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White terror, part one: 35 widows

Mar 10, 2020 • 18m 40s

A year on from the Christchurch massacre, survivors face isolation and economic hardship. In part one of a three-part special, we speak to the men and women living through the aftermath.

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White terror, part one: 35 widows

178 • Mar 10, 2020

White terror, part one: 35 widows

OSMAN:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am.

A year ago this week a 28-year-old Australian man walked into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and killed 51 Muslim worshippers.

I’m the editor of 7am and this week I’ll be filling in for host Ruby Jones as we cover the aftermath of Brenton Tarrant’s massacre.

From first-hand reporting in Christchurch to secret government documents exposing the threat of far-right terrorism in Australia... we’ll explore the legacy of this horrific act of violence and the lessons we’ve learnt… or are yet to learn.

Today… Part One… 35 Widows.

A warning - this episode contains detailed descriptions of violence.

OSMAN:

So… this is about Christchurch… I remember I had left my office in Sydney’s CBD and was walking to meet a friend for lunch in Chinatown. It was around midday.

I was checking my phone as I walked and saw some posts on Twitter about some kind of incident in Christchurch. It wasn’t really clear yet what was going on, but there were reports of a shooting.

After lunch I checked my phone again and more details had filtered through. There had been an attack in Christchurch. They weren’t sure how many perpetrators were involved, but they had targeted a mosque.

As soon as I heard that, my heart started racing.

There was one attacker… he had posted white-supremacist slogans on his weapons… he had attacked two mosques… we still didn’t know how many were dead.

I actually remember running back to my office, because I was desperate to find out more. I had these two instincts driving me - I’m a journalist, who’s spent a lot of time investigating the far-right, and if this was an act of white supremacist violence I wanted to know the details.

But I’m also someone from a Muslim background, so I was feeling this personally.

I remember receiving messages from friends warning me not to watch the live stream of the massacre. They knew that I’d be tempted, despite how harrowing it was.

But I couldn’t help myself.

Archival Tape -- Christchurch Massacre:

“Remember lads, subscribe to pewdiepie.”

OSMAN:

I don’t know if it was out of anger or hopelessness, but I started watching the video.

Archival Tape -- Christchurch Massacre:

Running

OSMAN:

I was sitting at my desk, with my headphones on, my colleagues were getting on with their work and occasionally glancing at the TV for news updates, but I was fixated on my screen.

Archival Tape -- Christchurch Massacre:

Shooting

OSMAN:

It was all filmed from the point of the view of the shooter as he drove to the mosque, walked in and started gunning down those inside with deliberate precision… men, women, children, the elderly, all lined up neatly, row after row, with their backs to the entrance.

I’ve never been to Christchurch, but I’d been in rooms like this hundreds of times, praying in the same way. It was a scene I was familiar with.

To this day that video is the worst thing I’ve ever watched, and I haven’t been able to get those scenes out of my head.

I grew up in Australia. The fact that an Australian could do something like this… it was the first time I felt that I could be killed in my own country, just because of my religious background.

While I was watching the video I started getting messages and calls from my Muslim friends, terrified about what was happening in Christchurch. They all felt the same thing: like we could be next.

Archival Tape -- Sound of Elle walking into the studio. Putting on headphones

OSMAN:

Grab a seat, chuck the headphones on. You ready to go?

ELLE:

Yup.

OSMAN:

Elle, you’re a producer here at 7am. Tell me about the story you’ve been working on.

ELLE:

Yeah so the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on this story about the anniversary of the Christchurch attacks.

OSMAN:

Through your reporting you met this man Muhammad Shahadat, can you tell me about him?

Archival Tape -- sounds of arriving:

ELLE:

A couple of weeks ago I met Mohammed Shahadat in Christchurch.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“Welcome…”

Archival Tape -- Elle:

“Shall I take my shoes off?”

ELLE:

I went to his home, we met there over some plates of samosas that his wife had cooked.

Archival Tape -- Elle:

“This is so good, thank you…”

ELLE:

And he told me his story.

Archival Tape -- Elle:

“first off, maybe we should start with, can you tell me your name, age and tell me about your family.”

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“My name is Shahadat, I’m 31…”

ELLE:

So Shahadat, which is the name he prefers to go by, is 31. He’s married with four kids. He’s from India, southern India originally, and in 2018 he started looking for places to migrate to try and make a better life for his family.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“I like actually New Zealand. I see lots of videos in YouTube, so really I like New Zealand, very peaceful country.”

ELLE:

And so in November 2018 he got a job working as a chef at an Indian restaurant in Christchurch. And he received a working visa and moved to New Zealand.

Archival Tape -- Elle:

“What’s it called again?”

