March 15, 2019 was a quiet Autumn afternoon in Christchurch, New Zealand, until a gunman opened fire in two mosques – Al Noor and the Linwood Islamic Centre – during Friday prayers. Fifty-one people were killed in the attack and 49 others were injured. Exactly a year later, the survivors and their families are trying to find peace, while the memory of what happened still shrouds them.
I – Mazhar
How we treat our dead says everything about how we choose to live.
Mazhar Syed Ahmed begins each new day with the same routine. Shortly before sunrise, he unrolls a prayer mat in his living room and lowers himself to the floor, his forehead, nose, hands, knees and toes all touching the ground.
He believes all fortunes – good or bad – are meted out. Almost seven years ago now, he moved to Christchurch from Saudi Arabia to study architecture. His family joined him six months later during the month of Ramadan. On that first evening, the family went to Al Noor Mosque, around the corner from their motel. The raised dome gleamed amber, even in the darkness. They performed Tarawih prayers and broke their fast. A job and a home soon came through connections to the mosque.
But Mazhar believes his fortune could turn at any time. Allah might have written something, he thinks to himself more often these days. If God wills it, I will die today.
Mazhar prays inside the Linwood Islamic Centre, on a Friday in late February [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]
He knows that Islamic law has specific protocols for what will happen to his body once his soul has departed it on that fateful day. To perform these rites for another is a great honour. The responsibility is even greater. You might see something during the ritual – a bruise, a cut, a wound. But injuries written on the body are never to be spoken about. “You talk only about the good you see in a dead body,” is practically the first thing he says about the death rituals. “It is unethical to share anything else.”
Mazhar’s nature is to be gently instructive. He also earns his living this way, teaching architecture at the Ara Institute of Canterbury. His architecture is green, buildings that practically breathe, armoured as they are with solar panels. The architecture school’s home, named Kahukura (Māori for “chiefly cloak”), has a patterned facade, symbolising the woven inner flax strands of a fine Māori cloak. It, too, harvests solar power. Right now, Mazhar is sitting deep within the cloak’s gentle wadding, on a break between classes.
He begins a demonstration: First, he lays a pen down to rest inside a tissue (the same tissue he wept into only moments before). Then he folds the tissue inwards over the pen, ensuring the sides overlap, while the ends at the top and bottom hang loose, allowing them to be tied easily.
“There is a body here,” he says.
There were 50 families, 50 exponential emotions. It was like you were a converging point for each one of those emotions.
He is mimicking the Islamic process of shrouding a body, the kafan, which follows another burial rite, ghusl, during which a body is washed by close family members, or friends of the same sex. These religious rites happen on a tight schedule, with tradition calling for burial as early as possible. But, in the days after the mass shooting, the procedural clashed with the spiritual. How do you quickly bury the victims of a massacre, and still satisfy the demands of modern crime scene forensics?
The first bodies were released two days after the attacks. In some cases, the victim identification took longer than a week to complete. By this time the grief and agitation the families felt churned as one, while an army of volunteers mobilised to carry out their wishes.
Mazhar explains how the initial horror gave way to a nightmare of logistics. Among the dead were nationals from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Malaysia, Mauritius, New Zealand, Palestine, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and eventually – when a 51st person died from his injuries in May – Turkey. “There were 50 families, 50 exponential emotions,” he remembers. “It was like you were a converging point for each one of those emotions.”
Mazhar’s wife Sarah plays scrabble with their son Umar, 11, at home [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]
Mazhar, who is 48, is not much taller than the handlebars of the bike he rides. He possesses a nature both gracious and soft, and this has the effect of putting others around him at ease. Sarah, his wife, worried this same softness might leave him exposed during the task ahead. “He did a good thing, mashallah [God willed it].”
He worked alongside four coroners and three other cultural support staff at the funeral home. One operating table was kept free for embalming. The other tables were occupied with stitching, washing and shrouding. A body might spend as long as four hours on the table, depending on the extent of the damage. The room often smelled sweetly of camphor oil, misted onto each shroud.
On that day a year ago, Mazhar fled from the Linwood Islamic Centre to the architecture school, his shirt drenched with the blood of a friend whose wound he held, trying to stop the bleeding. On the bike ride over, he placed a call to his mother in Hyderabad, India. He left a voicemail: “You might hear something in the news. Don’t worry, I’m safe.” Though, as he pedalled, he felt like a living target.
The gunman had been standing right in front of him when his AR-15 style rifle clinked empty. Mazhar had been contorting his body, twisting, preparing to take the bullets.
In total, he was called to perform ghusl on 17 bodies. Such prolonged contact with the dead is not easy.
“Most of them you knew by their faces,” he says. “Some of them were smiling.”
II – Hasan
After Hasan Abdullah scaled the wall behind the Al Noor Mosque and scrambled to safety, he was handed a phone. He remembers the first question the police respondent on the other end asked him: What was the ethnicity of the shooter?
He gave a detailed description: white, male, strong build, military dress, bullet-proof vest, carrying a semi-automatic weapon. The voice on the other end did not seem to believe the shooter could be white. “I’m not trying to be racial here,” Hasan clarifies, “but that’s what happened when I had a conversation with the cops.”
