It's just 30 square metres, this place where Saiyad Shah spends almost half his life, and where that life could have ended just over five weeks ago.

It's a place both of sanctuary and of terror, a place that can give and - in an instant - take it all back.

It's where Shah's friends often gather after dark, crammed into a small office behind the counter to share a bowl of kava, and where customers line up for a hot Mrs Mac's pie out of the warmer.

But it's also a place with cash and cigarettes, and that's what they usually come for, those who want to do harm to people such as Shah, who make their living at the counters of the dairies dotted across our neighbourhoods.


Shah knows about the sickening feeling of dread that occurs when you come face to face with someone who wants to hurt you.

The owner of Trimmer Dairy, in Papatoetoe, has been the victim of five or six armed robberies - he's not sure exactly how many - since the 1987 coup in his homeland of Fiji led him to start a new life in New Zealand.

They've come once with a gun and twice with hammers, and it was a claw hammer in the hand of one of two men in the most recent robbery - five weeks ago - that left the
65-year-old in Middlemore Hospital for several hours.

Saiyad Shah serves a customer at his Trimmer Dairy in Papatoetoe. The dairy has been targeted by armed robbers five for six times. Photo / Dean Purcell
Saiyad Shah serves a customer at his Trimmer Dairy in Papatoetoe. The dairy has been targeted by armed robbers five for six times. Photo / Dean Purcell

A long purple scar on the top of his head, and another on his finger, remain where medical staff stitched his wounds following the attack.

And yet Shah was back behind the counter within days.

'It's scary - what can we do?'

The robbery of his dairy is just one among a spate of armed robberies of dairies that have taken place across the country this year - six in the past month alone, based on police media release archives.

Working in a dairy has become so dangerous a Crime Prevention Group has been set up by community leaders, who are lobbying for law changes to make it safer.

And Police Minister Paula Bennett today announced $1.8 million funding for initiatives such as fog cannons, DNA spray, panic alarms and time safes for cash and cigarettes.


"I want these cowards to know these crimes will no longer be tolerated," Bennett told media in West Auckland.

Across the city, Shah was probably working.

He's at the dairy from 7am to 7.30pm six days a week and on Monday evening, the Herald joined him.

We wanted to know what it's like to spend so much of your life in a place where any person who comes through the always-open door could bring with them violence that ends your life.

It's scary, Shah says.

"But what can we do? Just keep watching the camera, see who is coming in."

Shah has three closed-circuit cameras which play their low resolution footage across a computer split screen in his back office. Two show the interior of the shop, a third - added following last month's robbery - the exterior.

He also has $800 bars and a door installed in front of the counter, but the gap between the peeling yellow bars at the counter is wide enough for someone to propel themselves through, and Shah is considering reducing its size.

Neither the bars nor the cameras helped him last month. Shah was stocking the drinks' cabinet when two men - still on the loose - came in just after noon on April 24.

'I knew they were going to hit me'

They had scarves across their faces, claw hammers in their hands and brutality on their minds as they bolted past the rows of glossy magazines on the left and tubs of icecream on the right, bound straight for the cigarettes behind the counter.

Shah's recollection of that day is interrupted several times by the shop's buzzer, but the stilted telling loses nothing in its sense of terror.

"[I thought] 'do or die' when I saw them ... I knew they were going to hit me."

During the struggle, Shah managed to wrestle the hammer away. He struck one of the men on the back, but the hammer's claw also cut his finger.

Shah blamed himself for his injuries because he challenged the robbers when they grabbed his wallet, an action he saw as more personal than targeting the cigarette cabinet or cash-stocked till.

But others hurt in the spate of armed robberies of dairies that have rippled across the country this year could take no blame, Shah said.

Trimmer Dairy, in Papatoetoe, was the scene of a violent robbery five weeks ago. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Trimmer Dairy, in Papatoetoe, was the scene of a violent robbery five weeks ago. Photo / Dean Purcell.

'He's an old man, there's no need for that'

He shakes his head as he speaks about the vicious attack on a young worker at Mangere's Kingsford Supermarket two weeks ago.

The man received no warning before he was repeatedly slammed to the floor, beaten about the head and put in a choker hold with a large knife held to his throat as the shop was robbed of cigarettes.

"That boy, he was doing nothing. I was hit, but it was my fault. But that poor guy ...", he trails off, lost for words at the callous violence that occurred less than 4km away.

It's nearing 7pm now. Cars still woosh past on Shirley Rd, but few stop, and the only customers are few locals popping by for last minute purchases.

Avi Naiker has come to buy something sweet for his two kids. He's disgusted by what happened to Shah.

"It's sad. We don't need this kind of stuff. This is a good neighbourhood and he's an old man, there's no need for that."

Back inside, Shah is getting ready to pack up for another day.

Business has been good for him - he owns a couple of houses, and he doesn't think he could embark on another career at his age anyway.

For now he'll bring in the magazine poster racks and put out the unsold bread for collection in the morning.

Then he'll pull down the steel roller door that protects his livelihood and make his way to his mosque in Otahuhu - it's Ramadan and he's been going every day.

In the back office, Shah's friends chat quietly as they prepare to leave.

Shah is also softly spoken, but the father of two's voice hardens when he speaks of those who sparked this story.

Given the chance to speak to the men who robbed him, a single word would not leave his lips, he says.

"I wouldn't say anything. It's no use talking to those idiots, they wouldn't listen to us ... I would kill them."