From the dark depths of a UAE-based survivor’s account of the New Zealand mosque attack, to an Afghan refugee’s heroic battle to save fellow worshippers, to Jacinda Ardern’s exemplary empathy, Gulf News examines in this special report how the world has moved on 90 days since the massacre.
‘The death rattle at the Christchurch mosque, it’s stuck in my head’
New Zealand mosque attack survivor talks to Gulf News as he resumes office in Al Ain
By Mazhar Farooqui, Features Editor — Special Reports
Al Ain: Like a bad penny it keeps coming back — the recurring nightmare.
Every few days, it jolts awake Adeeb Sami in the middle of the night — the slack expression on the faces of worshippers lying motionless at Al Noor Mosque in the eastern New Zealand city of Christchurch, with blood oozing from their wounds.
The stone-cold silence inside the mosque, broken occasionally by the grunting sounds of injured victims as they hopelessly tried to stand up, and the fading voice of his best friend, Palestinian Abdul Fattah Qasem, reciting the shahada in the last throes of death, a few metres away from where Sami himself lay — with a bullet lodged in his spine and another in his right shoulder.
“Oh Abdul Fattah, he was my dearest friend in New Zealand. He was sitting next to me. When I got hit, he put his arms around my shoulder and consoled me saying, ‘Don’t worry Adeeb, I will save you’.
“But the shooter came back and shot him at point-blank range. The sight of my best friend going through the convulsions of death and the gurgling sound that emanated from his throat before he passed away haunt me even in my sleep,” says the New Zealander, who returned to the UAE on June 8 to resume his job as director at American engineering firm Aecom.
Celebrations in office
Life-size posters of Sami and balloon clusters greet us at Aecom’s office in Al Ain as we visit the long-time UAE resident for an interview.
Three months on, as Sami recollected the fateful March 15 afternoon when a terrorist burst into two Christchurch mosques and opened fire — killing 51 people and injuring scores others, those haunting wounds are still raw.
“All this is the handiwork of my staff," he said, referring to the ‘Welcome Back’ posters adorning his office walls. "It looks like I am not a terrible boss after all and they love me. My well-wishers think I am lucky. In the conventional sense of the term, yes, I am, but I reckon the people who were martyred in the attack were luckier as they have gone straight to paradise.
My well-wishers think I am lucky. In the conventional sense of the term, yes, I am, but I reckon the people who were martyred in the attack were luckier as they have gone straight to paradise.
"To die a martyr in the Islamic faith is one of the greatest honours. All of us will die one day but for a Muslim, what better death could there be than being martyred in a mosque and that, too, during Friday prayers,” he said.
Surprise visit for children
Sami flew to New Zealand on Thursday, March 14, to surprise his twin children — daughter Hamsa and son Ali on their 23rd birthday.
The following morning, he got behind the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Coupe with daughter Hamsa and drove down to the internal affairs office to renew his passport. At 12.51pm, less than an hour before the attacks, dad and daughter posed for a selfie from a nearby cafe.
Sami then dropped Hamsa home and went for the Friday afternoon prayers at Al Noor Mosque. “None of my friends knew I was in town. I was looking to catch up with them so I reached the mosque early,” he said.
Unknown to Sami, his sons Abdullah and Ali were also on their way to Al Noor.
‘I have been shot’
“The imam delivered a speech in Arabic and had barely started with ‘My dear brothers and sisters’ in English when I heard the shooting. I thought somebody was bursting fire crackers, so I didn’t pay attention — but when a bullet hit me in the back, I instantly realised we were under attack.
"As I slumped on the floor, my friend Abdul Fattah who was sitting next to me asked, “What’s happening?’ and I mumbled, ‘I have been shot’.
As the shock wore of and the pain crept in, I caught a glimpse of my son Ali in the back room dialling the emergency number from his cell phone. At the same time, I saw the terrorist return with a different gun. He was swearing and shooting anybody who had survived the first wave of attacks. Seeing him, some worshippers started praying loudly in Arabic and reciting the shahada (Islamic creed declaring belief in the oneness of God and the acceptance of Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] as God’s prophet). He singled them out shot them one by one.
A bullet whizzed past my son
“I threw myself over Ali to shield him from the gunfire and got hit a second time — this time on the shoulder. The bullet that struck me zipped past Ali’s face and left a huge red mark on his face. Thankfully it would turn out to be nothing more than a minor bruise. We lay still as even the slightest movement would have given us away. Watching the gunman stroll leisurely with a horrid grimace and pick targets at will were the most agonising eight minutes of my life. I had never felt so helpless. I thought this was it … that we are all going to die. As a father my first instinct was to save my son but I couldn’t do anything. There were about 40 of us lying in a heap of bloody bodies near the exit. At that time I wasn’t even aware if my son was alive.”
