LIFE AFTER DEATH IN
CHRISTCHURCH

A special report by Ashleigh Stewart

Four months ago, a terrorist strode into two mosques in Christchurch and killed 51 Muslims during Friday prayers.

Time has done little to heal the wounds, both physical and psychological, inflicted on that day.

Here, the Muslim community pieces together a day that has shattered their livelihoods ...

... and the authorities charged with responding to the country's worst terror attack reflect on an incident that changed New Zealand forever.

March 15, 2019. Morning.

Every Friday, Jordanian Wasseim Alsati began his day by taking his 4-year-old daughter out to a central city cafe. He had a coffee and she would have steamed milk with two marshmallows. 

He would usually take Alen home before he went to Friday prayers but on March 15, he decided to take her along. It would be her first time going to the mosque with her father. She was excited about the adventure.

A photo of Alen taken before the attacks. Courtesy of Wasseim Alsati

A photo of Alen taken before the attacks. Courtesy of Wasseim Alsati

It was about midday. Across the city, Christchurch's Muslim community were readying themselves to head to one of the three mosques in town.  At the same time, a 28-year-old Australian man was readying himself to storm two of those three mosques with a gun, and shoot at every person in sight.

Iraq-born Adeeb Sami was having coffee with his daughter Hamsa in Riccarton, after running a couple of errands. It was her, and her twin brother Ali's 23rd birthdays. 

He took a beaming selfie with his daughter at a cafe at 12.51pm. 

Adeeb and his daughter Hamsa at a cafe; the picture was taken at 12.51pm. Adeeb Sami

Adeeb and his daughter Hamsa at a cafe; the picture was taken at 12.51pm. Adeeb Sami

Adeeb had arrived in his second home the night before, on his first trip back after several months. He hadn't told his friends he was back in Christchurch yet. He wanted to do so by posting a picture on Facebook of the sweeping seaside views from his coastal home and one of his car’s personalised "Adeeb" licence plates, with the caption "Home sweet home".

He decided he would do that later, after Friday prayers.

After coffee, Hamsa went off to meet her mother as Adeeb left for Al Noor Mosque.

Four-year-old Mucad Ibrahim was the youngest victim of the shooting. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

Four-year-old Mucad Ibrahim was the youngest victim of the shooting. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

Abdi Ibrahim, 30, from Somalia, was en route with his brother Mucad, 4. The boy was in good spirits, having asked his mother if he could wear his white qamis and hat. It was a rare request, his brother recalls, as he usually wore whatever he was told to.

Dressed and ready to go, he had asked his mother if he looked like a sheikh.

Mucad was animated for the whole drive over to the mosque, repeatedly asking his older brother for ice cream. Abdi said he would buy him one after prayers. 

A picture of Abdi and his two sisters. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

A picture of Abdi and his two sisters. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

That Friday, prayer time was just after 1.30pm. It was a warm autumn's day in Christchurch after a late, hot summer. The temperature hovered around 20°C as members of the city's Muslim community hurried down the road to the gold-domed mosque, with nearby parking spaces quickly disappearing as the minutes ticked by. 

Adeeb took a space inside beside his best friend, Abdelfattah Qasem. Abdelfattah had been his first friend when he arrived in Christchurch, all those years ago. He didn't know that his son Ali was in the back room and his eldest son Abdullah was making his way there on foot.

The congregation arrives for Friday prayers, three months after the attacks. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

The congregation arrives for Friday prayers, three months after the attacks. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

The atmosphere was genial as people arrived and took a space inside. Christchurch's Muslim community was relatively small, only several hundred, meaning everyone more or less knew each other – a sentiment central to New Zealand itself.  

The faces represented the myriad communities that had left homelands far away and resettled in the South Island town. Among them were refugees from Syria, people who had fled war in Afghanistan or Iraq, and those who were born in Christchurch but still honoured their heritage. 

Mucad and Abdi arrived before the imam had begun. Mucad rushed off to find his father and give him a hug, before sitting in the front row. Abdi sat behind them, near his older brother.

Zahid Ismail, left, and his twin brother Junaid Ismail. Courtesy Zahid Ismail

Zahid Ismail, left, and his twin brother Junaid Ismail. Courtesy Zahid Ismail

A few minutes' drive north of the mosque, Zahid Ismail was leaving a midwife's appointment with his wife. It was a routine check-up. The two were expecting their first baby. 

But the appointment had made them late for Friday prayers and the streets were full by the time they drove down to try to find a park. His twin brother Junaid was already inside. 

Inside, mosque imam Gamal Fouda had just finished addressing the congregation in Arabic. He began in English with: "My dear brothers and sisters." 

Outside, Wasseim and his daughter were laughing and joking as they walked towards the mosque, holding hands. 

Christchurch: 'Home by default'

Wasseim arrived in New Zealand about five years ago from Jordan. He slept rough for the first few weeks in the country, desperately seeking a stable job. In the following years he established a successful career as a barber. He and his wife have four children. Alen is the youngest. 

For many migrants, the story of resettling in Christchurch is similar. It wasn't necessarily their choice of destination – it's no Vancouver or New York or Sydney –  but it became home. 

Wasseim Alsati and his four children. Courtesy Wasseim Alsati

Wasseim Alsati and his four children. Courtesy Wasseim Alsati

"It is home by default, by the sequence of events. Christchurch offered to be home. All the circumstances led me to here," Hazim Al-Umari says. Hazim's son, Hussein Al-Umari, was also in the mosque on March 15.

It's Ramadan when I visit the family in Christchurch for iftar. Hazim is the only one who could face fasting this year. Hussein's mother Janna Ezat and sister Aya Al-Umari are too grief-stricken, remembering previous years in which Hussein would be there to break fast with them. 

Dessert comes in the form of Arabic sweets from Mefco, a specialty grocery store in the city. The owner died on March 15 too, Janna says solemnly, as pictures of a happy Hussein flash across the screensaver of the TV behind us. 

Hazim Al-Umari and daughter Aya Al-Umari at iftar in Christchurch. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

Hazim Al-Umari and daughter Aya Al-Umari at iftar in Christchurch. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

Hazim left his job as a well-respected oil engineer in Iraq in 1980, as Mosul teetered on the brink of collapse, and took up a job at Adco in Abu Dhabi. But due to a lack of permanent residency options, he always knew he would need to move on eventually. He'd already exhausted most of his other options before he turned to New Zealand. 

"Even Papua New Guinea. I knew there were cannibals but I tried anyway, and what the hell, even this place rejects me!" Hazim laughs.  "New Zealand accepted me without an interview or anything. I travelled to New Zealand in 1993 but we didn’t have any money. We stayed in a motel and everyday we were feeding pigeons."

Hussein and his mother Janna. Courtesy Janna Ezat

Hussein and his mother Janna. Courtesy Janna Ezat

Aya looks me in the eye from across the table, deadpan: "That was our activity. Feeding the pigeons in the park."

In Abu Dhabi, Janna was a renowned calligrapher and artist, having designed watches for the Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed. In New Zealand, she struggled to adjust to her new anonymity. That, and the seeming step back in time. "In Abu Dhabi at that time, everything you touched was new. And then we arrived in Auckland."

Janna Ezat on the last time she saw her son, Hussein Al-Umari.

Janna Ezat on the last time she saw her son, Hussein Al-Umari.

But Aya and Hussein grew to love their adopted home. Subsequent trips back to Abu Dhabi to visit Hazim, who stayed there to work until he moved to New Zealand permanently, were met with comments like "it's too much" or "too big".

But Hussein never forgot his roots. He was integrated into the Muslim community. He was good friends with futsal star Atta Elayyan, the Jordanan-Kiwi of Palestinian origin. He was friends with Ali Adeeb, Adeeb Sami's son.

Mosque victims Hussein Al-Umari and Atta Elayyan when they were younger. Courtesy Aya Al-Umari

Mosque victims Hussein Al-Umari and Atta Elayyan when they were younger. Courtesy Aya Al-Umari

Perhaps not surprisingly,  Adeeb Sami's family's relocation to New Zealand had taken a similar route as the Al-Umaris. Adeeb also left Iraq for a better life in the UAE and worked his way through the ranks at Aecom to become director.

He sent his children to New Zealand for university, and now splits his time between Al Ain and Christchurch. He laughs as he quips: "I’ve lived in Iraq and I never got shot, and I came to Christchurch and this is where I got shot."

Adeeb Sami, with his daughter Hamsa and wife Sana. Dave Walker for The National

Adeeb Sami, with his daughter Hamsa and wife Sana. Dave Walker for The National

The call to prayer has just sounded through his cliffside home in Redcliffs. It's the second last night of Ramadan and the family gather to pray.

The only telling sign that Adeeb was inflicted with a near-fatal injury three months ago is that he is rising and sitting on a stool rather than kneeling. 

Adeeb Sami describes the shooting in Al Noor Mosque.

Adeeb Sami describes the shooting in Al Noor Mosque.

According to census data from 2013, the number of Muslims in New Zealand leapt almost 30 per cent since 2006. Muslims now accounted for about 46,000 people nationwide but there weren't any concrete figures on how many were in Christchurch. It was small though, and tight-knit. Even more so now. 

'They were loudly praying in Arabic, and he came and shot them one by one'

"My dear brothers and sisters." 

The words that preceded the terror that changed New Zealand forever. 

Adeeb still remembers the cracking sound that came from behind him as the imam took a breath to begin his next sentence. To him, it sounded like someone was letting off fireworks.

That was the moment that a man arrived at Al Noor, wielding a semi automatic gun and a head-mounted camera. A live-stream would go on for 17 minutes and showed his every movement, every time he raised his gun at another person.

As he approached the entrance, he was greeted warmly by an elderly Muslim man, who said: "Hello, brother". 

Mohemmed Nabi was the first victim of the shootings. Photo: Rex

Mohemmed Nabi was the first victim of the shootings. Photo: Rex

The terrorist's first shots felled Mohemmed Nabi, 71, from war-torn Afghanistan, as he welcomed the man into his place of worship.

Adeeb believes he was probably one of the next to take a bullet. As the incessant popping sound became more frenzied, he saw a man spraying bullets into the kneeling congregation, and then, a pain in his back. As he fell to the floor, his friend, Abdulfattah, leant over him. "In that moment, he said, ‘What’s going on Adeeb?’ and I said there’s a bullet in my back. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I will save you.' And then the shooter came back and shot him.”

Chaos erupted in the main room of the mosque as men fell across the room. The emergency exit wouldn't open and bodies became heaped by the door. Someone broke a window at the front and some people managed to escape. But many didn't. Some played dead. The imam ducked behind the minbar and hid.

Ali Adeeb speaks about his ordeal from his home in Redcliffs. Dave Walker for The National

Ali Adeeb speaks about his ordeal from his home in Redcliffs. Dave Walker for The National

As the shooter returned to his car to reload, Adeeb saw Ali in the back room, dialling 111. He dragged himself to his son, ordered him to put his phone down, and then threw himself on top of him.“The guy returned and started shooting again. This time he used a different weapon," Adeeb said. "Whoever he sees alive he’s shooting again. I remember some guys, they started loudly praying in Arabic and he came and shot them one by one.

