'We never expected this to happen in New Zealand'
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared mosque shooting a terrorist attack
As a community of New Zealand’s Muslims gathered for Friday prayers, a gunman carried out an attack that is being felt around the world and has left a largely peaceful country reeling.
On Saturday evening, the death toll from a mass shooting at two mosques in downtown Christchurch was still rising. Initially, 49 people were declared dead, but two Jordanians and a Saudi national succumbed to their wounds on Saturday, raising the death toll above 50.
Many at the two mosques on Friday had chosen to make New Zealand their home, others moved to flee conflict and war. Among the wounded and dead are men and women, the elderly, teenagers and children.
Yami Nabi was outside the Christchurch District Court on Saturday morning hoping to see the start of a process that will deliver some justice to his family. Suspect Brenton Tarrant appeared before a judge, handcuffed and wearing a white prison robe.
The suspect did not speak during the hearing and has been held in custody pending further hearings.
Mr Nabi was 10 minutes late for prayers on Friday and just missed the tragedy that unfolded inside the Al Noori mosque on Deans Avenue. His father, Hajj Daoud Nabi, is among the dead.
"We never expected this to happen in New Zealand," he told The National.
"I always felt welcome here. Dad was a leader in the community."
Khaja Mohiuddin, 30, was at prayers in the Linwood Avenue Mosque when he heard gunshots and in the panic hid in a hallway with around 20 others.
He describes an act of bravery by a man who disarmed the attacker after leaving their hiding place.
He does not know the name of the man who may have saved many more from being killed or injured. He remembered him saying he had to "do something" before leaving the hallway and "jumping" at the gunman and "pulling the gun down".
Mr Tarrant is believed to have pulled up to the Al Noori Mosque a little before 1.40pm local time. Just six minutes later he was driving along Deans Avenue, leaving 41 dead and others dying behind him.
A short time later he entered the Linwood Mosque, east of the city centre, where he is believed to have murdered at least eight others.
He then moved on towards an unknown destination before being apprehended by two police officers south-west of Linwood Mosque. In his car were a number of weapons and two improvised explosive devices.
It took 36 minutes from when the first shots were fired until the police tackled the gunman to the floor. But the impact on his actions are being felt not just across New Zealand, but in much of the world with dozens of nationalities among the victims.
"We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism," said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a national address. "We were chosen for the fact that we are none of these things. It was because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values.
"You have chosen us but we utterly reject and condemn you," she said.
Saying it was the worst ever peacetime mass killing in New Zealand, Ms Ardern added that "this can now only be described as a terrorist attack".
She praised the two officers who apprehended Mr Tarrant and said that the suspect clearly planned to continue his rampage if he hadn’t been stopped.
The authorities in New Zealand have vowed to pass new gun control laws in response to the shooting. The country has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world, but a historically low homicide rate.
The murder rate in 2017 hit a 40-year low with 48 homicides. Ms Ardern said the suspected mosque attacker was a licensed gun owner and that among the five weapons used in the shooting were two semi-automatic firearms and two shotguns.
The government plans to outlaw semi-automatic rifles and will look at other regulations such as registering individual weapons rather than just the owner.
The imam who was leading prayers when the gunman entered the Linwood Mosque and started shooting said he would not let the massacre shake him.
"We still love this country," said Ibrahim Abdul Halim, adding that extremists would "never ever touch our confidence".
He said the majority of New Zealanders "are very keen to support all of us, to give us full solidarity". Mr Halim described how strangers exchanged hugs with him on Saturday.
"They start to give me big hug, and give me more solidarity. This is something very important."
Christchurch city councillor Yani Johanson, who represents the Linwood ward, was on his way to a meeting when he stumbled across the cordon with a police officer training a gun down the street.
"For me, representing the Linwood ward and previously Hagley-Ferrymead, it's just heartbreaking," he told The National.
The Hagley-Ferrymead ward is close to the second mosque targeted on Deans Avenue.
He said that he and councillor Jimmy Chin had been busy working on a multicultural strategy for the city. Christchurch welcomed a huge amount of immigrants in the wake of a large earthquake in 2011, with people from all over the world moving to the city to help with the rebuilding.
"There's no place for hate in our community. This is just not who we are and it's amazing how many people have been saying that," he said.
Men and women from the New Zealand Muslim Association in Auckland flew to Christchurch to assist with the funeral rites, washing the bodies, wrapping them in white cloth and taking them to the cemetery.
None of the bodies have been released by police as yet but funerals are expected to take place in the coming days.
In hospitals close to the site of the attacks, 36 people were still undergoing treatment. Twelve operating theatres worked through the night with teams of doctors working in shifts.
“Once we have provided for the medical needs of those injured, and the well-being of their families and whanau, we will be able to focus on the psychosocial well-being of our wider Canterbury community," Canterbury District Health Board chief executive David Meates said on Friday.
Updated: March 17, 2019 09:02 AM