“Imagine my relief and joy when I found that Ali had not only survived but had also escaped unscathed. It was a miracle because there was hardly anybody who had not been shot. After the gunman left, I told Ali to look after the family when I am gone. He asked, ‘why are you saying this dad?” and I said ‘because that’s what they say in movies’. Ali was livid by my response. He said “how dare you joke in such circumstances?.”
Three surgeries in three days
By now, Sami was bleeding heavily. Ali took off his father’s trousers and strapped it on his wounds to stop the loss of blood as they waited for the ambulance.
In hospital, Sami underwent three major life-saving surgeries in three days, lasting 8, 10 and 12 hours but several splinters of bullets are still lodged in his body. He now carries a clearance letter from the hospital for airport security when he passes metal detectors.
“I have one more surgery, supposedly the final one on September 6,” he says as he unbuttons his shirt to proudly show a 30cm surgery scar on his torso. “They had to remove some part of my stomach too. I am an Iraqi by descent and I lived 28 years of my life in a war ravaged country. Who would have thought I would be shot in New Zealand of all places,” said the father of four who has lost 14kg since the attack.
Despite his injuries, Sami fasted throughout Ramadan. The Eid prayer in Christchurch was, however, tinged with sadness for Sami as many of my friends were missing in the congregation. “Every year, Abdelfattah used to organise the Eid salah. He was sorely missed.”
Getting back the rhythm
A keen footballer and an avid Manchester City fan, Sami uses a crutch to walk around. “I am hoping to get rid of it soon but I don’t see myself playing active football any time soon,” he says. Another sport he’s equally passionate about is tennis, particularly tournaments involving his favourite sportsman Roger Federer. So much so that when he woke up after a self-induced coma and the doctor gave him a board to write something because he couldn’t talk, he wrote ‘Federer’ to inquire about how the tennis icon had fared in the Indian Wells Masters.
A visit from New Zealand PM
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and Prince William were among many celebs who visited Sami in hospital where he spent 19 days. “I struck an instant rapport with Prince William. He said I might take around an year to recover and I told him, “I am from Iraq,” He smiled at my response and said. ‘Well, you are well versed in it then.”
Sami said he has turned down suggestions to attend court hearings in Christchurch as main accused Brenton Tarrant becomes the first man in New Zealand to face charges under the country’s anti-terror law.
Random acts of kindness
“I don’t see any need for it. I can’t fathom what the terrorist set out to achieve because he didn’t achieve anything. On the contrary,his actions have unified Muslims and prompted a flood of support for the community in New Zealand. From our prime minister Jacinda Arden to the common man on the street, they have all rallied behind us.
"To show their solidarity, women all over New Zealand even put on headscarves … Our neighbours mowed our lawns and cleaned the house while random strangers showed up at our door with flowers. Before long we had so many flowers we had no place for keep them. My office also stood by me,” he says, showing a letter of support from his CEO in Los Angeles.
Sami said the tragedy has drawn him closer to God and helped him understand life better. “I did not cry even once all these three months, but when I was flying back to the UAE with my wife Sana, and the pilot announced that we’d be landing in Dubai soon, I was suddenly overcome with emotions.
Tears of joy welled up in my eyes and then the floodgates opened. I just kept weeping … Lying wounded in hospital bed, I would often wonder if I would survive and return to the UAE which has been my home for 25 years. I can’t describe what it feels to be back.”
A last supper for a son of the UAE
The family of Hussain Al Umari believe he may have had a premonition of his death at a Christchurch mosque
By Mick O’Reilly, Foreign Correspondent
Christchurch: It seemed like a premonition. As Hussain Al Umari sat down for dinner on an autumn night in Christchurch three months ago — that seems like a lifetime ago to his family — did the 35-year old know his was going to die the very next day?
His sister believes so.
That family gathering at the home of his sister, Aya and her parents, would be Hussain’s last supper.
Just 12 hours later, the Abu-Dhabi native would be just one of 50 victims gunned down as they prayed by an Australian gunman intent on massacring as many Muslims as he could. Scores more were injured at Al Noor and Linwood mosques on March 15.
Hussain died at Al Noor mosque, the first target of the crazed killer. Now, wilting flowers and fading messages line the front of the mosque grounds, set on a suburban boulevard opposite a peaceful park with trees that display the full beauty of a New Zealand autumn.
'See You Bye'
Aya, who has had 90 painful days to reflect on that family gathering, wonders if her brother knew that somehow it would be the last time they would be together on the South Island, or would sit for a last meal.
Or maybe, Aya wonders, whether Hussain was just teasing — as he so often did in the annoying but loving ways of a big brother.
She was wearing a new shirt, one with three simple words: "See You Bye."
They were words that caught the attention of Hussain, and on five separate occasions he read them aloud. See You Bye.
“That’s a nice top,” he remarked more than once.
