New Zealand prepares to bury victims of terror attack on its Muslim community

Dominic Harris
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (C) speaks with a representative of the Canterbury Refugee Centre in Christchurch on March 16 - AFP

The stricken Muslim community of Christchurch was preparing to bury its dead after the far right terrorist attack on two mosques which stunned New Zealand.

Graves for the victims of the worst mass shooting in the country’s history were being dug on Saturday, in anticipation of their bodies being released by the authorities.

Workmen using diggers carefully prepared the ground in a quiet corner of Memorial Park Cemetery, with colleagues erecting a cloth over a fence to preserve the dignity of their work on part of the site set aside for Muslim burials, the graves facing Mecca.

A few hours earlier Brenton Tarrant, the Australian national accused of the rampage, appeared in court in Christchurch, where he made a white supremacist gesture with his hand while flanked by two police officers.

The 28-year-old was charged with one initial count of murder but more are expected to follow and he was remanded in custody until April 5.

Christchurch residents outside the Al Noor mosque, where 41 worshippers were shot dead Credit: Jorge Silva/Reuters

Police believe Tarrant was responsible for both the attack on the Al Noor mosque and the shooting at the Linwood Islamic Centre a short drive away. Fifty people were killed.

A further 36, mostly men, are being treated for injuries at the city’s main hospital, the youngest a boy of two. Two people remain in a critical condition, including a four-year-old girl who was taken to Auckland’s Starship Hospital.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, said yesterday the country’s gun laws would be tightened, with regulations around semi-automatic weapons, such as the ones allegedly used by Tarrant, "one of the issues" the government would consider.

Praising the bravery of two rural police officers who detained Tarrant at gunpoint as he allegedly tried to flee from the scene of the shootings, Ardern said he would have gone on target more victims.

"It was absolutely was his intention to continue with his attack,” she said.

Among Tarrant’s alleged victims were children, the elderly, recently arrived refugees and long settled migrants who had built a new life in a country one of them had described as "a slice of paradise".

Daoud Nabi, a 71-year-old retired engineer who migrated from Afghanistan to New Zealand following the Soviet invasion, was the first to die on what Ardern would later call the country’s “darkest day.”

In the grisly video allegedly filmed by Tarrant and streamed live online during the attack, the pensioner can be heard saying “hello brother” as he approached the gunman at the entrance to the Al Noor mosque.

There were reports that Mr Nabi stepped in front of someone else to confront Tarrant, taking the bullets for himself.

His son Omar, 43, said that was completely in character for his father, who had believed New Zealand to be a "slice of paradise."

“Just helping people is his main thing. It makes me feel like he wanted other people to live,” he said. “To die in the masjid, in the mosque, if something like this happens the golden gates open for you.”

At just three-years-old Mucad Ibrahim is thought to have been the youngest victim of the massacre.

He had gone to the Al Noor mosque with his father and older brother Abdi, but was lost in the melee when the firing started.

Abdi described his little brother as "energetic, playful and liked to smile and laugh a lot", confessing he felt nothing but “hatred” for his killer.

Barely a year older than Mucad was Abdullahi Dirie, who was photographed cradled in a man’s arms outside the mosque after being fatally shot. His father and four siblings survived the attack.

Abdullahi’s family had made their home in New Zealand after fleeing Somalia in the mid-1990s as refugees.

His uncle Abdulrahman Hashi, 60, a preacher at Dar Al Hijrah Mosque in Minneapolis, said: “You cannot imagine how I feel. He was the youngest in the family. This is a problem of extremism. Some people think the Muslims in their country are part of that, but these are innocent people.”

The family of Khaled Mustafa thought they had found safety in New Zealand after fleeing the bloody chaos of Syria only a few months ago.

But he too became a victim of hatred when he was shot dead while praying with his two sons, Hamza, who is now missing feared dead and Zaid, 13, who is recovering from a six-hour operation on his wounds.

Ali Akil, a spokesman for Syrian Solidarity New Zealand, said Mr Mustafa's wife and daughter, who were not at the mosque on Friday, were in "total shock, devastation and horror".