Hasan prays at the Al Noor Mosque [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]
Hasan remembers the respondent’s next question, too. How many people were shot? Certain images replayed in his mind. Several hundred worshippers gathered in orderly rows, only 10 minutes before. A tangle of limbs as they climbed over each other to escape. The men trapped defenceless in corners of the room, fired upon at point blank range. The bodies piling up.
“Fifty people,” he guessed.
Earlier that morning, the heavens had opened. If it was not for the rain, Hasan would have joined Friday prayers two hours away in Ashburton. He works as an account manager for a roofing company, meaning he commutes back and forth. But that morning he was calling clients from Christchurch, trying to close important deals over the phone, and waiting for the showers to pass.
Not such a bad turn of events, he thought to himself. At least Haniyah, his seven-year-old daughter, would relish the surprise when baba swooped her up from school that afternoon. There would now be time for batting practice before the sun set. She was still learning how to adopt a balanced batting stance, protecting her wicket. He would lob soft deliveries and his two-year-old son Yahya would toddle down the driveway to retrieve the ball. Ayesha would perch on the doorstep to watch, cradling Maryam, their six-month-old daughter.
Hasan’s wife Ayesha and daughter Haniyah [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]
Shortly after 1pm, he hung up the phone and drove to Al Noor. He joined the second row just as the imam began giving the khutbah (sermon) in Arabic. A few minutes later, while the imam was repeating the khutbah in English, he heard a succession of loud, cracking noises. He turned to see a lone gunman, dressed like a commando. He remembers going stiff, not believing what was happening.
“I was waiting for my bullet, honestly,” he says. “I was half dead there. I was not expecting to get out alive.”
The men who saved Hasan departed this world before they did so – their limp bodies falling on top of him, shielding him; the blood dripping onto his hands still warm with the life that had left them. At first his face was uncovered. He repositioned himself while the gunman left to retrieve a third round, covering his head beneath the soft padding of someone’s stomach, and instead leaving his legs exposed.
A phone rang in a pocket as the gunman returned. He emptied eight more bullets into a corpse. In whichever direction he heard noises, he fired his shotgun.
Ayesha might have been calling Hasan, too. His phone was in the car, parked in front of the mosque.
The gunman had another weapon strapped to his head, a camera feeding live video of the mass shooting to the internet. Eventually, the shooting stopped, and soon after that the video feed dropped. Hasan escaped through a window. While the footage continues to be uploaded and removed from the internet – and anyone sharing copies prosecuted, at least in New Zealand – there are no such measures to expunge intrusive thoughts.
“I still hear the screams,” he says. “The people losing their lives, taking their last breath.”
He no longer feels like the person he was before, the man with a zest for life, always working towards his goals. He lies awake, cycling through those moments. Why did I survive when so many died? I could have done something. Why didn’t I stop the shooter?
A flower tribute is seen outside Al Noor mosque on March 27, 2019 [File: Reuters]
He was prescribed sleeping pills and antidepressants, but worried they might become addictive. He tried speaking to a counsellor. She told him to confide in those around him, open up to friends and family. It is not that easy. He and his wife have discussed changing career paths, retraining in some kind of public service. She knows the broadest outline of what happened that day. Hasan does not want to share the burden beyond that. She has to look after the kids, he reasons to himself.
His children, at least, have kept him turned from the abyss, giving him strength to continue. He returned to work after a month, but returned to the mosque even sooner. He remembers the wreaths of flowers, small pebbles with koru patterns (a spiral shape based on the appearance of a new unfurling silver fern frond), and other messages of support.
Always he returns to the same spot, where he knelt in prayer that day. I must have survived for a reason, he will think to himself. He must have chosen me to do some good.
III – Rahimi
As Nor Azila Abd Wahid listened intently to the neurosurgeon one afternoon in January, she did not need much to be explained. The operation would connect an electrode through her husband’s spinal cord to his brain.
That much she understood.
A chip, embedded in his skin, could then be pushed like a button whenever the pain felt most intense. Or instead he could activate the trigger through an app on his phone. The chip would immediately stimulate his brain, inducing a level of pain relief – enough to help him sleep through the evening and even perhaps return to his job, as a robotic technician at a dairy company, during the day.
This implant would be a last resort. The possibilities to be explored before then are both limitless and narrow, mostly an ever-dizzying cocktail of painkillers. Ask her today, and she will sum up this vague prognosis in one phrase. “He might get it back, he might not.”
That is the unknowable part.
Even as the neurosurgeon assured them otherwise, the terms of the conversation had moved to managing pain, away from getting back on his feet.
Nor Azila’s husband, whose name is Rahimi Ahmad, sat beside her in a wheelchair, digesting the news.
Rahimi prays at home [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]
Nor Azila’s own deeply specialised research is in a sister field of biomedical engineering. For the past few years, she has tested a new kind of biodegradable implant, one which would make the healing process for certain injuries less mysterious. The day before the shootings, she defended her PhD based on this research. This highly conductive implant, made from hydrogel and lyocell, would act like reconnaissance for broken bones, communicating information to doctors about the bone’s condition. Once the bone heals, the implant would simply biodegrade into the human body. “Without any toxicity at all,” she explains.
