Christchurch, New Zealand – Sitting inside the now-pristine women’s section of Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, Jumayah Jones described how March 15 had begun as “a normal day”.
She had been watching the imam’s sermon via videolink from the adjacent room when gunfire suddenly rang out from the front doorway, the beginning of an attack on two mosques by a lone gunman that left 51 worshippers dead and 40 severely injured.
The attack is now at the centre of a New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry to determine if it could have been prevented.
The submission of the commission’s findings – initially scheduled for this week – has been extended until April 30, due to the “complexity” of the 1,100 public testimonies received so far that have included issues of racism against minorities that many say were not properly addressed in the lead-up to the attack.
A spokesperson for the Royal Commission told Al Jazeera the delay had “given more time to continue thoughtful and sensitive engagement with Muslim communities” and more time for public submissions to be received.
“At the heart of our work are the 51 people who lost their lives and all those who grieve them, as well as survivors who continue to experience the effects,” the spokesperson said.
“We have taken great care to respect grieving periods, religious practices and the ongoing impact of the attacks on people.”
Initial response praised
While the actions of the New Zealand authorities in the lead up to the attack are under scrutiny, the initial response by police, emergency services and the community has been widely praised.
Continuing her description of the chaos that unfolded nine months ago, Jones said she ran to the bathrooms outside the building and called emergency services. Others ran to the street or crouched on the mosque floor and covered their heads.
“I looked up here and I saw all the men were bleeding and they were clamouring to climb the fence,” she said, pointing to the garden area at the back of the mosque.
The phone call she made was one of 68 calls received by police about the shootings within the first 25 minutes, according to Canterbury Police District Commander John Price.
Some 18 minutes after the first call was made, police picked up the suspect – but not before he had opened fire at the nearby Linwood mosque where Jones’ son had been attending Friday prayers.
She describes how the fear and anxiety already felt by the survivors grew as news of the second attack filtered through.
It would be days before the community would gain a full picture of who had been lost from among their friends and family.
Price described how police crews worked tirelessly to finalise the investigation of “the biggest murder scene we have ever had to deal with in New Zealand’s history” to ensure the mosque was restored and handed back to the congregation in time for Friday prayers the following week.
Jones praised the government’s assistance to families in the aftermath of the tragedy and addressing the countries gun laws within days of the shooting.
“A bad thing happened, but I think a lot of good things came out of it,” she said.
Racism and discrimination
Shahed Omar Abu Jwaied, who plays an advisory role to the Royal Commission as a representative of the Muslim community, is not as optimistic.
“I hope that what we’ve learned from the 15th of March is taken seriously, and it’s not just talk to pat our shoulders because we’ve lost lives and then move on and forget about it,” she told Al Jazeera.
Abu Jwaied said in New Zealand the Muslim community face two forms of racism – religious and cultural. Many are immigrants.
Both before and after March 15, Muslims experienced outright racism – in the form of threats or verbal and physical attacks – and “institutional” discrimination from “safe places” including police, government departments and the education system, she said.
“Racism and hate is a threat to our nation for everybody,” Abu Jwaied said, adding that the Commission should address all forms of racism. “If it happened to Muslims this time it could happen to somebody else next time.”
Abu Jwaied, who welcomed Prime Minister Jacinda Arder’s actions to support victims and tighten gun laws, also hopes the inquiry will result in improved data on hate crimes, a change in the government policy approach to tolerance and equality and more accountability on issues of racism.
Muslims have found the process of testifying left them with mixed feelings.
“It’s positive in the fact that we hope things will be better for our nation in the coming years … in terms of policies, in terms of society and so forth,” Abu Jwaied said. “It’s also negative because it was said again and again to multiple government agencies by Muslims and non-Muslims that there is a movement of white supremacy and hate in New Zealand, but it was not taken seriously until actual lives were lost.”
“Testifying when something is too late is not something that any community would like to go through.”
Martin Dorahy, professor at the University of Canterbury and a leading clinical psychologist, said while reliving the experience through testimony could be “helpful” and “therapeutic” for some, others could find it “increased the pain” of an ordeal.
“One of the reasons that people ended up in this part of the world was to get some distance from the ongoing distress and trauma they were facing in their countries of origin,” he told Al Jazeera. “So they came here to what is a pretty sleepy place generally and it effectively became another war zone for them, where they were attacked in their place of worship at the most vulnerable time.”
Many families are now facing a situation were “nowhere is safe”, and some of the victims continue to face abuse from a small percentage of the population.
Dorahy described the case of one family he counselled who had lost a loved one in the attack.
Shortly after the shooting, the wife took her young children to the park and was racially abused by a man. She was afraid he was he going to hurt them.
“The family would often struggle to get out of the house (because of fear),” he said.
But while racism is still felt, the broader community has rallied in support.
The front of the mosque is still adorned with flowers, letters and gifts, and a regular stream of visitors from around the world come to pay their respects, many breaking down in tears as they enter the mosque.
Sarah Quadir volunteered at the hospital and the funeral home immediately after the attack to help families with information on their loved ones.
As she walked out of the hospital on the first night, she saw a non-Muslim woman placing a simple candle and flowers at the hospital entrance – the start of an avalanche of cards, flowers and care packages they would receive in the coming hours – and found herself moved to tears.
“It felt warm… like humans are all around you, true honest people grieving with you,” she said.
The next morning, a neighbour she had never met brought a gift basket to her home.
“When you read of tragedy across the world… people seem to be so numb, but we’re not numb. It feels like I’m not living in the sort of world the rest of the world is living in right now.”
The tragedy also brought Muslims themselves closer together, as many who became “pillars of the community” rallied to help those struggling with grief.
“I’ve seen many injured people the moment they got out of the hospital the first thing they did was come back to the mosque,” Quadir recalled.
“I saw one old man walk straight in still wearing his hospital socks.”