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“Bawachi restaurant.”

Archival Tape -- Elle:

“I should go try it.”

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“Yes! Please”

ELLE:

Like most of the staff at the restaurant, Sahadat had left his family back in India -- and his plan was to bring them over once he was more settled.

So, his substitute family became the people he worked with every day, most of them were migrants like him.

So you know he had a pretty busy, but good life in Christchurch, working at the restaurant, boarding with a colleague, and settling into his new home.

OSMAN:

Elle, can you tell me what Shahadat was doing on March 15, 2019… the day of the Christchurch massacre?

ELLE:

So on that day, Shahadat and his colleague went to the Linwood mosque together and they were running a bit late but they made it just in time for prayers or salah. And they walked in and took their place on the prayer rugs and started their prayers.

Archival Tape -- Prayer tape (from Linwood)

ELLE:

About 20 minutes into his prayers, at about 1:50pm, he heard loud bangs outside.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“So we actually heard the sound, bullets, bullets but some people didn't expect it either.”

ELLE:

He wasn’t sure what was happening, and some of the people in the mosque continued to pray.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“But some people continue performing Sulla Sala…”

ELLE:

But then bullets started flying into the mosque and that’s when people realised there was someone shooting at them.

OSMAN:

And what did Shahadat tell you happened next?

ELLE:

So he remembers crawling on the ground trying to find his phone to call an ambulance, but he couldn’t lift his right arm and that’s when he realised he’d been shot.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“When I tried to move my right hand, I realised there was no power, it wasn’t working.”

ELLE:

He looked up and through the glass doors he could see the gunman outside, shooting into the mosque.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“I tried to move over this side. I jumped, and tried to go corner. There’s lots of people in corner there.”

ELLE:

The whole attack only lasted a matter of minutes. It ended when one worshipper went outside and chased the gunman before picking up a shotgun the attacker had dropped and hurled it at his car, smashing the windscreen. And that’s when the gunman drove off.

OSMAN:

So the gunman drove away after being chased out of the area by a worshipper. What was happening to the people at the mosque at that moment?

ELLE:

Yeah so, Shahadat had been shot, and he was losing blood fast. He mainly just remembers wanting and needing water.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“I asked a doctor, I said give me some water. I need the water. I'm going to die. I'm going to die..I need water... “

ELLE:

Someone had made a call to the police and emergency services. And when they arrived people at Linwood realised it was the second mosque that had been attacked that day in Christchurch.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Breaking news unfolding in Christchurch where they have been two separate shootings at two mosques.”

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“The first attack happened at the Al Noor mosque and the second at the Linwood mosque.”

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“And I want to ask anyone that was thinking of going to a mosque anywhere in NZ today, not to go, to close your doors until you hear from us again…”

ELLE:

The shooter, before coming to Linwood, had gone to the Al-Noor mosque which is about 5km away and walked inside, shooting dozens of worshippers, and had live-streamed the whole thing.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“After the shooting, after he emerges out of the mosque, he says and can hear him on camera - I should’ve stayed longer, there was time for fuel - I would’ve liked to have burned the mosque to the ground.”

ELLE:

Shahadat was one of 100 people shot that day. 49 were injured. Another 51 were killed. The victims ranged in age from 3 years old to 77.

OSMAN:

Those numbers paint an incredibly bleak and distressing picture. It sounds like almost everyone in Christchurch’s small, Muslim community would have been impacted in some way.

ELLE:

It’s had a huge impact. And for Shahadat, he can’t work as a chef any more. He is permanently injured from the attack.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“I lost my hand, my right hand, me actually a chefs are working right hand. Mostly cutting and cooking Indian cuisine… very hard for my life. I can't do same work and same performance, I can't do not possible.”

ELLE:

That's obviously awful enough on its own - but it's particularly awful because he was the breadwinner for his family. He’s got a wife and four kids.

And I discovered that's actually quite a common thing. Many of the people injured and killed were actually the main income earners for their families. So the impact on the community was devastating.

Archival Tape -- Mohammed Shahadat:

“We are struggling more… and in the future… very hard for me to face everything”

ELLE:

The attack left 35 people widowed.

It’s important to remember this is a community that is made up of refugees and migrants.

And some of these widows have limited English, they can’t drive, they’re isolated, they don’t work and they have young children to care for.

With the person they were relying upon gone… what do they do?

OSMAN:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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OSMAN:

Elle, the Christchurch attack was one of the biggest massacres in modern history. But it wasn’t just devastating because of the large number of people killed and injured. The attack targeted a community that was particularly vulnerable because it was largely made up of migrants without established networks of support.

Why is that significant when we’re talking about the consequences of something like this?