"Then I got the second bullet in my shoulder, which came exactly by Ali’s face. He had a big red mark from it. I could feel him shaking beneath me. The whole eight minutes, I thought it’s the end. The whole time I was thinking about Ali, I wanted Ali to be safe."

Adeeb Sami: He came and shot them one by one.

Adeeb Sami: He came and shot them one by one.

Hussein Al-Umari had been sitting near the front, near the window, and according to where his keys were found, near his friend, Atta Elayyan. They were both near the broken window but neither of them escaped. Ali later spoke of seeing Hussein rise and run towards the attacker, saying something along the lines of: "Who are you? What are you doing here? This is God's house." 

He was shot as he did so. Atta died too.

Hussein died trying to protect others in the mosque. Courtesy Janna Ezat

Hussein died trying to protect others in the mosque. Courtesy Janna Ezat

Nearby, Abdi was swept up in a group trying to escape. "I ran to the nearest exit, which was at the right door, and that’s when my mind shut down and I forgot about the boy," Abdi recalls. "While I was escaping, I saw my older brother run so I was behind him and while I was running, in the  back of my mind I was thinking, 'What if there are multiple shooters?' So I was saying my final prayers and thought, 'Today is the day I think I am going to die'."

He couldn't see Mucad, or his father. With the sounds of gunfire ringing in their ears, the few who managed to escape ran to the back of the mosque, through the carpark. "I kept running as I knew jumping over the fence was the only way of escaping and making it alive, but I was wearing my qamis and I could not jump over. As I attempted it I was losing my focus and calm and started to panic, so I asked the guy next to me, 'Please help me with your hands'. I saw one of my friends, Sayid, and he was in shock yelling 'My dad’s in here I left him behind I need to go back'. I told him my dad’s there too and it is not safe to go back we have to keep moving forward as it would be suicide."

Police attempt to clear people from outside the mosque. AP Photo

Police attempt to clear people from outside the mosque. AP Photo

Abdi persuaded his friend to keep moving forward, and the group ran across the next-door neighbour's yard and to the front door, banging on it and asking for help. "He understood, and told us to get inside and escape the main door for safety, so we did. While we were running, I could see so many people running on the road – I spotted one Somalian brother and told him to stop the car. He shouted, 'Why are there so many people running and what’s going on?'"

It had only been a few minutes since the gunman arrived, but dozens lay bleeding and dying, inside and outside the mosque. The terrorist had finished his second round of shooting and was about to return to his car.

Outside, Wasseim and Alen were almost at the entrance. As they approached, he saw a friend up ahead rush out on to the road and yell at him to run. He was confused. Run where? Into the mosque? Away from it? It was then that he saw what he thought was a "military man" walk out on to the street, holding a rifle, looking in his direction.

But he wasn't looking at Wasseim. He was looking downwards, at the exact place where a tiny hand was clasped in his. 

Armed officers push back members of the public after the shooting. Reuters

Armed officers push back members of the public after the shooting. Reuters

Wasseim realised what was happening as the terrorist raised his gun and pointed it at his daughter's head. He reacted by yanking the girl upwards, trying to pull her out of harm's way. The first bullet hit Alen in the bottom, the second in her stomach and the third on her toe.

Wasseim then took a bullet to the stomach and two to the back as his legs gave way from under him and he fell. On his way down, he tried to save his daughter by throwing her between the wheel of a car and a footpath. He collapsed on top of her, trying to shield her while also playing dead. He then watched as the terrorist got into his car and drove away, shooting a woman as he peeled away from the curb, and driving over another.  

In the minutes that passed, two strangers rushed over to Wasseim and his daughter. He passed Alen to one of them and screamed at them to get her to a hospital. She'd turned blue, and then yellow, and was shaking profusely. 

The man helped them both into his car, with Wasseim in the front seat, as they mounted the curb and sped to Christchurch Hospital, which was barely two kilometres from Al Noor, just across Hagley Park. "Then I realised she was dead in the car," Wasseim says, his voice cracking.

Grieving members of the public sit on a curb following the shooting at Al Noor. EPA

Grieving members of the public sit on a curb following the shooting at Al Noor. EPA

At the same time, Zahid and his wife had just arrived.

From the car, he saw a "person lying on the street and a person bent over them". He thought they might have fainted and that someone was calling an ambulance.

"Then we saw the gunman shooting at people on the footpath from his car," Zahid says. "The only thing I was thinking was that this was a gang shooting. He drove past us, in his video you can see us. I thought he was lining us up. Then I quickly reversed into a driveway."

He watched the man drive away, shooting into the street as he did so. He parked his own car, made sure his wife was OK and told her to stay put, then took off in the direction of the mosque. A family friend he ran into told him there had been a shooting. "We saw this congregation of people near the masjid entrance. Then I’m immediately thinking of my brother. I rang him at 1.52pm."

Zahid rushed back to his wife and drove their car around the side of the mosque, frantically searching for his brother's car. When they found it, a policeman came rushing down shouting "Go, you can't be here."  

Adeeb Sami was shot twice in the mosque and had to be placed in an induced coma. Dave Walker for The National

Adeeb Sami was shot twice in the mosque and had to be placed in an induced coma. Dave Walker for The National

Only three people rose after the shooter left Al Noor. Ali was one of them. He took off Adeeb's trousers and used them to press on his wounds. He remembers someone near by asking him for help, and him saying that he needed to help his father first. He still does not know who that person was.

Adeeb reacted to the dire situation with humour, telling his son to look after his family, joking that it was "like what people say in the movies".

“I was hearing my friends around me making the gurgling sound. Until now I can hear it in the night. Fattah was sitting so close to me. He was the first guy I met when I came to this country," Adeeb says. “I sat down with those guys before the shooting and after, I saw them lying down like that.”

Across town, his wife Sana Mullayounus had just walked into a supermarket with Hamsa.

Sana Mullayounus "fell to the ground" when she heard about her family being caught up in the attacks. Dave Walker for The National

Sana Mullayounus "fell to the ground" when she heard about her family being caught up in the attacks. Dave Walker for The National

“One of my friends called me and said, ‘Did you hear anything from Adeeb?’ I said, ‘What, he’s at the mosque, he’s praying'," Sana says. "I didn’t know Ali was at the mosque. That’s when Hamsa said Ali had started going.

“I was driving like a crazy person. Hamsa got out and ran away through Hagley Park to go to the mosque. One lady came from Hagley and said, 'He’s still shooting people'. When I knew that my husband and my son were there I fell down to the street.”

Nearby, the wounded and injured were being loaded into ambulances. Others, like Hamsa, were rushing across the park.

Adeeb Sami: I could feel Ali's body shaking.

Adeeb Sami: I could feel Ali's body shaking.

'The whole time he was just telling me to find his daughter'

Spencer Friese is an orderly at the hospital but that day he helped to save lives. Dave Walker for The National

Spencer Friese is an orderly at the hospital but that day he helped to save lives. Dave Walker for The National

Spencer Friese arrived at Christchurch Hospital on March 15 as he would any other day. He clocked in at 7.30am and set about his usual duties as an orderly – shuttling people around the hospital. 

About noon, he was in Christchurch Women's Hospital, next door to the emergency department, when "two police cars came flying in".

"They never do that," Spencer recalls."I thought I’ll go down and find out what's going on and come back, and I went straight down and didn’t come back until two days later."

Spencer was told by police that there had been a mass shooting and was immediately sent to the emergency department to clear all available space. Patients were escorted to wards. Some moved themselves. And then the casualties started coming in.

Most were grievously injured, far more than they should have been from a typical gunshot wound. It would later be discovered that the shooter had used hollow-point ammunition, bullets designed to cause maximum tissue injury by ricocheting and causing damage to nearby organs.  

Christchurch Hospital is less than two kilometres from Al Noor Mosque. Getty

Christchurch Hospital is less than two kilometres from Al Noor Mosque. Getty

Spencer was primarily charged with getting the injured through to the operating theatre. Usually, on any given day, four acute theatres would be running. That quickly became 12.

One particular memory sticks with him. It was one of the first victims who had come in. 

"The patient I remember distinctly, he’d been shot up high and a couple lower. As I was pushing him to theatre the nurse was holding pressure on [his wounds] but she had to go forward or down his body to do something else. He was really bad down below and I just came and put pressure on his shoulder."

Spencer pushed the stretcher with one hand, and held the man's shoulder with his other. "The whole time he was just telling me to find his daughter. I started to look for her but I couldn’t find her. And then I never saw him again."

That man was Wasseim Alsati.

As Wasseim went in for surgery, so did his daughter. Vascular surgeon Adib Khanafer had been called out of another surgery to attend to her. 

"I went running to the emergency theatre and it's an absolute shock of a scene," Adib recalls. "There was a young girl on the operating table. The paediatric surgeons had performed an open tummy pack on her abdomen. She had arrived clinically dead to the hospital. They worked on her for 30 to 40 minutes to get her back."

Adib Khanafer. Courtesy photo

Adib Khanafer. Courtesy photo

Adib is a Muslim and a father of four children, so this case was always going to be particularly hard. He caught a glimpse of the small, lifeless form on the operating table as he prepped for surgery and it was already too much.

"I just started crying, I took my surgical lenses off while I was scrubbing and getting ready and I just cried."

Of Alen's three gunshot wounds, it was the one to her pelvis that was causing the most trouble. It had hit a major vessel, one that carries deoxygenated blood to the heart. "Ninety per cent of people die from that injury. It's paper-thin and extremely difficult to repair," Adib says.

Alen's surgery lasted two hours, after which he was able to meet with Wasseim, who was desperate for news of his daughter. "I reassured him that she was going to be absolutely fine and he needs to make sure he gets better, too."

'This was different to the earthquakes because someone had done it to a group of people'

As dozens of injured flooded Christchurch Hospital from Al Noor Mosque, the terrorist had travelled to the city's eastern suburbs. Police say he was able to leave his first target undetected because his fleeing vehicle was obscured by a bus. 

Seven people died when the shooter arrived at his second target, Linwood Islamic Centre. Getty

Seven people died when the shooter arrived at his second target, Linwood Islamic Centre. Getty

About six minutes later, he'd arrived at Linwood Islamic Centre. He killed seven people there, before getting back in his car and speeding down one of the city's main thoroughfares. 

Two country police officers at a training day nearby had heard the call come in about the attacks on the radio, and had headed out in search of him, taking the road they figured he'd most likely take.

When they saw a car matching the shooter's travelling in the opposite direction, driving erratically, they swung their car around and tailed him before ramming into the car and shunting it off the road. The two men pulled the terrorist from his car and arrested him on the spot. 

The arrest was made 21 minutes after police received the first 111 call. In his car, they found firearms and two improvised explosive devices. 

The terrorist was apprehended when two country policemen rammed his car off the road.

The terrorist was apprehended when two country policemen rammed his car off the road.

Police believe the man was headed for another target, the Ashburton Mosque, an hour south of Christchurch. The city went into lockdown. Everyone was asked to stay inside.