This is a major difference between her implant and the proposed brain stimulator chip. Rahimi’s implant would not be biodegradable. “It will be in the body forever,” she says before clarifying that a second operation to remove the implant might one day be necessary.
Since the shootings, her husband’s diet has been restricted along with his movement. Certain fruits and vegetables – such as those with high acid content like pears, limes, apples and mangos – seem to trigger a dislocating pain in his foot. No fruit or vegetable is worth that pain, he says.
Instead his wife has devised a revolving menu of white meat and other vegetables.
To Nor Azila, cooking represents many things. It is how she finds peace of mind; what she does to relieve stress after a long day at the lab. Though the New Zealand government has assisted the family financially, cooking is also a valuable income stream. Nor Azila runs a small catering business from the family’s cramped kitchen, preparing several hundred dishes at a time, mostly served to international students or Malaysian tourists. Her specialities are authentically Malaysian; dishes like briyani, chicken rendang, served alongside coconut rice, washed down with sugary tea and dainty kuih cakes for dessert.
“You have to put all your love into the food,” she says, “that’s what makes your cooking really nice.”
Nor Azila cooks in the family kitchen [Ethan Donnell/Al Jazeera]
On March 15 last year, Nor Azila was preparing a big family lunch to celebrate completing her PhD. Her husband and their 11-year-old son, Ahmad Razif, were attending Friday prayers. A single bullet would enter her husband’s stomach, exploding on impact, leaving many tiny fragments scattered near his spine. “I celebrated my PhD in a different way,” she says. “In the hospital with him.”
Nor Azila barely left his side during the next six days while he was in a coma, and through four surgeries to remove pieces of shrapnel. Those remaining fragments are inoperable now. “They will also be in the body forever,” she says.
Meanwhile, Nor Azila’s mother travelled from Malaysia to look after their children, Ahmad and Nur Faiqah, the couple’s eight-year-old daughter.
Ahmad had been separated from his father during the shootings. Someone helped him over a wall into a neighbour’s garden. Rahimi’s first words after waking from his coma were: “Where’s Ahmad?” He could not believe his son had survived. Nor Azila brought the boy in to visit the next day as proof. But Rahimi noticed a change in him immediately: the previously wisecracking boy was almost mute. He refused to say a word about what had happened that day.
I still hear the screams. The people losing their lives, taking their last breath.
Ahmad’s silence troubles Rahimi more than his own physical recovery. Towards the middle of last year the family returned to Malaysia for three months. Rahimi underwent a course of acupuncture and traditional Malay urut massage during that time, sponsored by the Malaysian government. This open-armed embrace was a reversal of kinds. Almost six years ago now, the family had moved to New Zealand for lack of alternatives after the Malaysian government was unable to support Nor Azila’s studies.
Still, Rahimi’s pain and dosage were reduced after this treatment. And being in Malaysia seemed to help Ahmad even more. The foods and familiar sights of childhood comforted him.
There were many fond memories for his parents, too. Rahimi and Nor Azila had first met as students, a courtship that withstood the passage of years as both studied towards qualifications. But not everything is bathed in such a warm glow. Nor Azila would have to rise in the predawn, an effort to beat the traffic crunch to work each morning. Heading out on foot in Bangi – a busy, metropolitan area just outside of Kuala Lumpur – was not an option.
“You wouldn’t walk,” says Rahimi.
IV – Tyrone
Today, Tyrone Smith has one foot firmly planted in each world. It was not always the case. If you want to know the whole story, the plot threads can be traced through the ink on his arm. Long before he converted to Islam 14 years ago, he was gritting his teeth while a crude, Greek-inspired tattoo – no more than a doodle – was chiselled onto his shoulder. Later, as a new convert during Hajj, the cries of “haram! haram! haram!” from fellow worshippers seemed to follow him wherever he went. “Can you tell them I’m a convert, and I had that done before I became a Muslim?” he told his friend.
Still he always wanted to have his whakapapa (genealogy) tattooed on his arm. He remembers even asking his teacher, who instructed him in Islam, whether a fatwa might allow for this. “No. It’s totally forbidden.”
Some years later, there was a period when his faith wavered. He left his prayers, stopped visiting the mosque. He blamed the local Muslim community at the time. Reflecting on those days now, he instead thinks the problem was himself. “I just wanted to go back to the world that I knew, the world that I came from. Go back to drinking, go back to the drugs.”
One day when his faith was at its lowest ebb, he decided to have his tā moko (traditional Māori tattoo) done anyway, adapted in secret over the top of the juvenile scribbling from his youth. “What on earth have you done?!” he remembers his wife, also a Māori convert to Islam, saying to him.
His tā moko spirals around his bicep, depicting the histories of his tūpuna and tīpuna (ancestors), and even incorporates tatau design elements (Samoan traditional tattoo) to honour his brother-in-law’s connection to Samoa.
What seemed like a contradiction does not seem that way now.