Some of the most moving statements about the Christchurch terror attack are extraordinary for their ordinariness. David Williams reports

The stories of March 15, 2019, are awash with extraordinary people doing remarkable things, and the struggle of those who heard and saw extreme horror.

There was Hazem Mohammed, who pretended to be dead in Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque (Masjid An-Nur). The terrorist, sweeping back and forth, was shooting prone bodies to be sure they were dead. He shot at Mohammed’s head but missed, hitting his shoulder.

“I didn’t move, didn’t make a noise,” Mohammed said in Christchurch’s High Court yesterday, reading his victim impact statement during the gunman’s sentencing hearing.

Luul Aden Elmi, 52, escaped Al Noor and fled along Deans Avenue, finding a spot where four other women and a child were hiding. They heard screaming outside the mosque, and cries of “please don’t shoot”. “We all just cuddled each other because we had nowhere to go,” her statement said.

Ibrahim Mohamed Abdelhalim, 69, was leading prayers at Linwood Islamic Centre that day. People fell down as fast and repetitive gunfire erupted from the mosque’s entrance. “I was in shock and thought it was a dark dream. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I lost so many friends in those few minutes.”

His wife, Salwa El Shazley, 68, was shot through the arm as she leapt up to support her friend Linda Armstrong, who had been gunned down. She recalls watching as the shooter sprayed bullets at men sitting at the back of the prayer room. El Shazley still attends the mosque, “if necessary”, but not Linwood. “The memories of what happened that day are too shocking for me to return.”

The terrible details of that horrific day have, no doubt, rocked people across New Zealand and around the world. But some of the most moving stories are ordinary.

The victims, and families of the fallen, have shared intensely personal details, exposing themselves to extraordinary scrutiny when they’re at their most vulnerable. How they’re struggling to cope, can’t concentrate, can’t work, find it hard to sleep, and have bottled their emotions. How the attack has drained colour from their lives, and they feel they’re failing their families by being unable to cope.

“As a parent, no matter how old your children are they will always be your babies forever.” – Rashid Omar

Rashid Bin Omar’s story will resonate with all parents.

The electrical supervisor, who was born in Singapore, came to New Zealand in 1990, where he met his wife Rosemary, a Kiwi of European descent who converted to Islam. They had four children. Omar is a proud father and proud New Zealander.

Their eldest son, Tariq, 24, was in Al Noor but, after the attack, wasn’t answering his phone. The couple’s desperate pleas were broadcast on TV, in the hope their son would see it and contact them. In the hope he was still alive.

Time seemed to stand still. Omar felt unsettled and incomplete. The whole family was in limbo. “The days immediately after the shooting were long and very lonely for me,” Omar said, fearing the worst but trying to remain positive.

After midnight on Saturday, in a room full of anxious families, the Imam confirmed who had died. The air was soon punctured by the cries of grieving families as the names were read, one by one. Eventually, he read Tariq’s name.

“My body felt completely weak and everything went silent,” Omar said. As a dad, you’re supposed to be strong for your family, be invincible. “I couldn’t hold it together. I was hurting so much inside. As a parent, no matter how old your children are they will always be your babies forever.”

Identifying Tariq’s body was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

(A recurring theme of parents in the hearings is grief for unrealised potential. A sadness that years of memory-making – of getting married, perhaps, or having children – has been cruelly cut short by a needless act of hate.)

It took months for Omar to even contemplate returning to work. Even then he feared he wouldn’t be competent, that he couldn’t work safely. Sleep was a struggle and only arrived in small clumps. He’d wake up tired, lacking energy.

Often he’d have to come home from work. Some days, he’d sit in the work car park, for hours and hours, waiting for the day to pass. Getting through each day became a burden. “I lost my energy for life and couldn’t see a future for a long time.”

Omar’s love of photography waned, as it reminded him of taking snaps of Tariq’s life milestones, his weekly football matches, and achievements. It was a hobby he shared with Tariq. “I can’t get any pleasure from it – I can’t get any joy through the lens.”

His overwhelming grief took his mind back to March 15. He would relive that day, mentally, and experience the feeling of hope he would see his son again. Omar dealt with all of this alone, feeling it was too hard to talk to anyone about the pain.

“As a father, I feel I haven’t been able to be there fully for my children. It has been hard to stay strong for them, and hold things together.” The daily pain and loss, the broken feeling inside, also meant he couldn’t show happiness to his wife.

Turning a corner

Recovering from the unthinkable is when the ordinary becomes the extraordinary, a tribute to the human spirit.

Omar is seeing someone professionally, to work on his grief. “Now I’m on the right path and beginning to get my life back,” he says.

But bouncing back from such massive trauma is never a straight line. On hearing the terrorist’s guilty plea he initially felt relieved. It didn’t last long. He realised Tariq would never walk back into his life – that he’d never get to see him face-to-face again and tell him how much he loves him.

“I’ll never forget him,” Omar says. “Tariq will live on through my memories.”

In the courtroom yesterday, the electrician displays his refreshed confidence. His life has changed forever, he tells the terrorist, but suggests his own healing is reflected in that of the world.

“You shifted my life with your actions of hate against all Muslim people. Your actions have failed to spread hatred or create division within society, but have, in fact, actually brought our nation together, and has bonded New Zealand people together. We have made the world more aware of the Muslim religion, and about the love and peace that my Muslim faith brings to all people.”

There will always be hate, Omar says. But if we continue to show love and peace, it will be a better world than the day before.

He mentions the terrorist’s family. Their son was also taken from them – they can’t enjoy life anymore because of his choices.

Omar says Allah is looking after Tariq and he longs for the day he will see him again. “We will be a family again, together.”

He tells the terrorist: “I hope you find peace within yourself, but I doubt peace will ever come to you. I will never be able to forgive you.”

Brenton Tarrant has pleaded guilty to 51 charges of murder, 40 of attempted murder, and one charge of committing a terrorist act. Justice Cameron Mander is expected to sentence the 29-year-old Australian tomorrow.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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