Christchurch Islamic leaders Gamal Fouda and Alabi Lateef Zirullah spoke to the Herald just two days after surviving the March 15 mosque shootings. During that first interview, the imams were emotional, scarred, and heartbroken. Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer catches up with the imams as they reflect on the past six months.
Imam Gamal Fouda is a husk of himself. Hollowed empty by grief and trauma, he breaks down in tears, cradling his face.
"You are one family," he sobs, looking at the camera, trying to get a message across to his people: grieving families, injured victims, neighbours, fellow Muslims, his congregation gunned down during Friday prayer.
That was March 17, 2019. Less than 48 hours after New Zealand's worst-ever terror attack.
Three days later, a flowing UAE delegation is being ushered to the cordoned-off Masjid Al Noor massacre site when Fouda pulls me aside. Acorns fall from trees in the autumn breeze, scattering on to screeds of tribute notes and letters and flowers and cuddly toys all around us. He says Friday prayer would go ahead this week, right here, across the road in Hagley Park. Bodies were still being buried, armed police on red alert.
He took my arm and looked me in the eye: "I feel strong again." He was a different man.
And then that Friday, a week after the bloodshed, in front of a headscarfed sea of thousands, including hospital-gowned and wheelchair-marooned survivors, the Prime Minister, schoolchildren, grandmothers, office and construction workers, he stood tall on the dais. Pointing to the heavens, Fouda told the world: "We are broken-hearted but we are not broken." The crowd responded with applause that built on a swell of never-before-seen public emotion, spreading like a cresting wave.
"Oh Allah, protect New Zealand, Oh Allah, protect New Zealanders and the world."
It was an extraordinary turn of events in the most extraordinary of weeks.
Fouda showed the resilience that Cantabrians were by now famous for. They'd shown it repeatedly over the past eight-plus years, so visibly and stoically after the disruption and chaos and death of the February 22, 2011 earthquake. Dusting themselves off, refusing to bow down.
Speaking to the Weekend Herald again this week, Fouda is reflecting on the past six months, and those first few hazy days of the shooting's aftermath.
"That time of my life … Those first two or three days, I find it hard to remember anything. For four days, I didn't sleep."
But he now knows how he managed to emerge from the depths of despair to lead his people once again.
"Seeing all those people, seeing how the country reacted, that was a very powerful thing," says the Egyptian-born father-of-four who came to New Zealand 16 years ago.
"It was a really hard time in my life to actually face this. I had to rise to that responsibility and duty and fill my position as spiritual leader of the community. I think I did my best – not perfect – but I did my best to keep to the standard of a New Zealand imam, and that is who I consider myself as: a New Zealand imam. Someone who has lived here a long time, who likes this soil, who likes these people, and who has a strong and special connection in the community, both Muslim and non-Muslim."
Across town, at Linwood Islamic Centre – also resplendent with spongy new carpet, a high-tech security system, fresh paint, and returning hope - Imam Alabi Lateef Zirullah agrees with his brother. It was the spontaneous reaction of the New Zealand public – that shared outpouring of unbridled grief – that saw them through.
"It was terrible times - everybody was confused, even myself," Nigerian-born Zirullah says.
"Even now I can't remember what I've said, but I am sure that whatever I did say came from the bottom of my heart. We were still traumatised and going through a situation we never anticipated."
The shock of March 15
Both men were stunned that they would ever be targeted – in New Zealand.
Fouda was just minutes into his Friday prayers sermon, or khutbat al-jum'a, when some of the 200-plus worshippers started jumping and shouting after what sounded like three gunshots.
At first, he wondered if some of the youngsters were mucking around or whether it was noise coming from the sound system.
But then another shot was fired, this time closer, and an Algerian man yelled, "Yeah. Shooting," before he smashed a window.
"Then the shooting started heavily," says Fouda, who ducked down behind his wooden pulpit.
"People ran towards the big hole [in the glass]. Most of the people, they run through the window. That's why on this right side [of the building] only a few people were killed. But the left side, they fell on each other and they piled on top of each other. We couldn't even breathe from the smoke and the bullets flying everywhere."
Today, the hexagonal windows looking on to potted plants in the tidy side gardens have been replaced at Masjid Al Noor beneath the high, striking golden dome. The ornate ceiling cornicing with its flowing Arabic script has been repainted. Fouda hid in here, the main mosque room throughout the shooting which left 43 of his people dead.
He assumes the shooter didn't know that the women were hiding in a separate room, saving their lives. Some women who tried to flee were gunned down.
"Still I can't believe that I am alive," Fouda told me two days later.
Meanwhile, 6km east, across Hagley and the CBD, about 80 worshippers were listening to Zirullah's address at Linwood when shooting started outside the rickety wooden mosque building about 1.55pm.
