Christchurch, New Zealand – In a quiet corner of Memorial Park Cemetery, the graves dug out for the dozens of Muslim worshippers killed in the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s modern history stretch out, row upon row, in every direction.
Around them sit mounds of excavated soil, waiting to fill in the gaping holes carefully carved out of the earth.
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Elsewhere, grieving mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons are waiting, too.
More than 48 hours after a suspected far-right gunman killed at least 50 people during what has been labelled a “terrorist” attack on two Christchurch mosques, the relatives of those missing and presumed dead are racked by anguish, desperate to lay their loved ones to rest.
“I haven’t slept for two days,” 31-year-old Farhana Akhter says outside a makeshift victim support centre in Christchurch, a city that is home to a few thousand Muslims.
“I can’t eat or drink; I need to see my aunt’s body as soon as possible … so we can have relief.”
Akhter’s relative, Husna Ahmed, was among the more than 40 people shot dead on Friday at the Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch – one of the two places of worship that came under attack, the other being Linwood mosque, some seven kilometres away.
A 28-year-old Australian man, identified as Brenton Harrison Tarrant, has been charged with one count of murder, with many more expected.
In his own words, published in a rambling, racist and overtly white-supremacist online manifesto minutes before the attack, the suspect said he had decided “to commit to violence” against non-whites and immigrants, arguing they were destroying societal cohesion.
“She saved everyone’s life but unfortunately she sacrificed her life.”
Farhana Akhter tells Al Jazeera about her aunt’s courage during the mass shootings on two mosques in Christchurch on Friday. pic.twitter.com/yz9WWVgj5G
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) March 17, 2019
Husna, 45, was attending Friday prayers, as usual, when the gunman armed with semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines stormed Al Noor mosque and opened fire indiscriminately on everyone inside.
“My auntie, she was ushering all the ladies out to make sure they all got out,” says 19-year-old Nusrat Alam, another niece of Husna’s.
“She came back in, to look for my uncle, who is disabled, and that’s when she was shot by the gunman,” she adds.
“It’s a very big step to see the body. A lot of other people are frustrated like us too.”
Authorities pledge speed, sensitivity
Authorities in New Zealand have not made official public statements naming the victims, but have pledged to move as swiftly as possible in returning bodies to the victims’ families, while stressing the need for accurate identification and evidence gathering first.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said some bodies would be returned to victims’ families on Sunday evening and expressed hope that all of those killed would be with their relatives again by Wednesday at the latest.
Ardern’s comments came after Mike Bush, New Zealand’s police chief, said officials were “aware of the cultural and religious needs” of Muslim victims, identifying and releasing bodies as “quickly and sensitively as possible”.
Muslims are customarily buried within 24 hours of death. Before their burial, the bodies are washed and wrapped in a white shroud so that funeral prayers can be conducted.
The delay enforced in the aftermath of Friday’s tragedy is deeply traumatising, but understandable given the scale of the attack, says 44-year-old Waleed Wahsh on the outskirts of a public vigil at the Al Noor mosque.
“It is still difficult for a lot of people not to be able to see their loved ones and the dead bodies, even just to get reassurance that they have passed away,” adds Wahsh, who lost three friends in the attack.
“But we have a lot of confidence that the government and their agencies are doing their absolute best and they are working around the clock to get those names identified.”
‘A beautiful soul’
Help is coming from other corners, too.
Family members, members of the Muslim community and others have travelled to Christchurch from various places across New Zealand in a bid to help out as volunteers in the aftermath of the mosque attacks.
Javed Dadabhai, who says his cousin Junaid was murdered on Friday, is one of them. He flew down from Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city and home to most of the country’s 50,000 Muslims.
“My cousin was a beautiful soul; he was very softly spoken and a very kind-hearted person. He was just gentle,” Dadabhai, 30, says.
“He expressed that in every part of his life,” he adds.
Now Dadabhai is part of a team helping organise the release of Junaid’s and others’ bodies and, in time, their burials. He says that could take the volunteers, which are coordinating with authorities, up to a week.
“The families have been so patient with regards to how long this process has taken,” Dadabhai says.
“From an Islamic point of view, there was a want to receive the dead immediately and start the grieving process … but they realise that this is not like any other incident, especially in New Zealand … so it’s a stop-start to the families’ grieving process – they want to begin it but they are being paused too,” he adds.
“Hopefully it’s going to get better though, as the names [of those killed] are starting to get released to the families, you can see they feel they are finally allowed to cry, to release some of their grief.”