It was cold and grey, which seemed appropriate. It was a Monday like no other in Christchurch.
Some members of the city’s Muslim community are still too scared to leave their homes. For those in the city that did return to their routine, the work commute, the school run – even the physical act of running – seemed different.
The last time children were at school they were in lockdown, unable to leave. (There were starkly different experiences. Some younger children thought it was a party, declaring it the best day at school ever. But older children were shaken by having to crawl between classrooms, for safety’s sake, and pee in buckets.)
There was relief, though, for frontline emergency workers, including hospital staff, who got a much-needed day off.
The most visible changes were police with rifles wearing bullet-proof vests guarding key areas, including areas around the Al Noor and Linwood mosques, which remained cordoned. The police helicopter buzzed overhead.
The scent of flowers was overpowering at the official tribute area, outside the Botanic Gardens, within sight of the hospital. But it wasn’t a place of tranquil reflection. Also overpowering were the generators and lights used by TV news crews from New Zealand and around the world.
Posters printed in Arabic, Maori, and English, placed outside one library, at least, urged those who were struggling to text or call the Ministry of Health number 1737 if they needed to talk. Floral tributes piled up in community gathering places, like schools. Suburban footpaths carried chalk messages. “Diversity + unity = community”, said one. Also, “we are leaves of one tree” and “we are one”.
These messages of inclusion were a reminder that some of us – too many of us – were absent. Fifty people were killed in last Friday’s mosque shootings. Thirty-one injured are still in Christchurch Hospital, with nine in intensive care.
Workers lost colleagues. Schools lost pupils. Pupils lost family members. We all lost a little piece of ourselves.
US-born Kelly Phillips, 40, who has lived in New Zealand since 2013, spent the weekend volunteering at Hagley Community College, near the city’s hospital, which has become a makeshift crisis centre for the victims’ families and the Muslim community.
The University of Canterbury law student, who has several Muslim friends, says spending time at Hagley restored her faith in humanity.
From outside, there came gifts of food, toys and books for children, and flowers, often accompanied by heart-felt messages, or passed over with hugs. Inside the crisis centre, hundreds of people, from all walks of life, including volunteers from overseas, worked together.
There was sadness and grief, Phillips said. (Also, necessary distraction through duty, with family members waiting to hear the most terrible news finding themselves selflessly serving others.) But there was also warmth, prayer, and reassurance.
“It’s just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, even though there’s a tragedy,” she says. She called it a great balm for sadness and violence. Phillips was touched by the Muslim way of addressing women as sister, and the way men greet each other as brother. “It just really reinforces that you’re in this big family group, and this commonality of humanity, and none of that other stuff matters.”
Monday’s return to routine reassured some, no doubt.
Cashmere High School lost current students Sayaad Milne and Hamza Mustafa, as well as past student Tariq Omar. Principal Mark Wilson told Newshub: “Schools serve a really important function in establishing regular routine. When people are in a sense of trauma, that regular routine becomes really important.”
But for others it has been a discombobulating descent into banality – a failed attempt at normality – so soon after the shock of something so extreme. It has left them numb. Lethargy is holding hands with bewilderment.
Part of that came from disbelief – “Why Christchurch? Haven’t we suffered enough?” – and led to anger, particularly that the alleged shooter was able to buy military-style rifles legally.
A heightened anxiety, a panic felt after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people, has re-emerged. That’s evident when faced with loud noises, ground-rocking thuds, and the wail of sirens. Some now find themselves constantly on the edge of tears. Normal chores or tasks seem difficult, suddenly.
There is also an inadequacy – a yearning to do more, to give more.
“I want to talk to Muslims, and anyone of a different ethnicity to NZ European and apologise to them, and tell them I’m sorry that we failed them and that we must do better,” Victoria Metcalf says.
Metcalf is a marine biologist and geneticist who is the national coordinator for the country’s Participatory Science Platform. “I am so incredibly sad about what has happened, and what impact it will have on our city and especially our young people, like my nine-year-old daughter.”
The trauma experienced this time is different from the quakes, of course. While the ground under our feet rumbled for years, last Friday was a single terrible day.
Metcalf: “The aftershocks are entirely our internal examination of who we are and how we must change to be the tolerant inclusive society we say we are.”
There are hopeful hints the change is already occurring.
“The response to so much hate has been love.” – Rehanna Ali
Yesterday, thousands of high school pupils and university students gathered at Hagley Park and University of Canterbury, in emotional displays of solidarity. Bariz Shah, of the university’s Muslim students’ association, tried to reassure those too afraid to leave their homes after the shooting: “I ask of you, please, don’t feel like this.”
Muslim leaders told of support the community has received from throughout New Zealand, and the world. (The Turkish vice president and the high commissioner from Pakistan visited Christchurch.)
Police have confirmed the first body of a victim is to be released to the family. (The family won’t accept the body until both family members who died in the tragedy have been released.) The first burials are likely to start tomorrow.
Yesterday morning, the Al Noor and Linwood mosques were blessed by Muslim leaders and Ngāi Tahu, in preparation for their re-opening, perhaps in time for Friday prayers.
And yet, in spite of last week’s horror – paramedics recalled blood “literally flowing off terracotta tiles” – and with burials to arrange and the injured still to care for, somehow love and and a sense of compassion emerged.
Rehanna Ali, women’s affairs coordinator of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, talked media through the practical and spiritual aspects of burial. “What has been remarkable about the local Muslim community here is we have found incredible grief but not hate. The response to so much hate has been love. It has been incredible.”
Federation president Mustafa Farouk said the perpetrator of the attacks wanted to bring hatred and division. “They have failed woefully. Because what they have done, if anything, has increased the love and the feeling we have for our own country and we have also seen the tremendous outpouring of love – what we call aroha – here in New Zealand.”