Tofazzal Alam. Photo: Toby Manhire

SocietyMarch 29, 2019

‘One door between life and death’: Christchurch survivors at the remembrance service

MD Faysal and Tofazzal Alam. Photo: Toby Manhire
MD Faysal and Tofazzal Alam. Photo: Toby Manhire

Two survivors tell their stories of the mosque attacks and the days that followed, after watching the National Remembrance Service at Hagley Park.

MD Faysal survived the terrorist attack at Al Noor mosque. Tofazzal Alam survived the second shooting, minutes later, at Linwood mosque. The men, Muslim New Zealanders originally from Bangladesh, spoke to Toby Manhire at Hagley Park in Christchurch following the remembrance service on Friday morning, a fortnight on. Below, their accounts. (Transcript has been edited for clarity.)

MD Faysal: Today’s service was all about bringing the community together. Showing the love and compassion. The entire nation has been touched. It’s just amazing how people have come together. Not only in New Zealand. There were about 60 dignitaries from different countries. They showed us how they felt about what happened, and how they wish to help us.

Each and every person on that stage gave a powerful speech. It wasn’t just talk. They meant it from the bottom of their hearts.

Tofazzal Alam: We were here to show respect to the people who contributed during and after the incident. Jacinda Ardern stressed that New Zealand is a place for everyone. That’s something I’ll remember. She said, Asalamu Aleykum, which means “peace be upon you”. That’s really important. When I came to this country, people used to say Namaste to us. They thought we were Hindu. Now people are starting to say Asalamu Aleykum. That brings really good feelings.

The crowds at North Hagley Park for the National Remembrance Service. Photo: Supplied

MD Faysal: I entered Al Noor mosque just after 1.20pm. I went into the ablution room, off the side of the corridor. Ten seconds later I heard the sounds. I wasn’t sure what it was. It could have been a bomb blast. There was only one door out from that room. There were so many noises. As it continued I realised it was gunfire. I rang the emergency services. I was in panic, I was in trauma. Someone answered the call but I couldn’t at first speak. There was so much happening. The sound of gunfire. Broken glass as people escaped through windows. It was clear to me what was happening but I couldn’t see it.

I rang 111 again. They knew I was in the mosque, because of the sound. I tried to keep my voice very quiet, so that it did not go through the door. There was only one door between me and that guy. Between life and death.

The door had no lock. I used one hand to hold it closed, with the other I held my phone and talked to Police.

Tofazzal Alam: I was praying. At Friday prayer we do two rakat salat, that’s where we bow down our heads twice. We’d made the first one, and were preparing for the second. Then I heard a big noise. Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang. I thought it might be coming from the car park. I’d been the last person to park my car in the driveway. I thought at first maybe somebody hit somebody’s car, that there’d been a fight. But then I saw people falling down. I saw blood. People screaming, crying. I could smell the bullets.

I dropped to the ground. There was a boy next to me, around 11 or 12 years old. He said to me, “my father’s dying, my father’s dying.” I tried to hold him, keep him down. People who were trying to stand or run were getting shot. I called 111. You have to press a number for the right service but I couldn’t see the screen, so I just pushed a random number. I said, “Someone is killing us. Please send ambulance, police, fire service.” Then I phoned my wife, and said, “Can you please call 111. Someone is killing us.” I called another friend, who I’d invited to the mosque. I called him, told him not to come.

After a while lots of Police came. Some just had a T-shirt on. I was so afraid, I didn’t know who they were. I stayed on the ground. They shouted to us, “Yes, we are Police, you are safe.” They told us to hold our hands out and leave our phones.

The attack had ended because someone tried to stop him at the entrance. Abdul Aziz threw an Eftpos machine at him.

On the following Friday I met the boy who had been beside me on the ground. I was very happy to see him. I asked him, “What happened to your father?” He said, “My father is here doing some interviews.”

I said: “Who is your father.” He said: “Abdul Aziz.”

MD Faysal: When I see the photos of the people who died, I recognise most of them. They used to be with me, standing next to me for prayers. When I pass the mosque, I cannot look for more than a minute. I get too emotional. It will be hard for me to go back and pray. But I will.

Tofazzal Alam: It’s impossible to forget what happened to us. Afterwards I felt very afraid. I’m getting better now, but I’m still afraid. I can’t eat properly. I can’t sleep properly.

Police have taken my car. It was damaged by the terrorist. He shot at my car. So I’m not able to go back to work yet. I’ve been visiting friends in the hospital.

Flowers carpet the footpath outside Hagley park, near Al-Noor Mosque on Friday morning. Photo: Toby Manhire

MD Faysal: I gain strength from the support of the community. The way they came together, showing sympathy, empathy. Sharing condolences. Whenever I tell people my story, they feel it, they want to keep me close. That feeling is really amazing. Now New Zealand people will be more united. Whatever comes along they will face together.

This city has faced one recent disaster already. After the earthquake people got to know their neighbours. After this moment, they will have started to get to know other people, too. Not from one culture and community, but from other cultures and communities. It shows how diverse we can be. What we can do living together.

Tofazzal Alam: People are now more interested in our religion. There have been many misunderstandings in the past. We have a very peaceful religion. We are not allowed to fight. We are not allowed to hurt anyone. But media have created a false image of Islam, which makes people afraid. But now we’re reaching closer. We can explain what’s going on. We can help them understand: how we pray, how we grieve, how we love people, how we respect people. It’s opened a door.

Keep going!