Even in grief, they forgive the mass murderer
Sam Sachdeva and Laura Walters
Wellington, March 18, 2019
Uncertainty, grief and anger were all on display as members of Christchurch’s Muslim community gathered in the wake of the devastating terrorist attack.
But amidst the horror, there is hope for recovery and renewal.
Hagley Park has long been the pride of Christchurch, treasured for its open green expanses.
But on a bleak, chilly Sunday, its southern fringe felt more claustrophobic, the eyes of the world closing in on a small section between the city’s hospital and the school serving as a welfare centre for those in need.
Bouquets, love everywhere
Well-wishers carried bouquets of flowers to lay at tribute sites, while joggers and cyclists weaved around the horde of journalists speaking to the friends and family of those injured or killed in Friday’s terrorist attack.
Farid Ahmed, 59, escaped from the Majid Al Noor mosque where more than 40 people died, but his wife Husna was killed when coming back to save him.
Yet despite Husna’s death, Ahmed said he did not hate her killer.
“As a person, I love him. I am sorry, I cannot support what he did, but I think somewhere along in his life, maybe he was hurt but he could not translate that hurt into a positive manner…
“I have forgiven him, and I’m praying for him that God will guide him, and one day he will be a saviour, rather than a killer.”
Wrestling with uncertainty
In some cases, good fortune and grief intermingled – as with Abdi Ali, who slept through his alarm and missed Friday prayers for the first time, waking up to “20-odd missed calls.”
Ali’s flatmate died at Masjid Al Noor, having taken his usual lunchtime break from work to go to prayer.
“This has touched a lot of people, and we hope that after everyone has finished grieving that this brings all New Zealanders together rather than further away, which is what I believe the person – or the coward – that committed this despicable act was hoping to do.”
Others were still wrestling with desperate uncertainty, like the friends of the missing Bangladeshi man Zakaria Bhuiyan who showed photos to media and pleaded for information about his whereabouts.
Kaniza Fatima Lima, an immigration adviser who had been helping Bhuiyan’s wife with her New Zealand visa application, shared her frustration at officials’ inability to confirm what had happened to the “pure, innocent guy” she knew.
“Somebody should be able to give us something at least – that yes, we have found a body, that he’s dead, at least give us that.”
Bhuiyan had been about to return to Bangladesh for Eid, the religious festival marking the end of Ramadan, but had now likely died without seeing his family in two years.
“I don’t know where the humanity is gone. The innocence of people (is) gone – I just hope we can again be safe in New Zealand,” Lima said.
That sorrow stretched out to the edge of the city, as families embraced at Christchurch Airport and a woman in a hijab sobbed as she greeted a loved one.
Families rush to Christchurch
In the days since the attack, family members, country representatives and members of Muslim communities have poured into Christchurch.
Abdi Ibrahim stood at the arrivals gate for almost an hour, his face tense, waiting for his brother’s flight to arrive from Thailand.
Ibrahim’s three-year-old brother Mucad was killed at the Masjid Al Noor. Abdi and his father were with Mucad, but the boy was lost during the mayhem.
The 29-year-old has lived in Christchurch for 27 years. Last year, he travelled back to Somalia, a place his friends warned him was too dangerous to visit.
“I told them, you could die anywhere, we’re all going to die at some point.”
Telling the story, Ibrahim appeared numb; as people repeatedly told him they were sorry for his loss, he said simply: “Thanks, it’s OK.”
Ibrahim’s cousin Ahmed Osman waited with him at the terminal, watching as other passengers kissed and hugged their loved ones.
The Christchurch Muslim community is tight-knit, and the Somali subset even smaller, Osman said.
After many left for Australia in the wake of the February 2011 earthquake, those left were like family, he said.
Four members of that family, including Mucad, were victims of Friday’s attack.
When Ibrahim’s brother walked through the arrival gate, the family resemblance was obvious – a resemblance they shared with Mucad.
The group walked swiftly out of the terminal, too overwhelmed to speak to media as they had originally planned.
‘God has a path for everyone’
Sheikh Amjad Ali, the assistant principal of Auckland’s Al-Madinah School, said close to 20 Islamic scholars have come from all over New Zealand, with hundreds more flying in from around the country and farther afield.
Among those was Nassim, who flew in from Sydney on Saturday night despite not knowing any of the victims, simply eager to help.