He added: “They survived atrocities and arrived here in a safe haven only to be killed in the most atrocious way.."

Among those also feared killed was a sports loving teenager described by his family as "a regular, typical, Kiwi kid."

Sayyad Milne, who had dreams of playing football professionally, had gone to the Al Noor mosque with his mother Noraini. She managed to flee but Sayyad was cut down as the terrorist made his way through the building.

Brydie Henry, Sayyad's half sister, said she was "devastated" by the attack. "They were good people, just living good lives. It's just awful," she added.

Hosne Ara Parvin, 42, who moved to New Zealand from Bangladesh, is reported to have taken the full force of the bullets after leaping in front of the gunman to shield her husband Farid Uddin, who was in a wheelchair.

Naeem Rashid, a Pakistani-born teacher, also tried to rush the gunman, but died later of his wounds.

His son, 22-year-old Talha Naeem, a civil engineering graduate, was among those killed.

Mr Rashid’s wife and Naeem’s mother Ambreen said: “I still can't understand or believe why and how this happened. But, I know that my husband is a hero. He always helped people and even in his last moments, he did what he could to help others."

Khaja Mohiuddin, a chef, described how a fellow worshipper saved people by tackling the gunman while he and about 15 others hid at the Linwood mosque.

He said: “The guy was there with us and said ‘we have to do something”, so he ran and just pulled the gun down.”

One of Mr Mohiuddin's friends was killed, shot through the head. Two others are seriously injured, one with a collarbone “ripped off”, the other shot in the shoulder.

While Prime Minister Ardern has vowed to change New Zealand’s gun laws, for Mr Mohiuddin it is too late.

“That doesn’t return our loved ones. I know I have lost someone about whom I care, and my two other friends, I do not know for how many months they will be on a bed," he said. "It will not return their time nor my mate’s life back.," he said.

Others feared killed were Mohammad Atta Alayan, Palestinian refugee who helped raise funds to build the mosque and Haroon Mahmood, a PhD student from Pakistan, who had two young children. Khaled Mustafa, Syrian refugee who fled Isil, was shot while praying.

New Zealand futsal goalkeeper Atta Elayyan, 33, was also killed, as was retired engineer Ali Elmadani, who migrated from the United Arab Emirates in 1998.

His daughter Maha Elmadani said: "My Dad always told us to be strong and patient so that's what we are all trying to do. For his sake. He considered New Zealand home and never thought something like this would happen here."

The city of Christchurch once again bears the hallmarks of compassion that residents leaned on to help them through the dark months after the earthquake of February 2011 that claimed 185 lives.

Opposite the hospital a row of traffic cones was adorned with flowers, while a nearby safety barrier was littered with bouquets.

A poster adorned with angels, butterflies and flowers read: “In loveing (sic) memory of all the beautiful Muslims who had their whole beautiful lives ripped away. We love you all and we know you are in a better place now. We will always walk with you side by side.”

Lianne Dalziel, the Mayor of Christchurch said the killings were an “act of cowardice” by a “terrorist” who came to the city with “hate in his heart”.

She added: “I want us not to be divided by what has happened, because hate divides. I want us to be united, and that’s what love and compassion and kindness are all about.

“I believe that we can, because of our previous experience, recover from this. We can recover in a way that we will be stronger than we were before.”

New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said this morning that the death toll has risen to 50 after investigators found another body at one of the mosques. 

"Security around mosques will continue until Police believe there is no threat," he said.

Two other people, a man and a woman, arrested soon after the shootings were not linked to the gunman. The woman had been released without charge, the man has been charged with firearm offences.   

A list of those killed in the shootings had now been compiled and families had been advised.

Mr Bush said the bodies have not yet been returned to the families as police need to determine the cause of death for each one.  

"We have been working pathologist and coroners, and the chief coroner, on that and we have to be clear on cause of death and the identity before we can do that. "We are so aware of the cultural and religious needs so we are doing that as quickly and sensitively as possible," Mr Bush added.

The Police chief also said that it was "obvious" that a modified weapon had been used.