Why all Kiwis are in mourning: a small nation's spirit is bruised

New Zealand may be changed forever, but I hope we manage to build upon the values and messages of the victims, not the perpetrator

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 16: Locals continue to leave messages and flowers for the victims outside the Botanic Gardens on March 16, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. At least 49 people are confirmed dead, with more than 40 people injured following attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on Friday afternoon. 41 of the victims were killed at Al Noor mosque on Deans Avenue and seven died at Linwood mosque. Another victim died later in Christchurch hospital. Three people are in custody over the mass shootings. One man has been charged with murder.  (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
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I'm a Kiwi that has spent much of my life living in Muslim-majority nations: the UAE, Indonesia, Malaysia and Oman. When I introduce myself as a New Zealander, the person I’m meeting - wherever they're from  - generally says something like, "that’s a nice, peaceful/green place".

I remember where I was when I heard about 9/11 and what I was doing when I first saw the devastation of the 2013 Ghouta chemical attack. I felt empathy for these tragedies, but I have never felt so heartbroken by something as I have by the shooting in Christchurch’s mosques.

It has so far martyred 49 Muslims who called Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud in Maori) home; and gravely injured dozens of others. Many of these people were born in New Zealand, but there were others who came to the country to seek refuge from violence, giving up so much to start anew.

I’ve spent the last day crying, feeling despondent,  scrolling through Twitter to report the horrific video that just keeps on being shared, watching the news, WhatsApping my family, who all live in New Zealand, and then crying again.

I feel guilty that this happened in the place I call home where I thought people would be safe

But then I feel guilty: I haven’t lost anyone I know. Why am I being so self-indulgent? I try to stop, but then I hear the call to prayer from the mosque next to my house in Dubai, and I start crying again.

I’m mourning the dead who were pillars of their community, who ran support groups and fed the homeless; I’m angry that promising young teens and small children with so much ahead of them lost their lives; and I feel guilty that this happened in the place I call home where I thought people would be safe. To lose 49 people in a city of only around 300,000 people is a true tragedy in that community that will be so widely felt. I'm so sorry.

I’m also worried that the remarkable qualities of my unique homeland of 4.8 million people have been punctured by this senseless act of terrorism.

Yes, there’s crime in New Zealand, but never terror, until now.

In New Zealand, policemen don’t walk around armed. You don't worry when someone walks into a mall or cinema with a bulky looking backpack, and the only emergency drills children learn in school are to "drop, cover and hold on" in case of an earthquake.

Kiwis are strong - if you were to stereotype New Zealanders as a people we are self-deprecating, stoic and non-judgmental. But, you know what, we’re also soft and that’s because we’ve been able to be.

Homelands being senselessly carved up and devastated is, unfortunately, a daily and ongoing reality for my friends from Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Division and devastation is also, in many ways, an ongoing reality for people from the United States: who see mass shootings on their home soil frighteningly frequently.

But us Kiwis truly never expected this to happen on our soil, and I think we’re also all grieving for the time when, just a few days ago, that was still the case.

Well-wishers light 49 candles as they pay respects to victims outside the hospital in Christchurch on March 16, 2019, after a shooting incident at two mosques in the city the previous day. A right-wing extremist who filmed himself rampaging through two mosques in the quiet New Zealand city of Christchurch killing 49 worshippers appeared in court on a murder charge on March 16. / AFP / Anthony WALLACE
Well-wishers light 49 candles as they pay respects to victims outside the hospital in Christchurch. Photo: AFP

I remember a friend from Syria’s eyes glazing over a few years ago when people were complaining about something trivial at work: "what’s up?" I asked her on the side quietly so the group couldn’t hear. "My cousin died last night," she said, offering me a vine leaf snack she’d cooked, displaying the extraordinary sense of generosity the Syrian people I know exude.

I am always so in awe of her, and others', ability to be kind and gracious in day-to-day life, to listen to my small gripes as if they’re important, when their home is a shadow of itself that is being terrorised hourly.

Earthquakes cause tremors, but this has truly shaken the nation

It’s not that the people of Christchurch haven’t suffered: in 2011, 185 people were killed in a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. They then had to live through the daily reminder and re-traumatising of aftershocks for years to come. When mother nature strikes, it’s horrific, senseless and scary, but afterwards people can unite unequivocally, whereas terrorism aims to divide. Earthquakes cause tremors, but this has truly shaken the nation.

epaselect epa07441388 Members of the public mourn at a flower memorial near the Al Noor Masjid on Deans Rd in Christchurch, New Zealand, 16 March 2019. A gunman killed 49 worshippers at the Al Noor Masjid and Linwood Masjid on 15 March. The 28-year-old Australian suspect, Brenton Tarrant, appeared in court on 16 March and was charged with murder.  EPA/MICK TSIKAS  AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT
Members of the public mourn at a flower memorial near the Al Noor Masjid on Deans Rd in Christchurch. Photo: EPA

I hope that the trolls that killed so many on Friday don’t manage to change New Zealand for good - we’re wounded, it will probably leave a scar that will change our identity forever, but let’s focus on the victims and their service to society and perpetuating their message, not that of the perpetrator and his meme-filled, senseless rants.  I hope we now up the empathy and the connection, not the distrust and fear. The openness and gentle nature that comes from being an island nation at the bottom of the world is part of what makes New Zealand so special, let’s not let that calcify.

Remember the words of New Zealand singer-songwriter Dave Dobbyn: in Welcome Home he sings: "You have sacrificed much to be here / There but for grace as I offer my hand / Welcome home, I bid you welcome, I bid you welcome / Welcome home from the bottom of my heart / Out here on the edge / The empire is fading by the day / And the world is so weary in war / Maybe we'll find that new way."