Standing across the road from the Linwood Mosque as a forensic team worked at the rear of the building and armed police stood guard, Nassim received his first ever hongi – courtesy of a teenage boy on a bicycle.
He spent his first day in Christchurch lending support at the community centre and relaying the terrible news of deaths to those injured in hospital – including refugees who have recently fled war-torn Syria.
Next, Nassim said he would turn to the task of helping grieving families and communities prepare for the funerals.
“In our religion, God has a path for everyone… I cannot control what happens, but what I can control is how I react.
“We can react negatively, with hate, or we can react positively. That’s all I can control.”
Planning is difficult
Auckland man Javed Dadabhai, who lost one of his cousins in the attack, had taken on some responsibility for the draining process of burying the atrocity’s victims in line with Islamic custom.
It is a planning process made more difficult by the lack of certainty over when the bodies would be released by police, following coronial assessments and the formal identification process.
“I totally understand it (frustration), especially those family members who require the grieving, for them the grieving process isn’t beginning because they’re not able to be with their dead,” Dadabhai said.
“It’s always easier from one step out to be able to go, ‘We need to be patient’, but unfortunately that is the thing that we need to be.”
It was an unprecedented event for Kiwi Muslims and all Cantabrians, and the need to ensure the murderer faced justice made patience all the more important.
“We need to give them the time that they need to do all their investigations, for the coroners to do all their work, so when this goes to court it’s open and shut – we wouldn’t want to think that because of some pressure or haste from our community, that we’re going to put the police in a situation that they’re going to regret later.”
The community had already begun to organise itself for the spate of burials.
Preparing the burials
One team was on site at the Muslim section of Memorial Park Cemetery, digging the plots that would be needed; another was preparing for the ghusl, or customary washing, of the deceased; and the final team was readying to support the families of victims, helping them to bury the bodies facing Mecca and saying the Salat al-Janazah, or funeral prayer.
The burials would need to be piecemeal, Dadabhai said – a reality of the complex official processes and the varying states of the corpses, a necessity given the logistics of laying 50 people to rest, and a salve for a community already suffering through a protracted grieving process.
“At least they’ll see something has started and it’s happening, so we pray that it’s sooner rather than later.”
A generation of knowledge, wiped out
Rebuilding the City’s Muslim community will require more patience and strength.
Dadabhai spoke of one “sister” who was now the last member of her community trust – the others all lost at Masjid Al Noor.
“By the act of this one heinous crime by this person, they’ve wiped out years of social bonding that these people have created, they’ve wiped out a whole generation of knowledge and skills that these people brought to the community…
“It’s going to take years, and when you think about the fact there are going to be young children growing up fatherless, motherless, how do you replace a whole person in your life?”
With so much blood spilled at sites of worship, it would seem understandable if those who had survived had no desire to return.
Yet Dadabhai said the reopening of the Mosques would be “the first sign of life kind of back to normal”, with some already clamouring to re-enter on Friday night.
“The person who perpetrated this crime went to a Mosque in the hope that he would put fear out of people going to these places of prayer.
“What he doesn’t understand is that for a Muslim, we kind of talk often that is the closest place to God that we can be in our day, that’s the closest kind of attachment that we have to our lord.
“So if we had a way, and nobody likes to, if you had to have a choice of where you died, this is the house of God – this is where anyone would want to be.”
Of course, their worshipping practices will not remain entirely unchanged.
Preventing another attack
Sheikh Ali said Muslims would be prepared for the next attack, making sure there were a number of open doors they could exit and having one or two worshippers standing guard while the others were praying.
“They would be like a security or something like that – watching, alarm the society, alarm the community.”
But the killer had failed, said Dadabhai – failed to scare Muslims away from an integral part of their lives, and failed to drive a wedge between them and other New Zealanders.
“We’ve seen in parts outside of Christchurch where we’ve seen non-Muslims walking with their neighbours to the mosque to make sure that they feel safe.
“If you thought that you were going to be creating division, I’m sorry but if anything it’s going the other way.”
Sam Sachdeva is Political Editor, covering Foreign Affairs, Trade, Defence and Security Issues and Laura Walters is a Senior Political Reporter covering Justice, Education and Immigration for Newsroom. Both are based in Wellington.
Published under a Special Agreement with www.newsroom.co.nz