New Zealand authorities readied Sunday to release the first remains of 50 worshippers slain in a twin mosque attack, allowing families from across the Muslim world to begin to bury their dead.
Coroners said they hoped to release at least one body late Sunday, allowing pious families — anxious to fulfil Muslim burial customs — to begin their sacred rites.
The dead span generations, aged between three and 77, according to a sombre list circulated among relatives.
Some victims came from the neighbourhood, others from as far afield as Egypt or Fiji. At least two of the dead — a father and son — came from the same family.
“It’s a massacre, what else do they need to know?,” said school principal Sheikh Amjad Ali, expressing frustration with the wait for loved ones’ remains.
Islamic custom dictates that the dead should be buried within 24 hours, but strained authorities, desperate to make sure no mistakes are made or the complex investigation harmed, said a quick process was difficult.
“All of the deceased have had a CT scan, their fingerprints are taken, the property they were wearing or had with them is removed,” said Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall, adding that dental impressions were taken and post-mortems performed.
Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern said: “The bodies of those who have died are beginning to be returned to their families from this evening.” She added that all were expected to be released by Wednesday.
As New Zealanders flocked to memorial sites to lay flowers and mourn the victims, testimony emerged of epic heroism, harrowing suffering and incredible grace.
Farid Ahmad, whose 44-year-old wife Husna was killed as she rushed back into a mosque to rescue him, refused to harbour hatred toward the gunman, Australian-born, self-avowed white nationalist, Brenton Tarrant.
“I would say to him ‘I love him as a person’,” Ahmad told AFP.
Asked if he forgave the 28-year-old suspect, he said: “Of course. The best thing is forgiveness, generosity, loving and caring, positivity.”
Husna Ahmad was among four women believed to have been killed by Tarrant, who documented his radicalisation and two years of preparations in a lengthy, meandering and conspiracy-filled far-right “manifesto”.
Ardern said on Sunday that her office and some 30 other officials had received the document by email about nine minutes before the attack.
“It did not include a location, it did not include specific details,” she said, adding that it was sent to security services within two minutes of receipt.
– Burial rituals –
Authorities said 34 people remained in hospital.
Among those fighting for their lives is four-year-old Alin Alsati. The pre-schooler was praying alongside her father Waseeim at the Al Noor mosque when she was shot at least three times.
Her father, who was also shot, recently emigrated to New Zealand from Jordan.
“Please pray for me and my daughter,” he pleaded in a Facebook video message from his hospital bed before undergoing surgery.
The number of dead and injured could have been higher, were it not for people like Afghan refugee Abdul Aziz.
Aziz was at the Linwood mosque with his four sons when he rushed the attacker armed with the only weapon he could find — a hand-held credit card machine.
When Aziz heard one of his four sons cry “Daddy, please come back inside!” he picked up an empty shotgun discarded by the gunman and shouted “come on here” repeatedly in an effort to draw him away from his sons and the other worshippers.
“I just wanted to save as much lives as I could, even if I lose my life,” he told AFP.
– Gun policy on agenda –
The mosque attacks have shaken this usually peaceful country, which prides itself on welcoming refugees fleeing violence or persecution.
On Monday Ardern will gather her cabinet to discuss changing the country’s gun laws — possibly including a ban on semi-automatic weapons of the type used by Tarrant, hoping that the politics have evolved after a series of failed reform attempts in recent years.
The cabinet will also hear from intelligence agencies about how a self-avowed fascist legally purchased and trained to use two semi-automatic weapons, reportedly AR-15s, two shotguns and a lever-action gun without drawing the attention of the authorities.
It has also has emerged that a former soldier raised concerns about extremism at Tarrant’s gun club in Dunedin, a city 4.5 hours drive south of Christchurch where the Australian had been living.
Meanwhile after days of lockdowns, security warnings and fear, police have urged Kiwis to go back to their normal business.
When they return to work, school and hobbies on Monday however, they will find a high police presence, said commissioner Mike Bush.
“This is for everyone’s safety, to reassure the public.”