‘I still feel safe, I have no fear’

Friday’s massacres at two Christchurch mosques have sparked spontaneous outpourings of solidarity and grief. Newsroom's Christchurch reporter David Williams assesses the city's days of mourning.

They came on foot, in cars, on bikes, and even electric scooters. But, importantly, they came. And they came in droves, bearing flowers and messages of aroha (love).

It was Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel who nominated a Botanic Gardens wall opposite the central city Arts Centre as the place for the public to lay tributes to the victims, including 49 dead, of Friday’s massacres at two mosques. The wall runs from the museum towards the city’s hospital where, tonight, 39 injured people are being cared for, including 11 in the intensive care unit.

Dalziel said this morning: “There are no words to describe the revulsion that I feel for the propaganda that [the killer] wanted to bring with this. And I will not give voice to this propaganda. His was the voice of hate and the only way that communities can respond to the voice of hate is to come together in love, compassion and kindness.”

And they did.

In the afternoon, hundreds gathered to lay floral and other tributes. A large banner read: “We stand together with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Kia kaha, Christchurch.” Another read “peace” in black letters, over a red heart. “We are one” said one sign, not far from another that read “They are us”.

Christchurch woman Kim Smith was in a tight huddle with her family. Her two daughters weren’t at school yesterday, which she was thankful for. “We needed to do something, and to show the girls how people react; how positive people can be in this situation.”

In their sadness, they also wanted to “make a stand” against the person who carried out what the mayor described as an act of cowardice – shooting peaceful people in mosques, as they prayed.

Smith: “You see it on TV all the time then this happens, and people go to the site. It’s just nice to have seen how many people care, really.”

At the court

About the time when the first ball would have been bowled in the cancelled cricket test between New Zealand and Bangladesh, alleged killer Brenton Harrison Tarrant appeared in court.

(A smattering of people gathered outside the courts building in the hope of seeing him. Outside the doors, before media were ushered upstairs in small groups for the hearing, Afghan Omar Nabi told Stuff his 71-year-old father had died after he “leaped on somebody else to save their life”.)

An Australian who had been living in Dunedin, Tarrant has been charged with a single murder. Before his next court appearance, in the High Court on April 5, he will undoubtedly be charged with many more. Handcuffed and wearing white prison garb, he was calm and emotionless, making an ‘OK’ white power symbol, with his right hand.

The court’s gallery was packed with media. The public were barred from attending, for safety reasons. A dozen court security staff and uniformed policemen, including some with pistols, were in the room.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said its “wide-ranging” investigation included searches of Tarrant’s Dunedin home, and checks on social media. Crime scene investigators, covered from head-to-foot in coveralls, were seen crossing a cordoned and deserted Brougham St towards Tarrant’s crashed car, which police say contained an explosive device and other weapons. Police heroically forced the car off the road and arrested the man at gunpoint, videos posted on social media show.

(An international journalist, talking in the gallery before the hearing started, said the Christchurch massacre was “the biggest story in the world”.)

Outside the court, before Tarrant appeared, an elderly woman shook her head at a policeman with a rifle. “I never thought I’d see the day in New Zealand.”

The cop, soft-faced, took a couple of steps towards her. “It’s bloody terrible isn’t it?”

Hours later, people arrived in waves to donate food, including cupcakes and slices, to emergency services.

At city hall

Earlier in the day, Mayor Dalziel said the council wasn’t able to bring city people together in some sort of organised event at short notice. She urged people to contact neighbours, organise street get-togethers. It was that sort of community strength that saw Christchurch through the tragedy of the 2011 quake that killed 185 people. “And that is what will see us through this tragedy.”

Newsroom asked Dalziel what message she had for people who want to visit or live in Christchurch. She replied: “This was a premeditated attack. It was designed by someone who came here, from Australia to New Zealand, deliberately choosing a safe place to make a statement.

“The police response has given me great confidence in terms of the security that is able to be provided. At this time I’m going to say that there will be a grief-stricken city, but we will come back from this and we will continue our path of welcoming people from all nations, from all religions, from all cultures.”

At the tribute wall, that sentiment was echoed by Puneet Kakkar, 30 – who is originally from the northern Punjab region of India, who has lived in Christchurch for more than two years. He called the flood of people at the wall a brotherhood.

“They come here, they just show they are really with us,” he says. “That’s the community, that’s the New Zealand people, that’s the Kiwi – who always welcome anyone, from whatever colour or religion.”

Kakkar’s friend’s father was in hospital, after being shot twice. He and his friends were heading to the hospital to check on him.

The Uber driver was inspired to live in New Zealand because, he says, it’s the safest country in the world. Kakkar says he’s never faced racism, despite working plenty of jobs, and has no intention of leaving.

“I still feel safe here,” he says. “I don’t feel fear.”

On Thursday evening, Christchurch author Rosie Belton launched her book ‘Living with earthquakes and their aftermath’. The book was, in part, a celebration of how far the city had come since the earthquake on February 22 2011.

Standing in front of the tribute wall today, she noted how the sky was “suitably grey”. She had to go somewhere, she says, to be with other people.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe this has happened in New Zealand. We’re the smallest, most far away, isolated place, now with the terrorism label.”

Her book was dedicated to “all who face and survive unwanted change”.

“And here we have it again.”

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