"Go down. Go down. Somebody has just shot our brothers outside the masjid," Zirullah yelled.
Seven people were killed before Zirullah and a fellow worshipper, Afghan refugee Abdul Aziz ran outside. Aziz was hailed as a hero for chasing the gunman and hurling an Eftpos card reader at him.
During his first interview, Zirullah told the Herald he had been prepared to die to save his people.
"I can't believe … I thought I'd be gone. I was ready to die because I felt for the brothers," he said on March 17.
The day after the shooting, when he met Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the refugee resettlement centre in Phillipstown, he broke down in tears.
"I remember thinking, this was not the New Zealand I knew," he says this week.
"And the promises she [Ardern] made that day, that this was not us, was shown over the following weeks with the love and support shown by everyone."
A slow recovery
Both mosques still have fresh bouquets delivered regularly. A sign outside the Masjid Al Noor on Deans Ave, where motorists slow and crane necks for a look reads: Allah Bless Our Country – land of love and compassion.
In the weeks after the shootings, the flowers and tributes stacked and spilled down the streets outside each mosque, while armed police patrolled the areas with Bushmaster rifles.
Every month since, a local Linwood woman – not a Muslim – delivers woollen hats to Zirullah. They're hand-knitted by her and some friends.
"That just shows the type of love there is out there," Zirullah says.
But the trauma and fear remain. Both imams say that while their respective congregations are gradually recovering, it's a slow process. The numbers at Friday prayer are slowly building back up, but some still can't face a return. It brings back too many memories. They're scared. And both leaders admit, at times, they are too.
"I won't deny, the fear is still there. It's not something that will just go like that," says Zirullah. Every day he walks to the mosque, he still looks over his shoulder.
"The one thing I feel bad about is that before the incident, no one thought about such a thing. We would go to the shopping mall the same way we came to the mosque: with no fear. Now when we come here, we are looking here and there, and on edge. But I believe, by God's grace, that this won't happen again in New Zealand."
The biggest impact, and one of the slowest to fully emerge, much like the after-effects of the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquake sequence, is on the children.
The Linwood children who survived the shooting are too traumatised to return yet, their imam says. They won't watch violent movies or even the TV news.
For Fouda, a trained primary school teacher, he's keeping a close eye on them. They are starting to ask questions. During our interview, he often stops to ask how youngsters passing through the mosque are doing. His 8-year-old daughter asked him the other day if the walls of their home would stop bullets.
"All of the children here talk about it," he says. "Some children want to be funny. This one boy, 5 years old, says to me, 'Hey, I need to be very strong.' And I ask why he needs to be very strong. 'So if somebody comes here I will just punch him.' When I ask him why, he says, 'Because I don't want to be killed.'
"Another child said he was told the shooter was a Muslim who came here to kill people he didn't like and left the ones he liked because he didn't kill everyone. And another says someone in their class said it was because 'all Muslims are terrorists and that's why it happened'. There are a lot of issues here. Lots of people are still traumatised, especially children."
The recent Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca for 200 Christchurch Muslims affected by the shootings, which was bankrolled by the Saudi king, helped a lot, the imams say. It's a dream of every Muslim to continue to make the trip, which, for many, completes the Five Pillars of Islam: prayer, witness of faith, charity, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca. And for New Zealand Muslims, living at the end of the world, it's a huge cost and expedition to undertake.
"The Hajj trip left a big mark on us that we will never forget," Fouda says. In recent years, he's had to make the tough decision of going to Mecca instead of visiting his mother back in Egypt. This year, she came to him.
After March 15, his mother would phone him every day – leaving 10 to 20 voice messages. Come home, she urged him. You must leave. It's not safe.
"She wanted me to carry my children on my shoulders back to Egypt, that was it," Fouda says.
He managed to convince her to come to Christchurch – to see just where he lived. And try and understand why he had to stay. And once she met the families, the orphans and widows, his neighbours and friends, she was satisfied.
"She saw that this was my home, that I was not a visitor here, it's my place," says Fouda, who is running for his local Riccarton community board with the Labour-aligned group, The People's Choice. He wants to give something back and work together in combating racism.
"I am the imam here of Muslim and non-Muslims, Christians and Jews and people of no faith. I have a duty to speak about the fact that what happened after September 11 [2001 terror attacks] is not quite right. September 11 took people in the wrong direction.
"We all want to live in peace and harmony together. New Zealand is far away from the world and we don't want the pollution in the world to come to us. We are not angels, certainly, and we need to continue our work around tolerance and combating racism and discrimination, but the vast majority of us are as you have seen us on TV. It is part of paradise and we are happy.
"New Zealand is driving the world. New Zealand is sitting on the international stage and we should be proud of that and want to stay there. We need to continue the good work that's been done, especially around hate speech and the law. This is the challenge. And I want to be part of it."