'Hate has lost': New Zealand marks mosque shooting anniversary

Survivors say newfound strength in their community has sustained and healed them in the wake of New Zealand's largest mass shooting. Christchurch marked the first anniversary of the March 15 shootings in "small but poignant ways" amid coronavirus fears.

Mark Baker/AP
Imam of the Al Noor mosque Gamal Fouda welcomes members of the Tu Tangata motorcycle club to the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2020, as part of an event marking the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting at the mosque that killed 51 people.

People in the New Zealand city of Christchurch honored the 51 worshipers who were killed in a mass shooting a year ago in small but poignant ways on Sunday, after a planned national memorial event was canceled due to fears it might spread the new coronavirus.

Outside the Al Noor mosque, dozens of leather-clad bikers from the Tu Tangata club performed a traditional Maori haka. They were welcomed by mosque imam Gamal Fouda, who said people of all beliefs and cultures were stopping to pay their respects, and they were all united as New Zealanders.

One of those who survived the shooting at the Linwood mosque was Mazharuddin Syed Ahmed, who said that marking anniversaries was not typically a Muslim tradition but they were doing it so the wider community could grieve and remember. He said the shootings had provoked an outpouring of love and compassion.

“Of course, we lost our loved friends, family, people, and community,” he said. “But we are also seeing so much good has come out of it. So looking at the positive part of that. Today, it is such a privilege to be in this country.”

Temel Atacocugu, who survived after being shot nine times at the Al Noor mosque, said the anniversary had provoked strong feelings. "We are sad more than we are angry,” he said. “It’s very emotional. When I woke up this morning, I’m speechless. I can’t explain what I feel.”

“The biggest change after the attack was that I can’t be free the same as before,” Mr. Atacocugu says. “Because very limited moving around. And I was feeling like a little baby, because somebody has to look after me all the time.”

Yet his physical recovery a year later is remarkable. The wheelchair and cane are gone. His left arm remains weakened, but when he walks down the street or plays with his Labradoodle dog, Max, Mr. Atacocugu’s limp is barely noticeable. 

A few weeks ago, he started playing soccer again with a group of his friends, joking that these days he’s being outrun by fit men in their 70s. In one game, he showed off his skills by tackling, spot kicking, and back-heeling a pass.

He says he doesn’t want to keep working at the kebab shop he ran with a business partner at the time of the attack and is now trying to sell his stake. 

Mr. Atacocugu says he’s thinking instead of turning back to his skills as a painter and decorator. It’s more peaceful, he says, working alongside a trusted crew with only a single customer to deal with at any one time. He’s also recently put in an offer to buy a new home in Christchurch, which he hopes will help him make a fresh start.

He plans to attend the trial of the Australian white supremacist who is accused of carrying out last year’s massacre. Brenton Tarrant has pleaded not guilty to charges of terrorism, murder, and attempted murder; and his trial is scheduled to start in June.

Over the past year, Mr. Atacocugu has found moments of peace during two overseas trips. One was to Turkey, where he spent time with his mother and other family members and friends. The other was a trip to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that most Muslims are required to perform during their lifetime. Mr. Atacocugu was among 200 survivors and relatives from the Christchurch attacks who traveled to Saudi Arabia as guests of King Salman.

“Pretty much my whole life is upside down and changed,” Mr. Atacocugu says. “But spiritually, in a religious way, I’m much stronger than I used to be.”

That newfound strength has filtered through into other aspects of his life. Mr. Atacocugu recalls watching the “Jaws” movies when he was a boy, an experience that for months left him terrified of swimming. Years later, he drew up a list of new things to experience during his life, including diving with sharks. Still, he could never quite get over that childhood fear.

But he says that after he was shot, he began to think about it a lot.

A couple of months ago, he drove to the southern end of New Zealand and, on a picture-perfect day, went on a tour boat and was submerged in a protective metal cage among great white sharks that swam within a body length of him. The experience left him exhilarated.

“I faced my fear,” he says.

Mr. Atacocugu says the way that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and people throughout the country came together in unity after the shooting shows the gunman has already failed in his quest to sow division. Hate, he says, has lost and love has won.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Saturday the decision to cancel the memorial event planned for Horncastle Arena was pragmatic and precautionary.

New Zealand has had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19. All of those cases have been connected to people returning from abroad and so far there haven’t been signs of a local outbreak. Ms. Ardern has enacted strict border rules in an attempt to prevent the disease from taking hold in New Zealand.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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