There were unconfirmed reports of a shooter at the local high school (later it would come to light that this was simply the father of a pupil, unfortunately dressed in camouflage gear).

Police were also responding to similar reports at the hospital. Dr James McKay, the on-call general surgeon, had been called out of surgery to deal with the incoming trauma.

James McKay was the on-call general surgeon on March 15. Courtesy CDHB

James McKay was the on-call general surgeon on March 15. Courtesy CDHB

Alen was the first patient to come in, the first many saw. 

"She didn’t look very well, and at that point it really struck home," James recalls. "Initially we thought there was a shooter at the hospital, so we had armed police running through the hospital with machineguns."

He took on a co-ordination role to begin with, working with staff to quickly devise something of a triage system. Given that the shooting had happened as shifts were changing, there were extra hands around to help, and more staff came in from their days off. 

"It’s part of your mentality as a surgeon, you learn to put your immediate emotions aside. The staff involved were all on the same wavelength."

The shooting was reminiscent for some of the 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, when 185 people died. Getty

The shooting was reminiscent for some of the 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, when 185 people died. Getty

After all, Christchurch was well-versed in tragedy by this point. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the latter of which killed 185 people, weren't far from many people's minds as the mass casualty event unfolded. 

"It was similar to the earthquake day - an intensely busy hour or two," James recalls. "If you left people for 15 minutes, some would have died. But I think the thing that was in the back of everyone’s minds was that this was different to the earthquakes because someone had done it to a group of people." 

Most of the staff working that day would go on to describe their wonder at how everyone came together, calmly, under the circumstances. 

The hospital: 'like a formula one tyre change'

Chief executive David Meates looks back on March 15 with cautious pride. Getty

Chief executive David Meates looks back on March 15 with cautious pride. Getty

"It’s unprecedented for a single hospital to deal with 49 gunshot injuries. People were asking where we flew our trauma surgeons in from," hospital chief executive David Meates recalls. It's been three months since the attacks by the time we meet to discuss the happenings of that day. But it's still raw. "By the time we did that people would have been dead."

"When people started presenting, the ED was already full. The operating theatres were all full."

Over the next few hours, the emergency department had to stop receiving patients. Hundreds of families gathered in the public areas. Tension grew as distraught loved ones sought news of their kin. By all accounts this should have completely overwhelmed a single New Zealand hospital. But it didn't.

Surgeons were focused on performing "quick, short operations that save lives", David says.  "You could not see a more calm place. It was like a Formula One tyre change.

"This is a really great example of culture. People doing the right thing and not one ego was involved in that."

It's a sentiment echoed by many.

Outside Christchurch Hospital.

Outside Christchurch Hospital.

"We all just did what needed to be done that day. If I remember anything about that day it was the team work and camaraderie," Spencer recalls. 

"I came back to ED after and there was blood all over the floor and everyone cleaning. Everybody stopped everybody and asked if they were OK."

Spencer should know. He served as deputy sheriff in the US in his home state of Oregon, and is also former military, having once been "blown up in Baghdad". But none of that compared to this. 

"Even with 6,000 guys on an aircraft carrier going to war, that was nothing compared to what happened here."

Spencer Friese, an orderly at Christchurch Hospital

Spencer Friese, an orderly at Christchurch Hospital

Perhaps that's why of the 49 injured, only two died in hospital. The first was dead on arrival, and the second was the Turkish man who died six weeks after the shooting. James was the one who operated on him that first night, and was involved in his continuing care. He was with him when he died, and informed his family. 

"What amazed us about these people was the way there was no noise or conflict. The patients didn’t complain and you felt they were sorry for something," James says.

The Al-Umari family had panicked when Hussein hadn't turned up for lunch, and spent the Friday afternoon flitting between their home, the cordon at the mosque and the hospital searching for news. They found his car still sitting outside the mosque and went straight to the hospital. His name wasn't on the list of injured. 

In the hours following the disaster, authorities grappled with how to navigate the aftermath of such a large-scale police operation, while also honouring Muslim burial rites. 

Burial within 24 hours simply wasn't possible here, as regulations and police procedures meant that some family members did not have confirmation of their loved one's death until at least a day and a half after the attacks. And so, as hundreds of family members descended on and refused to leave the city's hospital, things became understandably tense. 

The injuries to Adeeb's pelvis from the gunshot wounds, and the shrapnel still inside him. Courtesy Sami Adeeb

The injuries to Adeeb's pelvis from the gunshot wounds, and the shrapnel still inside him. Courtesy Sami Adeeb

Adeeb's family were at the hospital too, desperately awaiting news. His injuries had been so severe that he was immediately placed in an induced coma. He was in a coma for three days, undergoing three major, life-saving operations.

Zahid found out his twin had died at the hospital when one of the injured showed him a video taken of the dead inside the mosque.

Abdi and his brother had eventually ended up there too, after he had called his father. He told him he was injured and Mucad had died. 

"I was in shock and said that’s not for sure he still could be alive." Abdi put out a public plea for information about his brother. A photo of a man carrying Mucad from the mosque was circulating on social media. That man was his father, and the boy's body was limp. 

Abdi initially hoped his brother was still alive and posted on social media for help to find him. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

Abdi initially hoped his brother was still alive and posted on social media for help to find him. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

Mucad's name later joined the ranks of the deceased.

Many other pictures of that day went viral, as the world struggled to comprehend what had unfolded in New Zealand – the peaceful island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean more well known for a movie franchise and a rugby team than anything else. One such photo was that of a man being wheeled out of the mosque on a stretcher, finger pointed towards the sky. That man was believed to be a Saudi, Mohsen Alharbi.

A picture, reportedy of Mohsen Alharbi, went viral in the wake of the attacks. AP Photo

A picture, reportedy of Mohsen Alharbi, went viral in the wake of the attacks. AP Photo

Mohsen was pronounced dead at the hospital. His son Feras says his father had been heavily involved with the Muslim community since he had relocated to Christchurch, and had travelled with them to Turkey last year. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer, but in the end, the disease wouldn't kill him. 

Feras says he believes his father's photo went viral because: "It's the sign that there is only one God in this universe."  

"He was proud of New Zealand and it was like home to him. He always talked about the peace and the good quality of life there," he says.

Feras received the news that his father had died through family members in New Zealand. Others grew agitated as they waited for news. Tension at Christchurch Hospital was high.

Eventually, in something of a compromise, the imam was taken down into the morgue to identify the dead. CT scans on the bodies had paved the way for the quickest set of post-mortem examinations ever performed in the country.

That, David says, defused an escalating situation.

"By 1.30am on Sunday morning, the list of the deceased was done and it took all the tension out of the room. The safest place for many was in the bowels of Christchurch Hospital.

"The graciousness and the generosity of the Muslim families was absolutely stunning. We’ve got a lot to learn about forgiveness. It was clear that they did not want to be victims. They were very clear that this was the country they chose to live in. They wanted to send a message of peace."

James agrees. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. "It just struck home how calm they all were. Muslim prayer groups coming in - it was very open and inclusive. Other cultures are very closed off and like to keep private. This wasn’t like that. 

"It took a while to come down from that. I was physically exhausted. Colleagues have trouble sleeping and hearing certain things will make them upset."  Instead, James focused on a new goal. He helped to take the gun reform legislation to the select committee. 

Adib still recalls a meeting held on the morning of March 15. It would almost be ironic if it wasn't so tragic. A cross-department session had been held to debrief over a domestic shooting that had happened a few weeks prior.  "Someone had compared us to Chicago and said they had something like 8,000 shootings a year, but luckily there were no, or hardly any, shootings in Christchurch."

Four months on: the wounds are still fresh

A mass burial was held to lay to rest many of the victims. Getty

A mass burial was held to lay to rest many of the victims. Getty

It's now been four months since March 15. It's winter in Christchurch. Ramadan has been and gone. Twenty-six people were buried in a mass burial in the Memorial Park Cemetery. More than 5,000 mourners showed up for it. A 28-year-old Australian man was charged under the terrorism act, the first such case in New Zealand.

Abdi Ibrahim moved to Australia, after his "world turned upside down". Imam Fouda has launched a bid to enter local politics. Zahid Ismail and his wife had their first baby. They named her after Zahid and Junaid's mother. 

Perhaps fittingly, it's in Christchurch Hospital where I meet Zahid in person for the first time, with his newborn baby stationed in a cot near by as he speaks of the end of his brother's life. It had been a normal Friday that day, he says. Junaid had spent the morning getting his children vaccinated and doing his banking. His brother had been incredibly pious, praying five times a day. He was a huge Crusaders fan, and ran a corner store with his mother.

Janna Ezat: They told me Hussein was brave.

Janna Ezat: They told me Hussein was brave.

"Until now, we’ve just been going through our lives quietly," he says. But Zahid has already forgiven his brother's attacker. In fact, he's put in a request to meet him, to "give him an opportunity to repent for his sins".

"He’s still a brother, he’s still committed a sin and I have a hope and a need to visit this individual."

And yet, tragic loss struck Zahid and his wife in a different, just as unexpected way in the days that followed. A few weeks after I met little Sara in the hospital that day, she passed away. She was born with a heart condition, and died from complications related to it.

"I tried to resuscitate her, the ambulance came and continued on but the Almighty had already decided it was time for her to depart us and be in the company and be in the company of Junaid," Zahid told me this week. "Inshallah we will hear her again in the hereafter."

This pragmatic grieving process seems to be typical in the way the Muslim community has dealt with the aftermath of March 15. 

Wasseim Alsati and Alen have spent the past four months in Auckland's Starship Hospital. Courtesy Wasseim Alsati

Wasseim Alsati and Alen have spent the past four months in Auckland's Starship Hospital. Courtesy Wasseim Alsati

Wasseim Alsati and Alen were transferred to New Zealand's specialist children's hospital in Auckland immediately after the attacks, which is where they remained, with Alen in rehab, until last Thursday when they returned home.

Wasseim took Alen to Christchurch Hospital, so that he could "walk out of there with her alive". A picture of the momentous occasion shows the small girl beaming from her wheelchair in the hospital hallway.

But it was an occasion laced with sadness. Wasseim had recently lost his job and had been told he'd need to move out of his house because the owner was selling it. He can't get a mortgage, being off work still, and was just $80,000 (Dh197,439) short of buying it outright. Alen's rehab had been progressing positively, he says, but it had been "a rough few months".

Wasseim was still on crutches, recovering from his own life-threatening wounds."I’ve had seven surgeries, my daughter has had nine. I have bullet fragments still inside me. I cannot wear proper pants. They could do nothing about it because they need the fragments to come to the surface, because they are behind the muscles."

Alen was brain-damaged, struggling to see, walk and talk in the weeks after the attacks. She has since regained her speech in English and Arabic, and partial eyesight. But because she didn't see the shooter, she blames her father for her injuries.  

"I was really upset. Luckily my daughter didn’t see the shooter, she just saw me pick her up and throw her on the ground. She said to me the other day: ‘Why did you throw me on the ground?’, and I said ‘You’ll understand when you grow up. That was the best for you’." 