Time to spare — at the mosque
Hussain had spent his adolescent years in the UAE capital, going to school there, making friends, playing football, having fun.
The Al Umari’s had moved to New Zealand back in 1997, and Hussain loved the city he called home. He worked in the tourism sector, proud of his new homeland but always remembering the country he grew up in.
As the Al Umari’s gathered that Thursday night, Hussain was between jobs. And that gave him days off — enabling him to go to Al Noor mosque the next day for Friday prayers.
They talked that night of their life, the UAE, New Zealand. Of a time when they were on holiday in Malaysia, when both he and Aya were children, and he’d given her a sweet and said it was really good. He’d pranked her — it was popping candy, fizzing, crackling and sparking on her tongue.
He roared with boyhood laughter as she had a little sister’s hissy fit.
She was busy that Thursday night as Hussain left after supper. She didn’t get the chance to hug him or wish him goodbye.
He died the next day.
When she heard that dreadful next, her eyes rested on that new cream-coloured top from the night before.
And its words. See You Bye.
The darkest hour: What happened in Christchurch on March 15?
By Chiranjib Sengupta, Assistant Editor
Dubai: The first report of the attack came from Al Noor mosque in central Christchurch a little after 1.40pm on Friday the 15th.
A gunman drove to the front door, entered and fired indiscriminately for about five minutes.
Live-streaming the attack on Facebook, he opened fire with an automatic weapon, killing 42 men, women and children.
After leaving the mosque, he shot a woman outside.
At the same time, a shooter entered Linwood Islamic Centre — which is about 6km away — opening fire and killing seven. One more individual later died in hospital. Witnesses said that a worshipper managed to disarm the assailant, forcing him to flee. That’s Abdul Aziz Wehabzedah — and his story follows soon.
But it was the response to one of the bloodiest massacres in recent history that people remember today, three months on.
You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.
“You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.”
Those were the words of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the aftermath of the attacks.
Those were the words that came to define the healing balm that followed.
‘We walk with you at every stage’
Ardern, 38, who took over as prime minister in October 2017 after generating a measure of “Jacindamania” and leading her New Zealand Labour Party to a thumping victory, described it as one of New Zealand’s “darkest days”.
The next day, wearing a black headscarf, she met and comforted families of the victims at the mosque. She met Muslim clerics and community leaders, trying to figure out what they would like her to do. “Our time is for you to determine,” she said.
And while speaking in the Parliament, she told the grieving families: “We cannot know your grief, but we can walk with you at every stage.”
In her subsequent actions, she walked that talk.
Whether it was naming racism and Islamophobia as a root cause of the attacks.
Or whether suggesting to US President Donald Trump that he could offer “sympathy and love for all Muslim communities”.
Christchurch marks a turning point for Ardern, for New Zealand, perhaps for the world.
Long after the Australian white supremacist and his accomplices are punished, the world will remember Ardern’s exemplary empathy.
Her embrace of the immigrant community was visible in her interactions, actions and tweets. “Many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities — New Zealand is their home — they are us,” she tweeted soon after the attacks.
In total, 51 people were killed in shootings at the two mosques. It could have been much more — had it not been for an immigrant worshipper who was once a refugee from Afghanistan and who now calls New Zealand his home.
That’s Abdul Aziz Wehabzedah — and below is his story.
‘I threw the machine at him. Then he started shooting at me from a blank range’
When a gunman attacked the mosque in Christchurch where Abdul Aziz was praying, his instinct to fight kicked in
By Mick O’Reilly, Foreign Correspondent
Christchurch: There’s a police car sitting in the car park of what used to be a fried chicken fast-food outlet.
Is this the Linwood mosque, I ask of two armed police officers, each wearing body armour with assault rifles close to hand. One, Constable Keeyes, leads me down an adjacent, gravel-covered lane to a squat prefab.
This is Linwood mosque. And this is where an Australian terrorist and white supremacist finished his bloody work three months ago. Here, he killed seven worshippers before being apprehended nearby by police.
Bond forged in blood
Constable Keeyes was here that day. And he introduces me to Abdul Aziz Wehabzedah, who was here that day too. They smile and shake hands, united in a common bond that was forged then in the blood and bodies, cordite and courage.
Abdul Aziz is 48, stocky and muscular, and has a very firm hand shake that grips like a vice. He’s originally from Afghanistan, left as a refugee aged 15 more than three decades ago, spent five or so years in Pakistan and moved here, to Christchurch then.
Life is good. He owns a furniture store, is comfortable, and is at ease talking to journalists now. He’s had a lot of experience these past three months.
Abdul Aziz is a true hero — a man who despite the danger, had no hesitation in tackling that crazed gunman with assault weapons and speaks about it as if he was describing a sofa for sale in his store.
