Khaled Mustafa’s long journey from the horrors of civil war in Syria ended with a different kind of barbarity in a place he thought would be a sanctuary for him and his family.
Mustafa, his wife and children arrived in Christchurch a few months ago. On Friday he was shot dead along with 49 others attending prayers at two mosques in the New Zealand city. One of his teenage sons, Hamza, is missing; the other, Zaid, was recovering from surgery in hospital.
His wife and daughter were in “total shock, devastation and horror”, said Ali Akil of Syrian Solidarity New Zealand. The family had “survived atrocities” in their home country and “arrived here in a safe haven only to be killed in the most atrocious way”, he added.
Names of the dead and injured began to trickle out yesterday as many people in Christchurch struggled to find words for what had happened. Across the country, people were numbed by the mass killing, the worst in New Zealand’s recent history. At a cordon a few yards from the mosques where the deadly rampage unfolded, people came, one by one, to pay their respects. A few shed quiet tears or spoke in hushed tones, but mostly they just stood and watched.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, travelled to the city to comfort the Muslim community. At the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre, she told them: “New Zealand is united in its grief and we are united in our grief.”
The heartbreak touched many nations, reflecting the origins of those killed, injured and bereaved, many of whom were refugees or migrants. The places where they or their parents had started their lives included India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine and Fiji.
The first to be formally identified was Daoud Nabi, a 71-year-old who left his home in Afghanistan more than four decades ago. His son Omar said his father had described New Zealand as “a slice of paradise”.
Another brother, Yama, who was running late for Friday prayers at Al Noor mosque, found a scene of chaos, confusion and bloodshed. Outside the mosque, a friend told him: “Your father saved my life.”
But it was only when Yama watched the gunman’s video, streamed live on social media as he carried out the atrocity, that he found an image of his father lying dead. “I had to go back and forward and back and forward a lot, but I knew it was him,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Daoud had “jumped in the firing line to save somebody else’s life and he has passed away,” said Omar. “Just helping people is his main thing. It makes me feel like he wanted other people to live.”
More details of the dead emerged yesterday. Four-year-old Abdullahi Dirie was at the mosque with his father and four siblings. His family members survived, but his uncle, Abdulrahman Hashi, said the boy died in hospital.
Hashi, 60, a preacher at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Minneapolis, received a phone call on Friday morning from his brother-in-law, Adan Ibrahin Dirie, who was also in the hospital with gunshot wounds. Four of his children escaped unharmed, but the youngest, Abdullahi, was killed.
The family had fled Somalia in the mid-1990s as refugees and resettled in New Zealand. “You cannot imagine how I feel,” Hashi told the Washington Post. “This is a problem of extremism. Some people think the Muslims in their country are part of that, but these are innocent people.”
The family of Sayyad Milne, 14, described as a good-natured, kind teenager with dreams of being an international footballer, had waited all day for news as to his whereabouts. By evening he was confirmed dead.
“I’ve lost my little boy, he’s just turned 14,” said his father, John. “I haven’t heard officially yet that he’s actually passed, but I know he has because he was seen. [I’m] keeping it together and tears are helping. People are helping. Just by being here, it is helping.”
He was told Sayyad had been lying on the floor in the mosque, bleeding from the lower parts of his body.
“I remember him as my baby who I nearly lost when he was born. Such a struggle he’s had throughout all his life. He’s been unfairly treated but he’s risen above that and he’s very brave. A brave little soldier. It’s so hard … to see him just gunned down by someone who didn’t care about anyone or anything.”
Sayyad was a pupil at Cashmere high school, whose principal, Mark Wilson, said: “This is an act of terror and hate; we stand in solidarity with our NZ community in condemning this horrendous crime.
“Our school had three current students on excused leave from school to attend Friday prayers at the main mosque. We are aware that two of these students are missing, and the other is in hospital with a wound. A past pupil of our school was also at the mosque and is also missing. We also understand that there were two fathers of students at our school who were both shot in this incident.”
The best response to such a hateful incident was to show love, he said. “This can simply mean being kind and caring to each other, be patient, compassionate, and understand everyone will respond differently.”
Many remained missing, including three-year-old Mucad Ibrahim, who was last seen at al Noor mosque with his family. His brother, Abdi, escaped the carnage while their father pretended to be dead.
“We’re most likely thinking he’s one of the people who has died at the mosque … at this stage everyone’s saying he’s dead,” Abdi said. “It’s been pretty tough, a lot of people are ringing me asking if you need help. It’s been hard at the moment, [we’ve] never dealt with this.”
Sharifullah Najib, originally from Afghanistan, was at Christchurch hospital with a friend before heading to a school where a casualty list was posted. “We have come to visit people, we have lost many, many of our friends,” he said. “We are not sure who is alive and who is in the hospital. I have three friends inside.” He added: “New Zealanders are supporting us a lot, they love us. They are good people, they are us and we are them.”
Survivors were also in severe shock. A 52-year-old father, Adeeb Sami, took a bullet to save his sons at al Noor mosque. He dived over his sons Abdullah, 29, and Ali, 23, as the gunman burst into the mosque.
“My dad is a real hero,” Adeeb’s daughter, Heba, said. “He got shot in the back near his spine in an attempt to shield my brothers, but he didn’t let anything happen to them.” Adeeb was rushed to hospital where he underwent surgery to remove the bullet.
“I spoke to dad,” Heba said. “He sounded weak and appeared inconsolable. My family survived the attack, but many of our friends didn’t.”
Around the country, New Zealanders visited mosques yesterday to show solidarity and to bring flowers and messages of support. “This is your home and you should have been safe here,” one of the messages said. “Sending your souls love, happiness and peace.”
The mood was “sombre, shocked, but not fearful,” said a man who attended the Wellington Islamic community mosque in Kilbirnie. A photo he took of the outside the building showed messages scrawled inside love hearts in support of Muslims.
“The thing that struck me most was actually the kids,” he said. “Maybe they don’t understand the full gravity, but they were there drawing their hearts out.”
Paying his respects near al Noor mosque, Egen Isaac said: “My heart and soul is in grief. I just feel astonished and grieved. This is the first time something like this has happened here, and I hope the last time it happens here or anywhere.”