Adib was recently able to speak to the girl he has since deemed his "masterpiece", when he called Wasseim in Auckland. The father had asked the surgeon if he'd like to speak to the girl whose life he had saved.

"She said she wanted to be a policewoman when she grew up," Adib recalls. "I said no, we're going to make you a vascular surgeon – and she said "OK, I'll be a surgeon'."

Aecom welcomed back Sami Adeeb in style. Courtesy Sami Adeeb

Aecom welcomed back Sami Adeeb in style. Courtesy Sami Adeeb

Sami and his wife have since returned to the UAE, accompanied by a letter that says the shrapnel setting off the airport's metal detectors are inside him, not on him.

Aecom put up huge posters of his smiling face and decorated the office in balloons for his first day back.

Aya Al-Umari describes seeing the killer in court.

Aya Al-Umari describes seeing the killer in court.

On June 14, the terrorist pleaded not guilty to many charges of murder. He laughed at the gathered survivors and victim's families, from the dock.

Janna's anguished face appeared on the front page of the city's newspaper, as she spoke of her insurmountable grief, and called for the death penalty. She has only done one piece of calligraphy since the attacks: Hussein's name. 

Janna Ezat has only produced one piece of calligraphy since the attacks: Hussein's name. Ashleigh Stewart / The National.

Janna Ezat has only produced one piece of calligraphy since the attacks: Hussein's name. Ashleigh Stewart / The National.

The doors of Al Noor reopened a little over a week after the attacks. It smelt of fresh paint, with the blood and bullet holes scoured from the walls, when the Muslim congregation returned, undeterred by the horrors that took place days earlier. 

Imam Fouda took up his place at the minbar once again, at the head of his community.  

"People now continue to come to the mosque. It's not the full capacity but we expect that in the next few months things will be back to normal," he says.

While he has primarily remained in New Zealand, the imam recently returned to his homeland of Egypt, and spent time in the UAE in early April alongside imam Alabi Lateef Zirullah of the Linwood Mosque.

Imam Fouda spent time in the UAE with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Wam.

Imam Fouda spent time in the UAE with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Wam.

He says the shooting was not an attack on Islam alone. 

"That was a war against love. It was not a war against Muslims, it was a war against the safety and security of all New Zealanders and that is why all New Zealanders came together. We are one family, we are together, we'll never get disunited.

The imam credits the New Zealand Government with helping his community to deal with the fallout of the attacks, sending a clear message of empathy to the rest of the world.

"New Zealand used to be paradise and is still paradise, but it will take time and also there are a few individuals and issues here and there. 

"I hope that we will never see something like this again in the future."

White supremacy: a startling reality to face for the city's leaders

By all accounts, Christchurch was just starting to get back on its feet again when terrorism struck at its core – a statement wheeled out on various quake-related anniversaries over the past decade. But it was a statement that finally seemed to stick.

A stroll around the central city now shows a a humming CBD with slick bars and restaurants, a charming riverside terrace and a vibrant atmosphere, rather than cordoned streets and buildings at risk of crumbling on top of passers-by. Some are still there of course, they are just finally outnumbered by the new, geometric and glass-gilt buildings. 

Christchurch had just finally started to get back on its feet after the earthquakes. Rex

Christchurch had just finally started to get back on its feet after the earthquakes. Rex

But behind the gleaming new facades is a city still hurting as the last of the aftershocks rumble away. Mental health rates are still skyrocketing, with sufferers claiming post-quake stress and children showing increased anxiety.

"We know that the way you get through after the trauma of something like that is coming together, that sense of unity, that’s how you get through. That's how we did it after the earthquakes," Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel says.

"Just imagine what the world would be like if this was the response to 9/11."

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel recalls being in a state of shock when she found out about the attacks. Steve Addison for The National

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel recalls being in a state of shock when she found out about the attacks. Steve Addison for The National

Lianne didn't serve as mayor during the earthquakes, but she served in a different way, as Labour MP and the spokeswoman for the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery. She was elected in 2013, and has spent the past six years navigating the city's post-disaster recovery. So perhaps it's unsurprising that Lianne would have to consider whether the terrorist attacks are the hardest thing she's had to deal with during the mayorship.

"It’s the most shocking thing that I’ve had to deal with," she says slowly, "and it is the most unexpected. I was not prepared for this. If anyone would’ve said this would happen here, or even in New Zealand, I wouldn’t believe it. It’s usually so distant. This stuff doesn’t happen here."

The mayor was in the central city council chambers on March 15, with hundreds of schoolchildren. It was there they all remained until 7pm, when the lockdown ended.

From there she was forced to front-foot the tragedy, answering calls from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and sending out pieces to camera from her media adviser's iPhone, while struggling to come to terms with it herself. 

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"[When I found out] that feeling, that was the pit of my stomach," Lianne says. "At that moment I felt like I was going to cry. I just said, 'No, no this can’t be happening'."

She looks back critically on those moments, proud that despite the fact she didn't have time to find a person to translate her stand-ups in sign language for the deaf community they were able to quickly send out a transcript instead, but unhappy that she came across so emotional, so completely drained in her Facebook Live. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a woman at Wellington's Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17. TVNZ via AP

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a woman at Wellington's Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17. TVNZ via AP

"Every single agency had learned from the earthquakes," Lianne says. "That night we sat here and created a checklist of what was required, and what I needed to know."

The prime minister called her on Friday afternoon to express her "sympathy and the shock that was felt by the nation", she recalls. "We must have spoken of this being a terrorist attack because I was calling it that in the morning. Her response was so instinctive and utterly authentic in that moment. I was with her in Christchurch and she touched every person she came into contact with. Her capacity to connect with people and to speak and understand what was needed to be said - it was wonderful to see a leader who totally understood their role and what they needed to do.

"Sometimes leaders can fall into the traps of overpromising but she never overpromised. We did see that after the earthquakes but we didn’t see that here."

David Meates also reflects on that day with cautious gratification. The overstretched, cash-strapped Canterbury health system was stretched to its limits yet again, and once again it served its people well. "There’s a massive sense of pride. If I was to be sick in any place in the world, this is the place to do it."

As of July, two victims of the shooting remain in rehab. Others are receiving complex wound care in their own homes.

Christchurch will face 'complex issues' for years to come

Al Noor Mosque, pictured during Friday prayers in June. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

Al Noor Mosque, pictured during Friday prayers in June. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

David has fought a valiant battle against the Ministry of Health after the earthquakes, arguing for more money and resources to tend to the fragile states of the country's most rattled population. He will continue to do so, he says, admitting that he now expects the city's mental health problem to worsen. Sick leave is already high and not just one or two days – but weeks on end.

There are "complex issues" to contend with here, David says. "This is not just a mass shooting, this is a mass shooting on a community that was just starting to get a sense of hope. About nine major events occurred in the past eight years on top of that and we’re starting to see the early signs of this retriggering. We’re in really uncharted territory."

That uncharted territory extends far beyond the parameters of mental health, too. For Lianne, charting a course through this latest post-disaster environment is a "huge learning curve".

"And then come the questions about white supremacism," she says. After the attacks, New Zealand was perhaps forced to confront some ugly truths about itself. So too did Christchurch.

"There’s a racism problem in every city. But I don’t experience it here. I can drift through life and not be aware of religious intolerance or racism or homophobia. That’s what I learnt that I didn’t completely understand beforehand," she says. 

"Racism was a word I didn’t use too much because I thought that word turned people off. I thought it was better to use words like inclusion and diversity. But the best answer I got to that was from a Maori woman who said, ‘My daughter will experience racism and people will be racist because of the colour of her skin, and if I don’t tell her that, then she will think it’s her and who she is’. I’ve never had anyone express that to me before and I just said, 'Thank you for giving me the ability to talk about something I’ve never experienced'."

Perhaps it's a sentiment the people of Christchurch as a whole have taken to heart after March 15. A billboard in the city's largest mall in May greeted customers with a message of "Ramadan Kareem". News of the last day of Ramadan was on the front page of the city's paper. Lianne says she learnt the phrase "Eid Mubarak" and used it to greet people while giving a speech.

Indian girl Bhoomikashree hugs Lianne Dalziel instead of shaking her hand at a citizenship ceremony just after the shootings. Courtesy Christchurch City Council

Indian girl Bhoomikashree hugs Lianne Dalziel instead of shaking her hand at a citizenship ceremony just after the shootings. Courtesy Christchurch City Council

She points to the first citizenship ceremony after the attacks, held four days afterwards. She addressed the shootings before the ceremony began.

One of the first people to gain citizenship was a young Indian girl named Bhoomikashree, who took the mayor by surprise when she gathered her into a hug instead of the usual handshake. A photo, taken at the exact moment the hug took place, shows Lianne with her eyes wide and mouth agape: shocked, but delighted. After that, each person who arrived on stage hugged her instead of shaking her hand. 

"Can Christchurch, out of this atrocity, become the platform for the change that we want to see in the world? And can that platform make Christchurch be a place to share ideas and spread that message across the world? Can we be the catalyst for change for good? I think we can.

"We have the ability to do something really special here. Maybe here we find the antidote. What a powerful statement of the role that our city and our nation can provide on the world stage."

It's a noble statement and one the prime minister has already set in motion in her pursuit of stricter social media regulations when she visited France for the Christchurch Call summit in May. But can it be achieved? 

It's a notion I'm mulling over as I go off to the Al Noor Mosque to pay my respects on my last day in Christchurch. Over the past week, reminders of the atrocities of that day had been everywhere. Some had been positive: like the Ramadan Kareem signs at Riccarton Mall. I'd not recalled a single year before when Ramadan had been acknowledged. Some had been harder to stomach, such as when I went for a haircut in Linwood and was tended to by a hairdresser who's clientele had been hit particularly hard. One of his client's father was among the dead. One of his clients was too. Another who ran the local Indian restaurant. 

Al Noor Mosque sits on the side of Hagley Park. AP Photo

Al Noor Mosque sits on the side of Hagley Park. AP Photo

I'd walked off through Hagley Park in what I had simply assumed was the location of Al Noor, on the eastern side, but as I reached its southern perimeter I realised I had no idea where it was. My only point of reference was in the photos of it in the media after the attacks, despite the fact that I'd lived in the city on and off for a decade. I'd almost circumnavigated the park by the time I'd sheepishly stumbled across the mosque, on its western edge.

This was a road I used to drive down several times a week. How could I only just now be realising there was a mosque on it?

Colourful stones are displayed with messages on them outside Al Noor. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

Colourful stones are displayed with messages on them outside Al Noor. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

People are arriving for Friday prayer as I greet the two police officers stationed outside and take in the pile of flowers and messages of support lying alongside the gate. Muslims greet me warmly as they walk by. One stops to say hello.

The message that resonates with me the most is a small river stone with a message scrawled in blue paint, with a little love heart: "We are you". 

It's a variation of the "They are us" message that went viral after the attacks, and perhaps a more inclusive way of declaring unity in the city. 

But a high price has been paid for such messages of tolerance and love to abound. Time will tell how Christchurch rebounds from yet another world-scale tragedy.