ELLE:

What was happening to the community was in many ways hard to track, but I was speaking to Noor Hamid.

Archival Tape -- Elle:

“Hi Noor, it’s Elle….”

ELLE:

And her story helped me understand a little bit more about how far reaching the consequences were.

Noor Hamid, she’s in her late 20’s, and her family is originally from Palestine.
And her family ran this local food store in Christchurch called Mefco.

Archival Tape -- Noor:

“We bought Mefco around 2013/14, it was bought by my dad and my uncle”

ELLE:

It provided specialty food items like baklava and Lebanese bread to the Arab community in Christchurch.

Archival Tape -- Noor:

”And my uncle was pretty much the guy in charge up until last year, because he passed away away in the shooting.”

ELLE:

Her uncle Amjad was killed in the attack at the Al Noor mosque.

Archival Tape -- Noor:

“After that it was really like - me and my dad were the only left in the family, like in the country…”

ELLE:

So she and her family tried hard for months after March 15 to keep the shop going in the wake of the attacks.

Archival Tape -- Noor:

“And then all of sudden to go from that to being like you’re the only person in Christchurch that can run the shop… it was quite difficult, it wasn’t easy”

ELLE:

When I spoke with Noor Hamid she had just been with the liquidators at the store explaining how to dismantle their specialty baking equipment. Because the store had gone bankrupt.

Archival Tape -- Noor:

“It's just like this huge amount of sadness that comes through. You know, a lot of people are just not there anymore to a lot of people could be still, you know, feeling very, very upset about what happened. You know, falling into a bit of a depression over it. Like nobody really thought like something like this could happen in New Zealand.

ELLE:

Seven people worked at Mefco, and they were all close family friends with the owners. They’ve now lost their jobs as well.

OSMAN:

Elle, I think a lot of people want to hear a story of a community rebuilding after a tragedy, and to some extent that has happened in Christchurch, but it sounds like actually the community is still really struggling as well. After spending time there, what’s your sense of the way the people are coping?

ELLE:

Yeah so everyone I spoke to was really overwhelmed by the way the community in NZ had responded. And there has been a huge recovery effort. But there are questions now about if that’s going to be enough to support this community and these people over the coming months and years.

And I met with Raf Manji, a former local counselor in Christchurch. And he conducted an extensive listening project as part of this project he was trying to find out what the community really needed in the aftermath of these attacks.

So Raf told me that as hard as the past 12 months have been, there’s some really big challenges ahead.

Archival Tape -- Raf:

“So the first anniversary. Then we've got the trial. The next year looks pretty full on in terms of trigger points.”

ELLE:

And so all of this risks re-traumatising a community that's still in recovery.

Archival Tape -- Raf:

“And I just had got the sense people hadn't really thought that far. I mean, I think they really thought we've got everything under control. [25.5s] And it was clear to me that this is not under control.”

ELLE:

Noor Hamid told me when she hears about shootings elsewhere in the world and she falls apart.

Archival Tape -- Noor:

“Before this happened, I could watch that on TV and not be affected. Just think. OK. That's real fucked up, how could someone do that? But afterwards, like. It just makes you go to pieces. It doesn't really matter if it’s you know, a school shooting in America or the Hookah bar that happened in Germany. How can you do that?”

OSMAN:

Elle, thanks for your reporting on this.

ELLE:

Thank you.

OSMAN:

Hearing these stories… What really struck me was how so many of the survivors, like Shahadat, had come to Christchurch for a better life… and that’s why they were targeted in this massacre.

And it didn’t end with the massacre. A year on… the community is still recovering… they’re isolated and facing serious economic hardship. Terrorism is not one act… it’s a continuous act.

Tomorrow on 7am, in part two of this series, we reveal the secret ASIO document that outlines the threat of far-right terrorism… right here in Australia.

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OSMAN:

Also in the news… the federal government is meeting with unions and employer groups today to discuss health and safety arrangements for workers and businesses impacted by coronavirus.

The summit comes as the Prime Minister is expected to unveil a stimulus package of almost $10 billion in order to boost the economy and stave off a recession. Unions are urging the government to use the stimulus package to support casual workers who lack sick leave and job security.

Meanwhile the Australian share market has recorded its worst ever day since the global financial crisis struck in 2008.

Elle Marsh, who reported this episode, is a field and features producer for 7am. Her position is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

A year on from the Christchurch massacre, survivors face isolation and economic hardship. We speak to the men and women living through the aftermath of one of the worst white supremacist attacks in history. This is part one of a three-part special on the far right.

Guest: Features and field producer Elle Marsh.

Background reading:

The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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auspol terrorism christchurch tarrant farright




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178: White terror, part one: 35 widows