At first, Hisham al Zarzour couldn’t remember what had happened. Later, he tried to forget. Lying beneath the bodies of other worshippers at Al Noor mosque in Christchurch last March as a gunman fired again and again, he prayed that Allah would send him back to Syria to die.
There, war had been a way of life. Chaos became normal. But the violence in peaceful New Zealand came just seven months after the sleepy, leafy city had become his home. That something so barbaric could happen in his place of refuge was unbearable.
“All of these 10 minutes [of the attack] I was praying, ‘Please, I need to go to the war. I need to go to the jail in Syria to die. The rubbish there, it’s better than this situation.’”
In the week before the attack’s first anniversary on 15 March, the Guardian visited Christchurch, where bereaved families and survivors of the shooting are bracing themselves for renewed interest as the global spotlight swings back to the city. Many in the Muslim community are dreading the attention while they still come to terms with new lives and realities, their bodies and prospects and families forever changed by the gunman’s assault.
“To be honest I felt mentally, after the mosque attack, better than now,” al Zarzour says. Last March, he had carpooled to Al Noor with his closest friend in New Zealand, a fellow Syrian, Khaled Mustafa. He couldn’t remember what they’d spoken about.
After the shooting, al Zarzour emerged, badly wounded, from beneath the bodies of two men. Mustafa’s face was the first he saw. He had died along with his son Hamza, 16, and 42 others in the nation’s worst peacetime massacre.
“My behaviour now is not quite right,” al Zarzour says. He is a slight, bearded man with huge, dark eyes. He talks to the Guardian at his home while his two primary school-aged children watch cartoons and the third, a toddler, scales the kitchen cabinets like a monkey, his wife chasing her to and fro.
“Sometimes I think everything is weird,” he says. “I’m trying to make the situation stable for my family.”
‘I take medicine every day to forget, but I can’t’
The attacks on Al Noor and Linwood mosques shattered an illusion of innocence and security in peaceful, friendly New Zealand, a country that had never experienced a major terrorist attack or been forced to confront acts of Islamophobia or white supremacy as other Western countries had.
The outpouring of grief and love from the country’s inhabitants – and exhortations to unity from the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who announced six days after the shooting that she would ban most semiautomatic weapons – thrust New Zealand onto the world stage. Almost a year on, the galvanising phrase “they are us” uttered by Ardern in the wake of the attacks feels less certain; an inquiry due to conclude in April is seeking answers about whether state actors might have failed to prevent the attack, and the man accused of committing it – an Australian, charged with murder, attempted murder and terrorism – faces a lengthy and high-profile trial in June.
Al Zarzour does not sleep regularly, often drifting off at 6am to wake from nightmares at half-hour intervals. The bullet wounds to his legs have caused chronic nerve pain.
At first, he watched over and over the footage the gunman allegedly broadcast live on Facebook, trying to understand what had happened; a compulsion shared with other survivors of the attack. He tries not to watch the video any more.
“To be honest, I take 600 milligrams of depression medicine every day to forget that,” he says. “But I can’t.”
‘It’s triggering a lot of things’
Eight kilometres away, in a quiet residential part of the city, Maysoon Salama wrestles with the new security gate at An Nur, the Muslim childcare centre she runs with her husband, Mohammad Alayan. “I don’t even know if I can work it out tomorrow to open it for people,” she says, only half-joking.
Security is heightened now. Before the mosque attack, the centre was targeted for harassment and abuse – once, someone painted in blood on her car – but the police never took action, she says. Five children who attend the school lost parents in the attack, and a four-year-old pupil was shot and partially blinded by the gunman. Many other parents were injured and traumatised.
Salama returned to work nursing her own grief. Her son, Atta Elayyan, 33, died in the attack, while her husband was badly injured. Elayyan, a brilliant app developer, sportsman, husband and father to Aya, aged two, was shot and killed in Al Noor. His father is struggling with suspected lead poisoning from his wounds, and Salama worries. He is tired and losing weight, she says.
As the government and city council prepare to hold a national memorial service for the victims at a park near Al Noor on the anniversary next week, Salama feels a sense of unease. “We know that it’s coming from good intentions,” she says of the memorial service. “The government want to do something, and for those of us who are participating [it’s] basically to acknowledge these efforts.
“But for us, [is it] like we want this? We don’t. [Is it] really helping much? It’s not. In fact, it’s triggering a lot of things. And it’s putting a lot of pressure on us.”
One-year anniversaries are a Western concept, many in the Muslim community say. Their beliefs require a three-day mourning period before the bereaved move on, keeping their loved one alive through memory. Elayyan’s acts of goodness are never far from his mother’s mind, stories that paint a picture of a man so virtuous as to be implausible – except that friends, colleagues and acquaintances all say the same things.
“He has a very, very soft heart and he is very selfless,” Salama says. “Any little thing, any little stress for anybody, you will find that he is also distressed and he wants to do whatever he can do to help that person, whether it’s financial, whether it’s advice, whether it’s just talking or anything.