But perhaps in the meantime, we can all just learn where our local mosque is. 

March 15, 2019. Morning.

Every Friday, Jordanian Wasseim Alsati began his day by taking his 4-year-old daughter out to a central city cafe. He had a coffee and she would have a fluffy drink with two marshmallows. 

He would usually take Alen home before he went to Friday prayers but on March 15, he decided to take her along. It would be her first time going to the mosque with her father. She was excited about the adventure.

A photo of Alen taken before the attacks. Courtesy of Wasseim Alsati

A photo of Alen taken before the attacks. Courtesy of Wasseim Alsati

It was about midday. Across the city, Christchurch's Muslim community were readying themselves to head to one of the three mosques in town. At the same time, a 28-year-old Australian man was readying himself to storm two of those three mosques with a gun, and shoot at every person in sight.

Iraq-born Adeeb Sami was having coffee with his daughter Hamsa in Riccarton, after running a couple of errands. It was her, and her twin brother Ali's 23rd birthdays. 

He took a beaming selfie with his daughter at a cafe at 12.51pm. 

Adeeb and his daughter Hamsa at a cafe; the picture was taken at 12.51pm. Adeeb Sami

Adeeb and his daughter Hamsa at a cafe; the picture was taken at 12.51pm. Adeeb Sami

Adeeb had arrived in his second home the night before, on his first trip back after several months. He hadn't told his friends he was back in Christchurch yet. He wanted to do so by posting a picture on Facebook of the sweeping seaside views from his coastal home and one of his car’s personalised "Adeeb" licence plates, with the caption "Home sweet home".

He decided he would do that later, after Friday prayers.

After coffee, Hamsa went off to meet her mother as Adeeb left for Al Noor Mosque.

Four-year-old Mucad Ibrahim was the youngest victim of the shooting. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

Four-year-old Mucad Ibrahim was the youngest victim of the shooting. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

Abdi Ibrahim, 30, from Somalia, was en route with his brother Mucad, 4. The boy was in good spirits, having asked his mother if he could wear his white qamis and hat. It was a rare request, his brother recalls, as he usually wore whatever he was told to.

Dressed and ready to go, he had asked his mother if he looked like a sheikh.

Mucad was animated for the whole drive over to the mosque, repeatedly asking his older brother for ice cream. Abdi said he would buy him one after prayers. 

A picture of Abdi and his two sisters. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim.

A picture of Abdi and his two sisters. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim.

That Friday, prayer time was just after 1.30pm. It was a warm autumn's day in Christchurch after a late, hot summer. The temperature hovered around 20°C as members of the city's Muslim community hurried down the road to the gold-domed mosque, with nearby parking spaces quickly disappearing as the minutes ticked by. 

Adeeb took a space inside beside his best friend, Abdelfattah Qasem. Abdelfattah had been his first friend when he arrived in Christchurch, all those years ago. He didn't know that his son Ali was in the back room and his eldest son Abdullah was making his way there on foot.

A man arrives for Friday prayers, three months after the attacks. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

A man arrives for Friday prayers, three months after the attacks. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

The atmosphere was genial as people arrived and took a space inside. Christchurch's Muslim community was relatively small, only several hundred, meaning everyone more or less knew each other – a sentiment central to New Zealand itself.  

The faces represented the myriad communities that had left homelands far away and resettled in the South Island town. Among them were refugees from Syria, people who had fled war in Afghanistan or Iraq, and those who were born in Christchurch but still honoured their heritage. 

Mucad and Abdi arrived before the imam had begun. Mucad rushed off to find his father and give him a hug, before sitting in the front row. Abdi sat behind them, near his older brother.

Zahid Ismail, left, and his twin brother Junaid Ismail. Courtesy Zahid Ismail

Zahid Ismail, left, and his twin brother Junaid Ismail. Courtesy Zahid Ismail

A few minutes' drive north of the mosque, Zahid Ismail was leaving a midwife's appointment with his wife. It was a routine check-up. The two were expecting their first baby. 

But the appointment had made them late for Friday prayers and the streets were full by the time they drove down to try to find a park.

Inside, mosque imam Gamal Fouda had just finished in Arabic. He began in English with: "My dear brother and sisters." 

Outside, Wasseim and his daughter were laughing and joking as they walked towards the mosque, holding hands. 


Christchurch: 'Home by default'

Wasseim arrived in New Zealand about five years ago from Jordan. He slept rough for the first few weeks in the country, desperately seeking a stable job. In the following years he established a successful career as a barber. He and his wife have four children. Alen is the youngest. 

For many migrants, the story of resettling in Christchurch is similar. It wasn't necessarily their choice of destination – it's no Vancouver or New York or Sydney –  but it became home. 

Wasseim Alsati and his four children. Courtesy Wasseim Alsati

Wasseim Alsati and his four children. Courtesy Wasseim Alsati

"It is home by default, by the sequence of events. Christchurch offered to be home. All the circumstances led me to here," Hazim Al-Umari says. Hazim's son, Hussein Al-Umari, was also in the mosque on March 15.

It's Ramadan when I visit the family in Christchurch for iftar. Hazim is the only one who could face fasting this year. Hussein's mother Janna Ezat and sister Aya Al-Umari are too grief-stricken, remembering previous years in which Hussein would be there to break fast with them. 

Dessert comes in the form of Arabic sweets from Mefco, a specialty grocery store in the city. The owner died on March 15 too, Janna says solemnly, as pictures of a happy Hussein flash across the screensaver of the TV behind us.

Hazim Al-Umari and his daughter Aya at iftar in Christchurch. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

Hazim Al-Umari and his daughter Aya at iftar in Christchurch. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

Hazim left his job as a well-respected oil engineer in Iraq in 1980, as Mosul teetered on the brink of collapse, and took up a job at Adco in Abu Dhabi. But due to a lack of permanent residency options, he always knew he would need to move on eventually. He'd already exhausted most of his other options before he turned to New Zealand. 

"Even Papua New Guinea. I knew there were cannibals but I tried anyway, and what the hell, even this place rejects me!" Hazim laughs.  "New Zealand accepted me without an interview or anything. I travelled to New Zealand in 1993 but we didn’t have any money. We stayed in a motel and everyday we were feeding pigeons."

Hussein and his mother Janna. Courtesy Janna Ezat

Hussein and his mother Janna. Courtesy Janna Ezat

Aya looks me in the eye from across the table, deadpan: "That was our activity. Feeding the pigeons in the park."

In Abu Dhabi, Janna was a renowned calligrapher and artist, having designed watches for the Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed. In New Zealand, she struggled to adjust to her new anonymity. That, and the seeming step back in time. "In Abu Dhabi at that time, everything you touched was new. And then we arrived in Auckland."

Janna Ezat on the last time she saw her son, Hussein Al-Umari.

Janna Ezat on the last time she saw her son, Hussein Al-Umari.

But Aya and Hussein grew to love their adopted home. Subsequent trips back to Abu Dhabi to visit Hazim, who stayed there to work until he moved to New Zealand permanently, were met with comments like "it's too much" or "too big".

But Hussein never forgot his roots. He was integrated into the Muslim community. He was good friends with futsal star Atta Elayyan, the Jordanan-Kiwi of Palestinian origin. He was friends with Ali Adeeb.

Mosque victims Hussein Al-Umari and Atta Elayyan when they were younger. Courtesy Aya Al-Umari

Mosque victims Hussein Al-Umari and Atta Elayyan when they were younger. Courtesy Aya Al-Umari

Perhaps not surprisingly,  Adeeb Sami's family's relocation to New Zealand had taken a similar route as the Al-Umaris. Adeeb also left Iraq for a better life in the UAE and worked his way through the ranks at Aecom to become director.

He sent his children to New Zealand for university, and now splits his time between Al Ain and Christchurch. He laughs as he quips: "I’ve lived in Iraq and I never got shot, and I came to Christchurch and this is where I got shot."

Adeeb Sami, with his daughter Hamsa and wife Sana. Dave Walker for The National

Adeeb Sami, with his daughter Hamsa and wife Sana. Dave Walker for The National

The call to prayer has just sounded through his cliffside home in Redcliffs. It's the second last night of Ramadan and the family gather to pray.

The only telling sign that Adeeb was inflicted with a near-fatal injury three months ago is that he is rising and sitting on a stool rather than kneeling. 

Adeeb Sami describes the shooting in Al Noor Mosque.

Adeeb Sami describes the shooting in Al Noor Mosque.

According to census data from 2013, the number of Muslims in New Zealand leapt almost 30 per cent since 2006. Muslims now accounted for about 46,000 people nationwide but there weren't any concrete figures on how many were in Christchurch. It was small though, and tight-knit. Even more so now. 


'They were loudly praying in Arabic, and he came and shot them one by one'

"My dear brother and sisters." 

The words that preceded the terror that changed New Zealand forever. 

Adeeb still remembers the cracking sound that came from behind him as the imam took a breath to begin his next sentence. To him, it sounded like someone was letting off fireworks.

That was the moment that a 28-year-old Australian arrived at Al Noor, wielding a semi automatic gun and a head-mounted camera. A live-stream would go on for 17 minutes and showed his every movement, every time he raised his gun at another person.

As he approached the entrance, he was greeted warmly by an elderly Muslim man, who said: "Hello, brother". 

Mohemmed Nabi was the first victim of the shootings. Photo: Rex

Mohemmed Nabi was the first victim of the shootings. Photo: Rex

The terrorist's first shots felled Mohemmed Nabi, 71, from war-torn Afghanistan, as he welcomed the man into his place of worship.

Adeeb believes he was probably one of the next to take a bullet. As the incessant popping sound became more frenzied, he saw a man spraying bullets into the kneeling congregation, and then, a pain in his back. As he fell to the floor, his friend, Abdulfattah, leant over him. "In that moment, he said, ‘What’s going on Adeeb?’ and I said there’s a bullet in my back. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I will save you.' And then the shooter came back and shot him.”

Chaos erupted in the main room of the mosque as men fell across the room. The emergency exit wouldn't open and bodies became heaped by the door. Someone broke a window at the front and some people managed to escape. But many didn't. Some played dead. The imam ducked behind the minbar and hid.

Ali Adeeb speaks about his ordeal from his home in Redcliffs. Dave Walker for The National

Ali Adeeb speaks about his ordeal from his home in Redcliffs. Dave Walker for The National

As the shooter returned to his car to reload, Adeeb saw Ali in the back room, dialling 111. He dragged himself to his son, ordered him to put his phone down, and then threw himself on top of him.“The guy returned and started shooting again. This time he used a different weapon," Adeeb said. "Whoever he sees alive he’s shooting again. I remember some guys, they started loudly praying in Arabic and he came and shot them one by one.

"Then I got the second bullet in my shoulder, which came exactly by Ali’s face. He had a big red mark from it. I could feel him shaking beneath me. The whole eight minutes, I thought it’s the end. The whole time I was thinking about Ali, I wanted Ali to be safe."

Adeeb Sami: He came and shot them one by one.

