‘Christchurch felt like a safe haven for our family. What happened is unfathomable’
We thought this part of the world was safe from the reach of terrorism
50 people were killed, and dozens are still injured in hospital after a gunman opened fire on two Christchurch mosques on Friday. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images
“ So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world...”
- From the translation of Beowulf, by Seamus Heaney
My Irish husband, our two boys and I live in a very idyllic spot in Christchurch, New Zealand. It is a sheltered haven called Cass Bay, about 15 km outside the city. It is a quiet enclave, in which we feel safe and snug, if not quietly smug.
We are enveloped on one side by the sea and on the other by the Port Hills. It is other worldly in its beauty, in that unique way New Zealand landscapes are, and we fondly and aptly call it “the Shire”. It is a safe harbour to us; our sanctuary in the throes of busy lives juggling work and raising a family thousands of kilometres from our family and homeland.
Our boys attend the local primary school in the port town a couple of bays over, to and from which they are transported every day on the school bus. Their lives are happy-go-lucky, as all childhoods should be, but which the experience of growing up as Kiwi kids especially endows. Their summers are spent on the beach building driftwood teepees, winters in the snow-capped Southern Alps. They play rugby, cricket, kayak and, lately, even surf. It’s a wholesome existence for children here, in which down-to-earth values and common decency take precedence.
I was discussing this just last week, with another mum recently arrived and settled here from Europe, how special “our” corner of the world was and how wonderfully open and embracing the people are. She described it as “a bubble of innocence”.
I am trying to paint a picture of how we live, and why we settled and have stayed so very far from home in Christchurch. It’s a city which we have seen rebuilt before our eyes, having arrived just after the devastating February 2011 earthquake. The resilience of this city, this country and its people in the face of so many natural disasters - particularly the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 - is truly remarkable. The last two years of the rebuild in particular have brought such promise, hope and renewed life.
The last two years of the rebuild in particular have brought such promise, hope and renewed life.
And then, on March 15th 2019, on what New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern is calling “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”, the sacred pureness of these isles was shaken, not by an act of nature, but by an act of wilful hatred by human hands. In our dear adoptive home city, innocent civilians were gunned down while at prayer in their hallowed places of worship at two mosques in the city. The death toll currently stands at 50, with some 40 others injured.
My husband Phil leaves work early on Fridays, and he drove into what he now realises was the aftermath of the Al Noor mosque shooting. I was at work but stepped out to phone him at 2pm for a chat, just as he made his way home to pick up the kids. On speakerphone, he described the unprecedented traffic mayhem, and the swarms of police cars and ambulances he could see.
Initially neither he nor I understood what had happened, but soon after, as he drove on home listening to his car radio and as news updates began filtering through while I was at work, a picture of the horror that had been perpetrated began to emerge. We were unable to take it in. It is still unfathomable now, days later.
We received text messages and emails from our children’s school just before 3pm telling us it was in “lockdown”, that the staff were keeping the kids safely locked inside while the authorities assessed the risk. My offices closed at 4pm and I drove home to be with Phil, and to wait to hear updates from the school. We hugged when I got home and sat together, reeling, listening to the radio, shaking out heads in disbelief and waiting to hear when we could pick the kids up. At 6pm the lockdown was over. We collected our boys, brought them home and held them and each other close.
We woke on Saturday with heavy and broken hearts. Everything seemed fractured. Despite the usual birdsong, it felt like a day on which the music had died, as the reality of what had happened began to sink in and fully emerge. It is as though a sacred seal has been tampered with and broken.
We woke on Saturday with heavy and broken hearts. Everything seemed fractured.
A boy from a neighbouring bay, it has now been confirmed, was among the victims, the twin brother of the babysitter of our good friends. We are rallying around as a community and offering support by baking and prepping meals.
We thought this pure and innocent part of the world was safe from the reach of terrorism or the rise of the extreme right. Something has changed utterly.
To say that this is not the Kiwi way is putting it mildly. As Ardern put it: “This is not us”. Our hearts and our thoughts are with the families of all of those affected. We all stand united in Aroha (love) with all of the residents of our adoptive city and isles. Kia Kaha.