Community in mourning: A day of grief and forgiveness

As the Amish school massacre victims were buried, there were prayers for the children - and their killer. By Andrew Buncombe
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They swept down the narrow road at a steady pace - the horses' hooves clipping brightly in the mid-morning sunshine.

There were almost three-dozen horse-drawn buggies in all, and in the first lay a small wooden coffin containing the body of Naomi Rose Ebersol.

The buggy was driven by an elderly-looking couple, their eyes fixed unswervingly on the road that was leading them to the cemetery.

Naomi was seven years old and she was just one of four little girls buried yesterday as the reserved Amish community of southern Pennsylvania laid to rest the first victims of this week's school shooting, in which a local man entered a rural school-room and opened fire before turning his gun on himself. Today the gunman's fifth victim will be buried, and the community is preparing itself for yet another funeral; one of the survivors has reportedly been released from hospital and taken home, doctors having decided they can do nothing for her.

"It's a day of grief, of saying a final goodbye. Probably also it's a day of some relief in that some of the formal grieving is over," said Rita Rhoads, a midwife who helped to deliver two of the girls who were buried. "The Amish have been trying to get the message across that their faith in the Lord has got them through this and that they have also forgiven the shooter."

Since Monday when Charles Roberts IV, a milk delivery driver, married with children, entered the schoolhouse at Nickel Mines township and unleashed a twisted anger and confusion that he said had been building for more than 20 years, much has been written about the readiness of the Amish to try to forgive him for his bewildering actions. Ms Rhoads said it was very likely that among the prayers being delivered for the little girls and their families, the Amish ministers would include prayers for 32-year-old Roberts and his own family.

Amish custom called for each of the victims - Naomi, 13-year-old Marian Fisher, sisters Mary and Lena Miller, aged seven and eight respectively, and Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, who is due to be buried today - to be dressed in simple white dresses, a white cape and a white prayer-covering on their heads.

For the last two days their homemade wooden caskets have lain in their families homes, left open for mourners to come and pay their respects and to touch the bodies - another important aspect of Amish tradition. During this period there has been an almost constant flow of buggies delivering mourners to pay their visits.

Yesterday, during the funeral services that lasted anywhere from an hour to two hours, hundreds of mourners came together to hear prayers read in High German. The men had swapped their usual pale-coloured straw hats for black, police had shut off the roads.

It was around 10am on Monday when the heavily armed Roberts entered the school room and ordered the 15 young boys and the adult teacher, Emma Zook, to leave. He then lined up the young girls in front of the schoolroom and started shooting them with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol. When police arrived at the scene he fired at them with a shotgun before shooting himself.

Naomi was one of three victims who died that morning - she in the arms of a state trooper who held her as a paramedic tried in vain to save her. The two others died in hospital that afternoon. The deputy coroner, Jane Ballenger, said she had counted 20 bullet wounds in Naomi's body. When the child's family came to identify her, she told a local newspaper that the "woman's knees buckled''.

Marian Fisher, the second girl to be buried yesterday, had apparently volunteered to be the first to be shot. One of the survivors told her family that Marian had apparently hoped her sacrifice might save the younger girls.

A 12-year-old girl had volunteered to be the second. All the while, the survivor told her family, Roberts had asked the girls to pray for him.

Despite everything that has happened and the terrible details that have emerged, the Amish have reached out to comfort Roberts' family and even invited his widow, Marie, to yesterday's funeral. A spokesman for Roberts' family said that just hours after the shooting, an Amish neighbour had gone to their home and extended forgiveness to them.

"I hope they stay around here and they'll have a lot of friends and a lot of support," Daniel Esh, an Amish woodworker whose three grandnephews were inside the school during the attack, told the Associated Press.

If the Amish have found it in themselves to forgive there is still a strong sense of bewilderment in this quiet community. Among these scattered farms and villages, Amish and "English" alike - as the Amish refer to their non-Amish neighbours - must be wondering what drove Roberts to act.

"It's all very strange. I do not understand it at all. It's frightening," said one Amish woman who asked not to be named and who yesterday morning had helped to prepare meals for the victims' families and other mourners.

The police are apparently not any closer to understanding what motivated Roberts. Moments before he entered the school, Roberts telephoned his wife and told her he was tortured by an experience 20 years before, when he had molested two young female relatives. In this brief conversation, and also in a series of notes, he said he had been plagued by thoughts that he might reoffend.

But on Wednesday further confusion was added when police revealed that they had located the two relatives and spoken with them. Police said the two women would have been aged either four or five at the time of the purported attacks, but neither could remember any such incident.

But for now the focus has been on laying to rest the victims of a violence that was wrought upon this set-apart community by the outside world and which it was yesterday trying to deal with, fully aware of the glare of outside eyes.

And so despite the banks of television cameras and satellite trucks that had filled the village of Georgetown and despite the scores of journalists lining the route that led directly past Roberts' house, the Amish took to their buggies and drove themselves to the small hilltop cemetery. There, in graves they had dug by hand, they buried four little girls.