Adeeb Sami: He came and shot them one by one.

Hussein Al-Umari had been sitting near the front, near the window, and according to where his keys were found, near his friend, Atta Elayyan. They were both near the broken window but neither of them escaped. Ali later spoke of seeing Hussein rise and run towards the attacker, saying something along the lines of: "Who are you? What are you doing here? This is God's house." 

He was shot as he did so. Elayyan died too.

Hussein died trying to protect others in the mosque. Courtesy Janna Ezat

Hussein died trying to protect others in the mosque. Courtesy Janna Ezat

Nearby, Abdi was swept up in a group trying to escape. "I ran to the nearest exit, which was at the right door, and that’s when my mind shut down and I forgot about the boy," Abdi recalls. "While I was escaping, I saw my older brother run so I was behind him and while I was running, in the  back of my mind I was thinking, 'What if there are multiple shooters?' So I was saying my final prayers and thought, 'Today is the day I think I am going to die'."

He couldn't see Mucad, or his father. With the sounds of gunfire ringing in their ears, the few who managed to escape ran to the back of the mosque, through the carpark. "I kept running as I knew jumping over the fence was the only way of escaping and making it alive, but I was wearing my qamis and I could not jump over. As I attempted it I was losing my focus and calm and started to panic, so I asked the guy next to me, 'Please help me with your hands'. I saw one of my friends, Sayid, and he was in shock yelling 'My dad’s in here I left him behind I need to go back'. I told him my dad’s there too and it is not safe to go back we have to keep moving forward as it would be suicide."

Police attempt to clear people from outside the mosque. AP Photo

Police attempt to clear people from outside the mosque. AP Photo

Abdi persuaded his friend to keep moving forward, and the group ran across the next-door neighbour's yard and to the front door, banging on it and asking for help. "He understood, and told us to get inside and escape the main door for safety, so we did. While we were running, I could see so many people running on the road – I spotted one Somalian brother and told him to stop the car. He shouted, 'Why are there so many people running and what’s going on?'"

It had only been a few minutes since the gunman arrived, but dozens lay bleeding and dying, inside and outside the mosque. The terrorist had finished his second round of shooting and was about to return to his car.

Outside, Wasseim and Alen were almost at the entrance. As they approached, he saw a friend up ahead rush out on to the road and yell at him to run. He was confused. Run where? Into the mosque? Away from it? It was then that he saw what he thought was a "military man" walk out on to the street, holding a rifle, looking in his direction.

But he wasn't looking at Wasseim. He was looking downwards, at the exact place where a tiny hand was clasped in his. 

Armed officers push back members of the public after the shooting. Reuters

Armed officers push back members of the public after the shooting. Reuters

Wasseim realised what was happening as the terrorist raised his gun and pointed it at his daughter's head. He reacted by yanking the girl upwards, trying to pull her out of harm's way. The first bullet hit Alen in the bottom, the second in her stomach and the third on her toe.

Wasseim then took a bullet to the stomach and two to the back as his legs collapsed from under him and he fell. On his way down, he tried to save his daughter by throwing her between the wheel of a car and a footpath. He collapsed on top of her, trying to shield her while also playing dead. He then watched as the terrorist got into his car and drove away, shooting a woman as he peeled away from the curb, and driving over another.  

In the minutes that passed, two strangers rushed over to Wasseim and his daughter. He passed Alen to one of them and screamed at them to get her to a hospital. She'd turned blue, and then yellow, and was shaking profusely. 

The man helped them both into his car, with Wasseim in the front seat, as they mounted the curb and sped to Christchurch Hospital, which was barely two kilometres from Al Noor, just across Hagley Park. "Then I realised she was dead in the car," Wasseim says, his voice cracking.

Grieving members of the public sit on a curb following the shooting at Al Noor. EPA

Grieving members of the public sit on a curb following the shooting at Al Noor. EPA

At the same time, Zahid and his wife had just arrived.

From the car, he saw a "person lying on the street and a person bent over them". He thought they might have fainted and that someone was calling an ambulance.

"Then we saw the gunman shooting at people on the footpath from his car," Zahid says. "The only thing I was thinking was that this was a gang shooting. He drove past us, in his video you can see us. I thought he was lining us up. Then I quickly reversed into a driveway."

He watched the man drive away, shooting into the street as he did so. He parked his own car, made sure his wife was OK and told her to stay put, then took off in the direction of the mosque. A family friend he ran into told him there had been a shooting. "We saw this congregation of people near the masjid entrance. Then I’m immediately thinking of my brother. I rang him at 1.52pm."

Zahid rushed back to his wife and drove their car around the side of the mosque, frantically searching for his brother's car. When they found it, a policeman came rushing down shouting "Go, you can't be here."  

Adeeb Sami was shot twice in the mosque and had to be placed in an induced coma. Dave Walker for The National

Adeeb Sami was shot twice in the mosque and had to be placed in an induced coma. Dave Walker for The National

Only three people rose after the shooter left Al Noor. Ali was one of them. He took off Adeeb's trousers and used them to press on his wounds. He remembers someone near by asking him for help, and him saying that he needed to help his father first. He still does not know who that person was.

Adeeb reacted to the dire situation with humour, telling his son to look after his family, joking that it was "like what people say in the movies".

“I was hearing my friends around me making the gurgling sound. Until now I can hear it in the night. Fattah was sitting so close to me. He was the first guy I met when I came to this country," Adeeb says. “I sat down with those guys before the shooting and after, I saw them lying down like that.”

Across town, his wife Sana Mullayounus had just walked into a supermarket with Hamsa.

Sana Mullayounus "fell to the ground" when she heard about her family being caught up in the attacks. Dave Walker for The National

Sana Mullayounus "fell to the ground" when she heard about her family being caught up in the attacks. Dave Walker for The National

“One of my friends called me and said, ‘Did you hear anything from Adeeb?’ I said, ‘What, he’s at the mosque, he’s praying'," Sana says. "I didn’t know Ali was at the mosque. That’s when Hamsa said Ali had started going.

“I was driving like a crazy person. Hamsa got out and ran away through Hagley Park to go to the mosque. One lady came from Hagley and said, 'He’s still shooting people'. When I knew that my husband and my son were there I fell down to the street.”

Nearby, the wounded and injured were being loaded into ambulances. Others, like Hamsa, were rushing across the park.

Adeeb Sami: I could feel Ali's body shaking.

Adeeb Sami: I could feel Ali's body shaking.


'The whole time he was just telling me to find his daughter'

Spencer Friese is an orderly at the hospital but that day he helped to save lives. Dave Walker for The National.

Spencer Friese is an orderly at the hospital but that day he helped to save lives. Dave Walker for The National.

Spencer Friese arrived at Christchurch Hospital on March 15 as he would any other day. He clocked in at 7.30am and set about his usual duties as an orderly – shuttling people around the hospital. 

About noon, he was in Christchurch Women's Hospital, next door to the emergency department, when "two police cars came flying in".

"They never do that," Spencer recalls."I thought I’ll go down and find out what's going on and come back, and I went straight down and didn’t come back until two days later."

Spencer was told by police that there had been a mass shooting and was immediately sent to the emergency department to clear all available space. Patients were escorted to wards. Some moved themselves. And then the casualties started coming in.

Most were grievously injured, far more than they should have been from a typical gunshot wound. It would later be discovered that the shooter had used hollow-point ammunition, bullets designed to cause maximum tissue injury by ricocheting and causing damage to nearby organs.  

Christchurch Hospital is less than two kilometres from Al Noor Mosque. Getty

Christchurch Hospital is less than two kilometres from Al Noor Mosque. Getty

Spencer was primarily charged with getting the injured through to the operating theatre. Usually, on any given day, four acute theatres would be running. That quickly became 12.

One particular memory sticks with him. It was one of the first victims who had come in. 

"The patient I remember distinctly, he’d been shot up high and a couple lower. As I was pushing him to theatre the nurse was holding pressure on [his wounds] but she had to go forward or down his body to do something else. He was really bad down below and I just came and put pressure on his shoulder."

Spencer pushed the stretcher with one hand, and held the man's shoulder with his other. "The whole time he was just telling me to find his daughter. I started to look for her but I couldn’t find her. And then I never saw him again."

That man was Wasseim Alsati.

As Wasseim went in for surgery, so did his daughter. Vascular surgeon Adib Khanafer had been called out of another surgery to attend to her. 

"I went running to the emergency theatre and it's an absolute shock of a scene," Adib recalls. "There was a young girl on the operating table. The paediatric surgeons had performed an open tummy pack on her abdomen. She had arrived clinically dead to the hospital. They worked on her for 30 to 40 minutes to get her back."

Adib Khanafer. Courtesy photo

Adib Khanafer. Courtesy photo

Adib is a Muslim and a father of four children, so this case was always going to be particularly hard. He caught a glimpse of the small, lifeless form on the operating table as he prepped for surgery and it was already too much.

"I just started crying, I took my surgical lenses off while I was scrubbing and getting ready and I just cried."

Of Alen's three gunshot wounds, it was the one to her pelvis that was causing the most trouble. It had hit a major vessel, one that carries deoxygenated blood to the heart. "Ninety per cent of people die from that injury. It's paper-thin and extremely difficult to repair," Adib says.

Alen's surgery lasted two hours, after which he was able to meet with Wasseim, who was desperate for news of his daughter. "I reassured him that she was going to be absolutely fine and he needs to make sure he gets better, too."

Pinch to zoom in

Pinch to zoom in


'This was different to the earthquakes because someone had done it to a group of people'

As dozens of injured flooded Christchurch Hospital from Al Noor Mosque, the terrorist had travelled to the city's eastern suburbs. Police say he was able to leave his first target undetected because his fleeing vehicle was obscured by a bus. 

Seven people died when the shooter arrived at his second target, Linwood Islamic Centre. Getty

Seven people died when the shooter arrived at his second target, Linwood Islamic Centre. Getty

About six minutes later, he'd arrived at Linwood Islamic Centre. He killed seven people there, before getting back in his car and speeding down one of the city's main thoroughfares. 

Two country police officers at a training day nearby had heard the call come in about the attacks on the radio, and had headed out in search of him, taking the road they figured he'd most likely take.

When they saw a car matching the shooter's travelling in the opposite direction, driving erratically, they swung their car around and tailed him before ramming into the car and shunting it off the road. The two men pulled the terrorist from his car and arrested him on the spot. 

The arrest was made 21 minutes after police received the first 111 call. In his car, they found firearms and two improvised explosive devices. 

Police believe the man was headed for another target, the Ashburton Mosque, an hour south of Christchurch. The city went into lockdown. Everyone was asked to stay inside.

There were unconfirmed reports of a shooter at the local high school (later it would come to light that this was simply the father of a pupil, unfortunately dressed in camouflage gear).

Police were also responding to similar reports at the hospital. Dr James McKay, the on-call general surgeon, had been called out of surgery to deal with the incoming trauma.

James McKay was the on-call general surgeon on March 15. Courtesy CDHB

James McKay was the on-call general surgeon on March 15. Courtesy CDHB

Alen was the first patient to come in, the first many saw. 

