Christchurch, New Zealand – At about 2pm on Friday, when the gunfire at Christchurch’s Linwood mosque finally let up, Abdi Sheikh Hassan found himself underneath a pile of bodies.
Hassan says he was at the front of the mosque’s prayer hall, close to the imam, when a man armed with an assault weapon approached the building and opened fire.
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Trapped by the spray of bullets, worshippers in the back rows piled on top of those at the front. A number of them never got up again.
“There was blood everywhere,” Hassan recalls.
Shaking with fear but unharmed, the 28-year-old stood up to take a look at the carnage. His friend, lying next to him, had been shot in the head.
“Seven people were dead and so many people were injured, [among them] women and children … everyone was in shock.”
Hassan would later find out that Christchurch’s small, tight-knit, Muslim community had been the target of the deadliest mass shooting in New Zealand’s modern history.
Shortly before the assault at Linwood, the gunman had killed more than 40 worshippers at the Al Noor mosque, some seven kilometres away. Altogether, at least 50 people were killed, and dozens more wounded, in what Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, called a well-planned “terrorist attack”.
A 28-year-old Australian man, identified as Brenton Harrison Tarrant, has been charged with one count of murder so far, with many more charges expected to be levelled against him.
One of those presumed killed during the massacre was three-year-old Mucaad Ibrahim. Hassan knows the family well.
Like Mucaad’s Somali-born father, Adan Ibrahim, Hassan also fled violence and instability in Somalia eight years ago, in search of a place “at peace”.
“Security was bad at home and we didn’t think anything bad could happen here,” Hassan says.
“But we, as Muslims, believe anything that happens, good or bad, is Allah testing us, to see if we are following the rules of the Prophet Muhammad,” he adds.
About 50,000 Muslims call New Zealand home, a small minority in a population of nearly five million. From India and Indonesia to Pakistan and Palestine, the Pacific Island country’s Muslims come from around the world.
In Christchurch, a city of nearly 400,000 people, Muslims number no more than a few thousand people, and the tragedy of Friday’s loss has affected nearly every Muslim household in the city.
“We know each other, in the Muslim community, very well,” Hassan says. “We spent a long time praying together … and now we are busy with organising how to bury all the bodies.”
Despite the tragedy, Hassan has no plans to leave Christchurch. Having trained as an engineer and built a life in New Zealand, he is determined to carry on living and working in the place he now calls home.
Part of that, he says, means going back to the shuttered Al Noor and Linwood mosques once they are reopened.
“I still believe now it is a safe place and that New Zealand is the best country for us,” he says.
“In any place, you can find good and bad people, but most of the people here, Alhamdullilah [thanks to God], are good people and look after us.”
“What Allah has given us, we are happy with.”