Christchurch, New Zealand’s mild “garden city”, is an improbable location for terror. Even less so, the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history, manifested in a series of attacks designed to inflict devastating carnage on places of worship, with the alleged perpetrator apparently inspired to gun down victims by neo-Nazi fantasies.
Yet, as helicopters continue to audibly patrol the Cantabrian night sky, and with scores confirmed dead, residents are beginning to come to terms with the incredible facts of the day.
At least 49 people have been killed, and dozens more injured, as a result of vicious assaults on two mosques. Improvised explosive devices found in vehicles further demonstrate the lethal intentions of the perpetrators. Four people are currently in custody; one alleged attacker, who appears to have uploaded an Anders Breivik-style manifesto explaining the beliefs that informed his actions, and who live-streamed his crimes on Facebook, has been charged with murder.
Speaking on Friday evening, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern referred to the incidents as “terrorism” – truly an unfamiliar word to be used in a New Zealand context – and uttered the undeniable observation that this was “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”.
Matthew Robinson, 38, tells The Independent he became aware of events when his workplace went into lockdown, which lasted three hours.
His workplace is in the centre of the city, not far from Hagley Park – the city’s biggest recreation ground, and which connects the Deans Avenue Mosque to the general hospital, where victims were treated.
“Initially I thought it was an overreaction as I heard about an armed offender call-out on the other side of Hagley Park,” he says.
But, he adds, he soon “read the news with colleagues and it quickly became apparent of the magnitude and scale of the event”.
The shock of realisation has dimmed to a sense of disconnection.
“Even though I live in Christchurch, I still feel like I am a spectator to the whole event,” he says.
James, a 16-year-old pupil at Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery school, says his day was interrupted by the announcement that “that the school had just entered a lockdown. We were soon after told that a shooting had taken place” not far from a gathering of children in the city centre as a part of a “climate protest a few of my close friends were attending”, he says.
He said he felt he was “lucky” to not have been as close as his friends to events, “but also saddened by the fact that so many lives were thrown away needlessly and out of the spite of a few people”.
Others simply felt too overwhelmed to fully process what had taken place.
“Like most people it was an awful thing to hear about and what the numbers ended up to be, was numbing,” Kerry Tunstall, an artist based in the suburb of New Brighton, says.
Jessica McPherson, 30, who has lived in the city for her entire adult life, tells this reporter that she was prompted to check the news when she heard the noise of police helicopters circling near her home.
She says she experienced “overwhelming disbelief” as she encountered the meaning of the disturbance.
As her shock retreated, she felt anger, tempered by gratitude for the decisive actions of the police, in Christchurch and beyond.
“It makes me furious that people exist who think that’s an acceptable way to behave,” she says, adding that she appreciates the way that the force “apprehended the offenders very quickly and they did well putting security around other mosques around the country”.
She does not yet feel safe, but adds: “Love is stronger than hate, eh.”
Cantabrian Aaron Gilligan, who was near to the site of the first attack soon after it took place, expresses similar sentiments.
“This whole thing is just so very sh**, but seeing the New Zealand people’s response of love, sadness, and support for the local Muslim community is overwhelmingly beautiful and proves that events like this are the exception, not the rule – and hate has no place here today.”
“The Muslim community here may have felt alone or unsupported locally before this, but you are not alone anymore. We see you, we are here for you, we accept you, and we mourn with you.”
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