"She didn’t look very well, and at that point it really struck home," James recalls. "Initially we thought there was a shooter at the hospital, so we had armed police running through the hospital with machineguns."

He took on a co-ordination role to begin with, working with staff to quickly devise something of a triage system. Given that the shooting had happened as shifts were changing, there were extra hands around to help, and more staff came in from their days off. 

"It’s part of your mentality as a surgeon, you learn to put your immediate emotions aside. The staff involved were all on the same wavelength."

The shooting was reminiscent for some of the 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, when 185 people died. Getty

The shooting was reminiscent for some of the 2011 earthquakes in Christchurch, when 185 people died. Getty

After all, Christchurch was well-versed in tragedy by this point. The earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the latter of which killed 185 people, weren't far from many people's minds as the mass casualty event unfolded. 

"It was similar to the earthquake day - an intensely busy hour or two," James recalls. "If you left people for 15 minutes, some would have died. But I think the thing that was in the back of everyone’s minds was that this was different to the earthquakes because someone had done it to a group of people." 

Most of the staff working that day would go on to describe their wonder at how everyone came together, calmly, under the circumstances. 


The hospital: 'like a formula one tyre change'

Chief executive David Meates looks back on March 15 with cautious pride. Getty

Chief executive David Meates looks back on March 15 with cautious pride. Getty

"It’s unprecedented for a single hospital to deal with 49 gunshot injuries. People were asking where we flew our trauma surgeons in from," hospital chief executive David Meates recalls. It's been three months since the attacks by the time we meet to discuss the happenings of that day. But it's still raw. "By the time we did that people would have been dead."

"When people started presenting, the ED was already full. The operating theatres were all full."

Over the next few hours, the emergency department had to stop receiving patients. Hundreds of families gathered in the public areas. Tension grew as distraught loved ones sought news of their kin. By all accounts this should have completely overwhelmed a single New Zealand hospital. But it didn't.

Surgeons were focused on performing "quick, short operations that save lives", David says.  "You could not see a more calm place. It was like a Formula One tyre change.

"This is a really great example of culture. People doing the right thing and not one ego was involved in that."

It's a sentiment echoed by many.

Outside Christchurch Hospital. Getty Images

Outside Christchurch Hospital. Getty Images

"We all just did what needed to be done that day. If I remember anything about that day it was the team work and camaraderie," Spencer recalls. 

"I came back to ED after and there was blood all over the floor and everyone cleaning. Everybody stopped everybody and asked if they were OK."

Spencer should know. He served as deputy sheriff in the US in his home state of Oregon, and is also former military, having once been "blown up in Baghdad". But none of that compared to this. 

"Even with 6,000 guys on an aircraft carrier going to war, that was nothing compared to what happened here."

Spencer Friese, an orderly at Christchurch Hospital

Spencer Friese, an orderly at Christchurch Hospital

Perhaps that's why of the 49 injured, only two died in hospital. The first was dead on arrival, and the second was the Turkish man who died six weeks after the shooting. James was the one who operated on him that first night, and was involved in his continuing care. He was with him when he died, and informed his family. 

"What amazed us about these people was the way there was no noise or conflict. The patients didn’t complain and you felt they were sorry for something," James says.

The Al-Umari family had panicked when Hussein hadn't turned up for lunch, and spent the Friday afternoon flitting between their home, the cordon at the mosque and the hospital searching for news. They found his car still sitting outside the mosque and went straight to the hospital. His name wasn't on the list of injured. 

In the hours following the disaster, authorities grappled with how to navigate the aftermath of such a large-scale police operation, while also honouring Muslim burial rites. 

Burial within 24 hours simply wasn't possible here, as regulations and police procedures meant that some family members did not have confirmation of their loved one's death until at least a day and a half after the attacks. And so, as hundreds of family members descended on and refused to leave the city's hospital, things became understandably tense. 

The injuries to Adeeb's pelvis from the gunshot wounds, and the shrapnel still inside him. Courtesy Sami Adeeb.

The injuries to Adeeb's pelvis from the gunshot wounds, and the shrapnel still inside him. Courtesy Sami Adeeb.

Adeeb's family were at the hospital too, desperately awaiting news. His injuries had been so severe that he was immediately placed in an induced coma. He was in a coma for three days, undergoing three major, life-saving operations.

Zahid was at the hospital when he found out his twin had died.  One of the injured showed him a video taken of the dead inside the mosque.

Abdi and his brother had eventually ended up there too, after he had called his father. He told him he was injured and Mucad had died. 

"I was in shock and said that’s not for sure he still could be alive." Abdi put out a public plea for information about his brother. A photo of a man carrying Mucad from the mosque was circulating on social media. That man was his father, and the boy's body was limp. 

Abdi initially hoped his brother was still alive and posted on social media for help to find him. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

Abdi initially hoped his brother was still alive and posted on social media for help to find him. Courtesy Abdi Ibrahim

Mucad's name later joined the ranks of the deceased.

Many other pictures of that day went viral, as the world struggled to comprehend what had unfolded in New Zealand – the peaceful island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean more well known for a movie franchise and a rugby team than anything else. One such photo was that of a man being wheeled out of the mosque on a stretcher, finger pointed towards the sky. That man was believed to be a Saudi, Mohsen Alharbi.

A picture, reportedy of Mohsen Alharbi, went viral in the wake of the attacks. AP Photo

A picture, reportedy of Mohsen Alharbi, went viral in the wake of the attacks. AP Photo

Mohsen was pronounced dead at the hospital. His son Feras says his father had been heavily involved with the Muslim community since he had relocated to Christchurch, and had travelled with them to Turkey last year. He had recently been diagnosed with cancer, but in the end, the disease wouldn't kill him. 

Feras says he believes his father's photo went viral because: "It's the sign that there is only one God in this universe."  

"He was proud of New Zealand and it was like home to him. He always talked about the peace and the good quality of life there," he says.

Feras received the news that his father had died through family members in New Zealand. Others grew agitated as they waited for news. Tension at Christchurch Hospital was high.

Eventually, in something of a compromise, the imam was taken down into the morgue to identify the dead. CT scans on the bodies had paved the way for the quickest set of post-mortem examinations ever performed in the country.

That, David says, defused an escalating situation.

"By 1.30am on Sunday morning, the list of the deceased was done and it took all the tension out of the room. The safest place for many was in the bowels of Christchurch Hospital.

"The graciousness and the generosity of the Muslim families was absolutely stunning. We’ve got a lot to learn about forgiveness. It was clear that they did not want to be victims. They were very clear that this was the country they chose to live in. They wanted to send a message of peace."

James agrees. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. "It just struck home how calm they all were. Muslim prayer groups coming in - it was very open and inclusive. Other cultures are very closed off and like to keep private. This wasn’t like that. 

"It took a while to come down from that. I was physically exhausted. Colleagues have trouble sleeping and hearing certain things will make them upset."  Instead, James focused on a new goal. He helped to take the gun reform legislation to the select committee. 

Adib still recalls a meeting held on the morning of March 15. It would almost be ironic if it wasn't so tragic. A cross-department session had been held to debrief over a domestic shooting that had happened a few weeks prior.  "Someone had compared us to Chicago and said they had something like 8,000 shootings a year, but luckily there were no, or hardly any, shootings in Christchurch."

Four months on: the wounds are still fresh

A mass burial was held to lay to rest many of the victims. Getty

A mass burial was held to lay to rest many of the victims. Getty

It's now been four months since March 15. It's winter in Christchurch. Ramadan has been and gone. Twenty-six people were buried in a mass burial in the Memorial Park Cemetery. More than 5,000 mourners showed up for it. A 28-year-old Australian man was charged under the terrorism act, the first such case in New Zealand.

Abdi Ibrahim moved to Australia, after his "world turned upside down". Imam Fouda has launched a bid to enter local politics. Zahid Ismail and his wife had their first baby. They named her after Zahid and Junaid's mother. 

Perhaps fittingly, it's in Christchurch Hospital where I meet Zahid in person for the first time, with his newborn baby stationed in a cot near by as he speaks of the end of his brother's life. It had been a normal Friday that day, he says. Junaid had spent the morning getting his children vaccinated and doing his banking. His brother had been incredibly pious, praying five times a day. He was a huge Crusaders fan, and ran a corner store with his mother.

Janna Ezat: They told me Hussein was brave.

Janna Ezat: They told me Hussein was brave.

"Until now, we’ve just been going through our lives quietly," he says. But Zahid has already forgiven his brother's attacker. In fact, he's put in a request to meet him, to "give him an opportunity to repent for his sins".

"He’s still a brother, he’s still committed a sin and I have a hope and a need to visit this individual."

And yet, tragic loss struck Zahid and his wife in a different, just as unexpected way in the days that followed. A few weeks after I met little Sara in the hospital that day, she died from a heart complication she was born with.

"I tried to resuscitate her, the ambulance came and continued on but the Almighty had already decided it was time for her to depart us and be in the company of Junaid," Zahid says. "Inshallah we will hear her again in the hereafter."

It's a response that seems to be typical in the way the Muslim community has dealt with the aftermath of March 15. 

Wasseim Alsati and Alen have spent the past four months in Auckland's Starship Hospital. Courtesy Wasseim Alsati.

Wasseim Alsati and Alen have spent the past four months in Auckland's Starship Hospital. Courtesy Wasseim Alsati.

Wasseim Alsati and Alen were transferred to New Zealand's specialist children's hospital in Auckland immediately after the attacks, which is where they remained, with Alen in rehab, until last Thursday when they returned home.

Wasseim took Alen to Christchurch Hospital, so that he could "walk out of there with her alive". A picture of the momentous occasion shows the small girl beaming from her wheelchair in the hospital hallway.

But it was an occasion laced with sadness. Wasseim had recently lost his job and had been told he'd need to move out of his house because the owner was selling it. He can't get a mortgage, being off work still, and was just $80,000 (Dh197,439) short of buying it outright. Alen's rehab had been progressing positively, he says, but it had been "a rough few months".

Wasseim was still on crutches, recovering from his own life-threatening wounds."I’ve had seven surgeries, my daughter has had nine. I have bullet fragments still inside me. I cannot wear proper pants. They could do nothing about it because they need the fragments to come to the surface, because they are behind the muscles."

Alen was brain-damaged, struggling to see, walk and talk in the weeks after the attacks. She has since regained her speech in English and Arabic, and partial eyesight. But because she didn't see the shooter, she blames her father for her injuries.  

"I was really upset. Luckily my daughter didn’t see the shooter, she just saw me pick her up and throw her on the ground. She said to me the other day: ‘Why did you throw me on the ground?’, and I said ‘You’ll understand when you grow up. That was the best for you’." 

Adib was recently able to speak to the girl he has since deemed his "masterpiece", when he called Wasseim in Auckland. The father had asked the surgeon if he'd like to speak to the girl whose life he had saved.

"She said she wanted to be a policewoman when she grew up," Adib recalls. "I said no, we're going to make you a vascular surgeon – and she said "OK, I'll be a surgeon'."