“Even the cat …” she says, recounting a story of her son’s fumbling but well-intentioned efforts to care for the family’s pet when it was bitten by another cat (he had lovingly fashioned a cone for the animal’s neck which he had then accidentally taped to its fur). “You feel he wouldn’t really leave anybody who needs help without.”
Salama has resisted asking others at the mosque that day for details of her son’s final moments. But another worshipper – an elderly man – told her after the attack that when the gunfire turned in the man’s direction, Elayyan had stepped in front of him.
A life forever changed
“I am a miracle,” says Temel Atacocugu. When the gunman stormed Al Noor he was shot nine times, once in the face. A metal and porcelain bridge in his mouth – a 13-year-old piece of dentistry – was the only thing that prevented the bullet travelling into his brain.
“If I [had] normal teeth, everybody – you know, dentist, surgeon, everyone – said that’s going to kill me,” he says.
Atacocugu – originally from Turkey and now a New Zealand citizen – is a softly-spoken, genial man. But like many of those wounded or bereaved in the attacks, he faces a life forever changed, a punishing schedule of surgeries and an ongoing battle with his mental health.
When Atacocugu visits Al Noor these days, he sits facing the door. “If something happens, at least I can hide,” he says. Flashbacks to the attack strike often, and sleep is possible only with medication. Before the shootings, he loved playing and watching sports; never sat still.
Now, he battles depression and physical pain that at times bar him from leaving the house; instead, he watches TV on his couch. He is learning to reconcile the joy of being alive with the horror of what he saw a year ago.
Atacocugu will attend the memorial “with very mixed feelings”.
Lucky and unlucky
A month after the attacks, worshippers returned in throngs to Al Noor for Friday prayers, past armed police at the gates. Reminders of what had happened were inescapable. Worshippers prayed on plastic-coated underlay that slid underfoot; the mosque’s carpet had been removed by police and a replacement had yet to arrive.
Outside, a police truck waited. After that week’s jumu’ah – the Friday prayer service – worshippers could search it for belongings they had dropped during the mayhem. Among the items were shoes, spectacles and wallets whose owners would never return to claim them.
Eleven months on, new carpet has been laid, and Feroze Ditta walks through the mosque’s front doors and down its long hallway just as he did on 15 March last year. As he did that day, he takes a seat in the mosque’s small office. Most of the friends who sat around the table with him a year ago are gone.
They had talked about ordinary things. “We said, ‘All right, see you next Friday,’” he recalls. Then the men shook hands and went in for prayers.
“When I first came back after that day it was hard,” Ditta says of returning to the mosque months after the attacks. “It took me a lot of courage to get up and walk through those doors.”
He had been lucky and unlucky; two bullets cut through his calf, leaving Ditta – a contractor for a trucking company – out of work and facing a career change in his early 50s. But he had survived.
To his surprise, upon his return he found himself thrust into a leadership role as the mosque’s secretary, a busy job. Its membership has grown “15-20%” since the attacks and he manages a flurry of correspondence. Every time a white supremacist attacks Muslims anywhere in the world, people want to know what his community thinks.
“What I worry about is after the cameras have gone, the media have gone, and support services like Victim Support, ACC, MSD, when they pull back, what the result of that would be on people,” he says, referring to the government agencies providing financial and emotional aid to the bereaved and survivors.
Christchurch is a city still visibly healing from another dark day, a deadly earthquake that struck on 22 February 2011, killing 185 people and razing the central business district to the ground. The quake put pressure on local mental health services, which still groan under the weight of demand.
Down by the grassy banks of the Avon River that flows through the city centre is a memorial for the earthquakes; smooth, inscribed stone that tourists stop to read. Nine years on, insurance claims for ruined homes remain fraught and schools are responding to earthquake-related trauma in students who were not even born when the 2011 shake happened.
No decision has been made yet on an official memorial for the mosque attacks; some in the community worry they will be criticised for taking attention away from the long shadow of the earthquakes. They read comments on social media suggesting it is time the Muslim community stopped talking about Christchurch. Some don’t want to make trouble, so they have.
“We have been put in a difficult situation, because the minute there is publicity about the memorial thing, you know, some people started also writing comments or, ‘Oh, look, that memorial for the Muslims is this big event, and now the earthquake is forgotten’,” Salama says. “We’re being put in the spotlight again against our will. We’re not the ones who asked for it.”
But many, including Salama, are defiant too. “You know, he made us more faithful to our religion,” she says of the gunman. “He made us more determined to not to be victimised and to keep going and to even spread the beauty of Islam everywhere. If he wanted to finish us, he failed miserably. And a lot of good things have happened.”
On a hillside cloaked in mist at Pony Point, south-east of the city – overlooking glass-flat sea and small boats dotted across Cass Bay – an unofficial memorial is quietly growing. There, 51 fledgling native trees are taking root, one for each of those who died, and are still clad in protective plastic. “Humanity”, reads a small plaque. “When you sow a seed of kindness and empathy, it grows into 51 trees of hope and love.”