‘Someone was trying to kill us’
His wife and two sons were here that day. So too were another 100 or so worshippers. Seven died. Another seven were injured. And were it not for the actions of Abul Aziz, there would have been many more victims.
“When we heard the gunfire we thought it was firecrackers, but then the Imam said that someone was trying to kill us, we knew it was gunfire,” he tells Gulf News. “The gunman, that coward, is shooting our brothers and sisters.”
Abdul Aziz said no one believed the Imam until the gunman shot into the crowded prayer hall through a window.
The gunman, that coward, is shooting our brothers and sisters.
“Then I knew it was serious,” he says.
For Abdul Aziz, his fight instinct kicked in over that of flight. He picked up a credit card machine and headed out of the prefab, ready to take on the armed killer who was wearing a bulletproof vest — anything to distract him from shooting into the building.
“I threw the machine at him. Then he started shooting at me from a very blank range.”
The ruse worked
Those six or seven shots miraculously missed Abdul Aziz, likely because he was so close to the killer and able to deflect the barrel away, police have surmised.
The gunman dropped the empty weapon and returned to his car to get another loaded gun.
Even then, Abdul Aziz wasn’t deterred, and picked up an empty shotgun, chasing him down the gravel-covered driveway.
“I started cursing and screaming at him to come to me,” he says. “There was between 80 and 100 people inside the mosque. I didn’t want him to go inside.”
It was too late, there was a lot of gunfire from inside. “I ran from the back [of the prefab], screaming, swearing at him.”
The ruse worked. “Suddenly he dropped that gun and ran to his car. I ran behind him. That [empty] shotgun I had in my hand, I just throw it at his side window and I smash his side window. He was very frightened. He just looked at me and curse me and he tried to take off.”
‘I snatched my shotgun from the killer’
But Abdul Aziz was determined to catch him.
“He took off but the traffic light [20 metres away at the end of Linwood Avenue] was red,” he tells Gulf News.
Abdul Aziz reached into the car through the broken window and retrieved the empty shotgun again before the gunman managed to drive away.
Six minutes away by car, at Al Noor mosque, there were more than 40 fatalities and many injured, and armed police were on the hunt of the mass murderer.
“It didn’t take long for the police to come,” Abdul Aziz says. “They were here in two minutes. He got caught so quickly. They came here and I told them everything. That probably helped them catch him so much quicker.”
Thanks to the courage and actions of Abdul Aziz, his bravery in tackling the gunman, distracting him, facing him down, the toll at Linwood mosque was far lower than at Al Noor.
“Alhamdu’Allah,” Abdul Aziz says, “we had a lot of mercy here that day. The toll at Al Noor [mosque] was far higher.”
YOUNG AND OLD: Some of the victims of Christchurch massacre
Mucad Ibrahim, 3
"Verily we belong to God and to Him we shall return. Will miss you dearly brother."
Those are the words Abdi posted for his little brother, Mucad — the gunman’s youngest victim. The toddler went to Al Noor mosque with his father and Abdi. Mucad was lost in the melee as his father pretended to be dead and Abdi fled for his life.
Sayyad Milne, 14
"I remember him as my baby who I nearly lost when he was born. Such a struggle he’s had throughout all his life. He’s been unfairly treated but he’s risen above that and he’s very brave. A brave little soldier. It’s so hard ... to see him just gunned down by someone who didn’t care about anyone or anything."
The words of a heart-broken father, John Milne, for his son who died at Al Noor Mosque.
Farhaj Ahsan, 30
"Nobody was imagining in New Zealand, which is a peace-loving country, that such a situation arises."
Those are the only words Farhaj’s father can muster from his home in India where the 30-year-old software engineer left to start a new life, completing his Master’s at the University of Auckland.
Haroon Mahmood, 40
“He was a very, very gentle, good person,” remembers Sueann Wang, colleague of Dr Haroon Mahmood, who leaves behind wife and two children aged 13 and 11.
Since completing his doctorate, Mahmood had been working as assistant academic director of Canterbury College, a private school for English language and business students. He earned master’s degrees in finance from Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology in Pakistan and then worked in banking in Pakistan before moving to New Zealand.
Atta Elayyan, 33
“My Heart is broken, a role model to myself and so many in the futsal community, a loving Kiwi father, husband, friend and futsal player. You won’t ever meet a more down to earth, humbling person. May you Rest in Peace my friend.”
Those are the only words friend Kyle Wisnewski could tweet to describe Atta, who was born in Kuwait and was the goalkeeper for the national and Canterbury men’s futsal teams.
Amjad Hamid, 57
“It’s terrible ... we were hoping to find a better future for us and for the children we were planning to have.” So spoke Hanan, the wife of 57-year-old cardiac doctor Amjad Hamid. From Palestine, and had been serving the people of Christchurch and the South Island for 23 years.