Aecom welcomed back Sami Adeeb in style. Courtesy Sami Adeeb

Aecom welcomed back Sami Adeeb in style. Courtesy Sami Adeeb

Sami and his wife have since returned to the UAE, accompanied by a letter that says the shrapnel setting off the airport's metal detectors are inside him, not on him.

Aecom put up huge posters of his smiling face and decorated the office in balloons for his first day back.

Aya Al-Umari describes seeing the killer in court.

Aya Al-Umari describes seeing the killer in court.

On June 14, the terrorist pleaded not guilty to many charges of murder. He laughed at the gathered survivors and victim's families, from the dock.

Janna's anguished face appeared on the front page of the city's newspaper, as she spoke of her insurmountable grief, and called for the death penalty. She has only done one piece of calligraphy since the attacks: Hussein's name. 

Janna Ezat has only produced one piece of calligraphy since the attacks: Hussein's name. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

Janna Ezat has only produced one piece of calligraphy since the attacks: Hussein's name. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

The doors of Al Noor reopened a little over a week after the attacks. It smelt of fresh paint, with the blood and bullet holes scoured from the walls, when the Muslim congregation returned, undeterred by the horrors that took place days earlier. 

Imam Fouda took up his place at the minbar once again, at the head of his community.  

"People now continue to come to the mosque. It's not the full capacity but we expect that in the next few months things will be back to normal," he says.

While he has primarily remained in New Zealand, the imam recently returned to his homeland of Egypt, and spent time in the UAE in early April alongside imam Alabi Lateef Zirullah of the Linwood Mosque.

Imam Fouda spent time in the UAE with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Wam

Imam Fouda spent time in the UAE with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Wam

He says the shooting was not an attack on Islam alone. 

"That was a war against love, it was a war against racism. It was not a war against Muslims, it was a war against the safety and security of all New Zealanders and that is why all New Zealanders came together. We are one family, we are together, we'll never get disunited.

The imam credits the New Zealand Government with helping his community to deal with the fallout of the attacks, sending a clear message of empathy to the rest of the world.

"New Zealand used to be paradise and is still paradise, but it will take time and also there are a few individuals and issues here and there. 

"I hope that we will never see something like this again in the future."


White supremacy: a startling reality to face for the city's leaders

By all accounts, Christchurch was just starting to get back on its feet again when terrorism struck at its core – a statement wheeled out on various quake-related anniversaries over the past decade. But it was a statement that finally seemed to stick.

A stroll around the central city now shows a a humming CBD with slick bars and restaurants, a charming riverside terrace and a vibrant atmosphere, rather than cordoned streets and buildings at risk of crumbling on top of passers-by. Some are still there of course, they are just finally outnumbered by the new, geometric and glass-gilt buildings. 

Christchurch had just finally started to get back on its feet after the earthquakes. Rex

Christchurch had just finally started to get back on its feet after the earthquakes. Rex

But behind the gleaming new facades is a city still hurting as the last of the aftershocks rumble away. Mental health rates are still skyrocketing, with sufferers claiming post-quake stress and children showing increased anxiety.

"We know that the way you get through after the trauma of something like that is coming together, that sense of unity, that’s how you get through. That's how we did it after the earthquakes," Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel says.

"Just imagine what the world would be like if this was the response to 9/11."

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel recalls being in a state of shock when she found out about the attacks. Steve Addison for The National

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel recalls being in a state of shock when she found out about the attacks. Steve Addison for The National

Lianne didn't serve as mayor during the earthquakes, but she served in a different way, as Labour MP and the spokeswoman for the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery. She was elected in 2013, and has spent the past six years navigating the city's post-disaster recovery. So perhaps it's unsurprising that Lianne would have to consider whether the terrorist attacks are the hardest thing she's had to deal with during the mayorship.

"It’s the most shocking thing that I’ve had to deal with," she says slowly, "and it is the most unexpected. I was not prepared for this. If anyone would’ve said this would happen here, or even in New Zealand, I wouldn’t believe it. It’s usually so distant. This stuff doesn’t happen here."

The mayor was in the central city council chambers on March 15, with hundreds of schoolchildren. It was there they all remained until 7pm, when the lockdown ended.

From there she was forced to front-foot the tragedy, answering calls from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and sending out pieces to camera from her media adviser's iPhone, while struggling to come to terms with it herself. 

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"[When I found out] that feeling, that was the pit of my stomach," Lianne says. "At that moment I felt like I was going to cry. I just said, 'No, no this can’t be happening'."

She looks back critically on those moments, proud that despite the fact she didn't have time to find a person to translate her stand-ups in sign language for the deaf community they were able to quickly send out a transcript instead, but unhappy that she came across so emotional, so completely drained in her Facebook Live. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a woman at Wellington's Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17. TVNZ via AP

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a woman at Wellington's Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17. TVNZ via AP

"Every single agency had learned from the earthquakes," Lianne says. "That night we sat here and created a checklist of what was required, and what I needed to know."

The prime minister called her on Friday afternoon to express her "sympathy and the shock that was felt by the nation", she recalls. "We must have spoken of this being a terrorist attack because I was calling it that in the morning. Her response was so instinctive and utterly authentic in that moment. I was with her in Christchurch and she touched every person she came into contact with. Her capacity to connect with people and to speak and understand what was needed to be said - it was wonderful to see a leader who totally understood their role and what they needed to do.

"Sometimes leaders can fall into the traps of overpromising but she never overpromised. We did see that after the earthquakes but we didn’t see that here."

David Meates also reflects on that day with cautious gratification. The overstretched, cash-strapped Canterbury health system was stretched to its limits yet again, and once again it served its people well. "There’s a massive sense of pride. If I was to be sick in any place in the world, this is the place to do it."

As of July, two victims of the shooting remain in rehab. Others are receiving complex wound care in their own homes.


Christchurch will face 'complex issues' for years to come

Al Noor Mosque, pictured during Friday prayers in June. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

Al Noor Mosque, pictured during Friday prayers in June. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

David has fought a valiant battle against the Ministry of Health after the earthquakes, arguing for more money and resources to tend to the fragile states of the country's most rattled population. He will continue to do so, he says, admitting that he now expects the city's mental health problem to worsen. Sick leave is already high and not just one or two days – but weeks on end.

There are "complex issues" to contend with here, David says. "This is not just a mass shooting, this is a mass shooting on a community that was just starting to get a sense of hope. About nine major events occurred in the past eight years on top of that and we’re starting to see the early signs of this retriggering. We’re in really uncharted territory."

That uncharted territory extends far beyond the parameters of mental health, too. For Lianne, charting a course through this latest post-disaster environment is a "huge learning curve".

"And then come the questions about white supremacism," she says. After the attacks, New Zealand was perhaps forced to confront some ugly truths about itself. So too did Christchurch.

"There’s a racism problem in every city. But I don’t experience it here. I can drift through life and not be aware of religious intolerance or racism or homophobia. That’s what I learnt that I didn’t completely understand beforehand," she says. 

"Racism was a word I didn’t use too much because I thought that word turned people off. I thought it was better to use words like inclusion and diversity. But the best answer I got to that was from a Maori woman who said, ‘My daughter will experience racism and people will be racist because of the colour of her skin, and if I don’t tell her that, then she will think it’s her and who she is’. I’ve never had anyone express that to me before and I just said, 'Thank you for giving me the ability to talk about something I’ve never experienced'."

Perhaps it's a sentiment the people of Christchurch as a whole have taken to heart after March 15. A billboard in the city's largest mall in May greeted customers with a message of "Ramadan Kareem". News of the last day of Ramadan was on the front page of the city's paper. Lianne says she learnt the phrase "Eid Mubarak" and used it to greet people while giving a speech.

Indian girl Bhoomikashree hugs Lianne Dalziel instead of shaking her hand at a citizenship ceremony just after the shootings. Courtesy Christchurch City Council

Indian girl Bhoomikashree hugs Lianne Dalziel instead of shaking her hand at a citizenship ceremony just after the shootings. Courtesy Christchurch City Council

She points to the first citizenship ceremony after the attacks, held four days afterwards. She addressed the shootings before the ceremony began.

One of the first people to gain citizenship was a young Indian girl named Bhoomikashree, who took the mayor by surprise when she gathered her into a hug instead of the usual handshake. A photo, taken at the exact moment the hug took place, shows Lianne with her eyes wide and mouth agape: shocked, but delighted. After that, each person who arrived on stage hugged her instead of shaking her hand. 

"Can Christchurch, out of this atrocity, become the platform for the change that we want to see in the world? And can that platform make Christchurch be a place to share ideas and spread that message across the world? Can we be the catalyst for change for good? I think we can.

"We have the ability to do something really special here. Maybe here we find the antidote. What a powerful statement of the role that our city and our nation can provide on the world stage."

It's a noble statement and one the prime minister has already set in motion in her pursuit of stricter social media regulations when she visited France for the Christchurch Call summit in May. But can it be achieved? 

It's a notion I'm mulling over as I go off to the Al Noor Mosque to pay my respects on my last day in Christchurch. Over the past week, reminders of the atrocities of that day had been everywhere. Some had been positive: like the Ramadan Kareem signs at Riccarton Mall. I'd not recalled a single year before when Ramadan had been acknowledged. Some had been harder to stomach, such as when I went for a haircut in Linwood and was tended to by a hairdresser who's clientele had been hit particularly hard. One of his client's father was among the dead. One of his clients was too. Another who ran the local Indian restaurant. 

Al Noor Mosque sits on the side of Hagley Park. AP Photo

Al Noor Mosque sits on the side of Hagley Park. AP Photo

I'd walked off through Hagley Park in what I had simply assumed was the location of Al Noor, on the eastern side, but as I reached its southern perimeter I realised I had no idea where it was. My only point of reference was in the photos of it in the media after the attacks, despite the fact that I'd lived in the city on and off for a decade. I'd almost circumnavigated the park by the time I'd sheepishly stumbled across the mosque, on its western edge.

This was a road I used to drive down several times a week. How could I only just now be realising there was a mosque on it?

Colourful stones are displayed with messages on them outside Al Noor. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

Colourful stones are displayed with messages on them outside Al Noor. Ashleigh Stewart / The National

People are arriving for Friday prayer as I greet the two police officers stationed outside and take in the pile of flowers and messages of support lying alongside the gate. Muslims greet me warmly as they walk by. One stops to say hello.

The message that resonates with me the most is a small river stone with a message scrawled in blue paint, with a little love heart: "We are you". 

It's a variation of the "They are us" message that went viral after the attacks, and perhaps a more inclusive way of declaring unity in the city. 

But a high price has been paid for such messages of tolerance and love to abound. Time will tell how Christchurch rebounds from yet another world-scale tragedy.

But perhaps in the meantime, we can all just learn where our local mosque is. 

Credits

Reporting: Ashleigh Stewart
Editing: Paul Stafford, Dan Gledhill
Producer: Stephen Nelmes
Photo editor: Olive Obina
Graphics: Ramon Peñas
Video packages: David Walker, Daniel Ta Hyun Lee, Willy Lowry

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