“God is testing us — testing the families and us, and we’re here to help.” Zia Aiyaz, 32, an engineer originally from Afghanistan who flew to Christchurch from Hamilton, New Zealand
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The families drifted from the mosques to the hospital, their emotions battered, their eyes bloodshot.
More than a day had passed since the attacks on Friday that killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and many still did not know the fate of loved ones they believed were at prayer when the gunman arrived and started firing.
Akhtar Khokhar, who arrived two months ago from India to visit her son, had come to the hospital for answers.
“This is my husband,” she said, holding up a photo before an imam who was at Christchurch Hospital to try to help family members. He shook his head with uncertainty.
Others faced similar frustrations, with no firm answers about who had died.
“This is the best they can do?” asked Zuhair Darwish, as his brother’s wife in Jordan kept calling, desperate, wanting to know whether to plan a funeral.
Hours before, the gunman who had inflicted all this pain was charged with one count of murder, with dozens more expected.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who flew to Christchurch to visit with families, vowed that “our gun laws will change — now is the time.” Minutes before the shooting began on Friday, Ms. Ardern was emailed a copy of the racist manifesto purported to be from the gunman.
On Saturday evening, Mr. Darwish, like many others, still could not believe where the horror had landed him: in a hospital cafeteria, renamed a “relatives room,” that was crowded with grief and hot with anger.
Dozens of family members — teenagers in T-shirts, grandmothers in head scarves, bearded men in jeans — were there, squeezed together and pressing for information from overwhelmed officials.
“It’s illegal to hide the names from us!” Mr. Darwish shouted at a police official, who was fielding questions while standing on a chair at the back of the room, where few could hear him. “You have to provide them!”
This was not where they belonged, many of the survivors said.
Bloodshed, terrorism and fear were what some of them had left behind, fleeing countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. Others were born here, used to relative quiet and peace. But in the land of emerald green rugby pitches, hatred found them all anyway.
They responded with the full range of human emotion. Walking between the mosques and the hospital revealed countless examples of tears and outrage. There was debilitating sadness. There was confusion, but also the kind of love you see in hugs that hold tight and bring tears without concern for who is looking.
“This is a test,” said Zia Aiyaz, 32, an engineer originally from Afghanistan who flew to Christchurch from Hamilton, New Zealand, to help the families of those who were killed or wounded. “God is testing us — testing the families and us, and we’re here to help.”
Islam first arrived in Christchurch in 1854, with a family from India, local history says. Its roots strengthened in the 1970s with the arrival of Afghan immigrants, and again in the ’90s with new arrivals from other countries.
The Muslim community is neither highly visible nor invisible here in Christchurch, a pleasant city of 350,000 near the South Island’s Pacific Coast. Mostly Sunni, they are part of a small but growing group of around 46,000 Muslims overall in a country of 4.6 million. In Christchurch, their ranks include students at local universities, taxi drivers, professionals, nurses — and imams like Lateef Alabi.
A leader at the Linwood Mosque, he is originally from Nigeria but is also close to finishing a Ph.D in Malaysia. He has been in New Zealand for three years.
On Saturday, he moved briskly between all the areas where families had gathered, having changed into a clean, gray dishdasha robe. His garment from the day before had been stained with blood.
He often found that he had little to offer those in need.
When Ms. Khokhar found him, and told him her husband had been at Al Noor Mosque, he shook his head and just said, “Oh no.” That was where 41 people had been killed.
Many of those who attended prayers on Friday were regulars, for whom Islamic practice was woven into engaged lives in the city.
Yasir Amin Nasr, 35, who moved from Lahore, Pakistan, five years ago, now works for the Christchurch City Council. He and his father, Muhammad Amin Nasr, had parked their car up the road from Al Noor Mosque on Friday and were walking toward the building when they first heard gunfire.
After another burst of gunshots, he pleaded with his father to run away, and quickly. But it was too late.
“Two, three seconds, he was just in front of us, pointing the gun at us,” Mr. Nasr said, trying to show a distance of some eight yards separating them from the gunman.
“I saw him. He looked at us,” Mr. Nasr said. “He was driving. He stopped the car when he spotted us and he got his gun.”
Mr. Nasr said the gunman aimed the weapon across the driver’s side of the car, through the passenger window toward him and his father and began firing.
His father was hit twice. On Saturday night, he was in critical condition in Christchurch Hospital.
His father, a regular traveler to New Zealand, had arrived three weeks ago for this latest visit and had planned to stay for longer than usual.
“He likes it here,” Mr. Nasr said. “He said he would stay for at least one year because of peace, because here he has nothing to worry about, he can just relax.”
More might have died at the Linwood Mosque but for the selfless actions of Abdul Aziz, 48, who was praying there with his four sons when he heard gunshots.
Rather than fleeing, he ran toward the sound and grabbed the first thing he could find — a credit card machine — and tossed it at the attacker. He then tried to draw the gunman’s attention to himself, and away from other worshipers, by weaving through cars in the parking lot.
Mr. Alabi told The Associated Press he believed the death toll would have been far higher without Mr. Aziz’s actions.
Mr. Aziz, originally from Afghanistan, said he saw the attacker drop one of his guns and managed to grab it. But when he pulled the trigger, the gun was empty. When the gunman went to his car, presumably to grab more ammunition, Mr. Aziz said he threw the gun at the assailant’s windshield, shattering the glass. The assailant sped away.
Perhaps because of where the shooting took place — a country where there are fewer than a dozen murders in some years — many of the survivors found themselves reaching back in time, using words like peace and quiet, calm and safety.
Mr. Darwish, 40, said that was how he persuaded his brother, Kamel, to move to New Zealand from Jordan: “I told him it’s the safest country in the world and the best place to raise kids.”
“He was here for six months,” he added. “He was going to bring his wife in a month.”
Instead, Kamel was missing and presumed dead.
Inside the hospital’s relatives room, Mr. Darwish could not contain his frustration. Several relatives had to walk him outside to help him calm down when a local imam he didn’t know stood up and tried to explain that they were trying to wait until all the names had been confirmed and all the bodies identified before sharing information with the group.
“We want connectivity,” said the imam, Mustafa Farouk. “So everyone gets closure at the same time.”
Others in the crowd demanded an alternative, something quicker “so we can rest!” shouted one man in a far corner.
Mr. Farouk explained that some of the victims were unrecognizable because of their wounds. Another imam reminded them that “it’s not a car accident, it’s an international crime scene,” and that officials had to be careful not to get anything wrong.
Still, the crowd pleaded: Let people share photos. Let imams who know some of the dead identify them.
For a time, the pain brought division. Then the discord was broken when a man shouted “Allahu akbar!” — God is great — and called for patience.
A few minutes later, officials announced that they would not wait for all the bodies to be identified. They acceded to the community’s demands and let people send photos to the police and choose imams to identify those they could.
The survivors knew this victory would only bring more pain. But at least they were moving toward a resolution, together and alone.
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