ChCHStrap

While March 15 marks the year anniversary of the Christchurch terror attacks, for one woman it also marks the beginning of the harrowing journey to her beloved husband's death.

Zekeriya Tuyan was shot in the chest at the Al Noor mosque as he prayed that terrible Friday last year.

Like so many that day, Zekeriya was rushed to Christchurch Hospital in a critical condition.

And, like so many others, he was rushed into an operating theatre where doctors and nurses worked relentlessly to keep him alive.

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His life was saved that day.

But the bullets that ripped through the body of the 42-year-old father of two had caused too much damage for him to survive.

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For 48 days he held on, fighting for his life.

And on May 2 he succumbed to his injuries.

He was the last of the victims to die.

His wife Hamimah was at his side every day - often with the couple's young sons - and until he took his last breath.

A year on from the atrocity, she spoke about her loss and how she - like 30 other women - are rebuilding their lives as widows.

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March 15 - a desperate day

"While it has been a year for others, for me it was 10 months ago," she said of her husband's death.

On March 15 Hamimah was in Singapore and saw the news of the terror attack on her Facebook feed.

She saw a photograph of the Al Noor mosque and panicked.

That was her family's mosque ...

Zekeriya Tuyan was the last of the 51 victims to die. He was shot in the chest as he attended Friday prayer at Al Noor mosque on March 15, 2019. Photo / Supplied
Zekeriya Tuyan was the last of the 51 victims to die. He was shot in the chest as he attended Friday prayer at Al Noor mosque on March 15, 2019. Photo / Supplied

She was not sure if her husband had attended Friday prayers that day so she frantically started to call him.

Over and over she tried to reach Zekeriya, but he did not answer.

Hamimah then tried some of their friends in Christchurch but again, nothing.

By about 3.30pm New Zealand time she was calling Zekeriya's workplace.

They confirmed he had gone to Friday prayers and that he had not returned to work afterwards.

"What happened next was what felt like a million bees swarming around in my head," she would later say.

Zekeriya and Hamimah - a love story

The pair were strangers who took the same train to work in Singapore.

They saw each other often and eventually began talking, started a relationship and fell in
love.

Zekeriya was born in Turkey but had been living and working in IT as a computer systems engineer in Singapore for about 10 years.

The couple married in 2008, exchanging vows in both Singapore and Turkey.

Soon after, they welcomed their first son into the world.

Five years later the family's story would shift to New Zealand.

Hamimah, a speech and language therapist, was granted a scholarship to complete her
PhD at Canterbury University and so they settled in Christchurch.

They loved their life here.

Zekeriya got a job, their little boy was in school and Hamimah's studies were going well.

She fell pregnant again and their second child - another boy - was born.

When Hamimah finished studying she had to return to Singapore.

Her scholarship had come with a bond and she needed to head home to repay that.

Zekeriya's job here was good, and he was struggling to find anything similar in Singapore,
so they agreed his wife would return with the boys and he would stay.

The long-term plan was for the whole family to eventually reunite.

In fact, Zekeriya was aiming to be back in Singapore by June last year.

Ambulance staff take a man from outside the Al Noor mosque following the terror attack. Photo / NZME
Ambulance staff take a man from outside the Al Noor mosque following the terror attack. Photo / NZME

He missed his wife, his sons.

Until then, they Skyped regularly, saw each other as often as they could, and tried their best to keep their little family tightly connected.

Their last video chat was on Thursday, March 14, at night in New Zealand time.

They usually kept their sessions for the weekend but Hamimah's youngest son wanted to
see his father so they broke tradition.

She would later tell Channel New Asia about that call, saying the family joked and talked
"a lot" and started to plan their next holiday - they wanted to see snow.

When they said goodbye, it was the early hours of March 15.

"I was hurrying them [to finish]," she recalled of her sons.

"Baba needs to go for Friday prayers," she told them.

They never could have imagined when they said goodbye that a few hours later their tight-knit family would be forever broken.

Your husband is in surgery - come now

Hamimah spoke to the Herald about her loss and also shared parts of her journey in the community access radio Plains FM podcast Widows of Shuhada.

The eight part series - hosted by Muslim broadcasting student Asha Abdi who grew up in and amongst the Al Noor masjid - was made for RNZ and follows four women who lost husbands in the March 15 attack.

Hamimah said after learning her husband had been at the mosque, she desperately began trying to find out more about the attack.

"I was reading about the death toll, the number injured … I just wanted to know what happened to my husband, if anyone had seen him," she told the podcast.

"Did he make it over the [mosque perimeter] wall, was he safe, was he one of those injured, was he one of those under the piles of bodies?"

A few hours into her anguish, Hamimah was called by a friend at the hospital.
Zekeriya had been shot.

He was alive.

He was in surgery.

Hamimah should come to New Zealand - now.

The first available flight was due to leave Singapore just before midnight but then, thankfully, three seats opened up on an earlier flight.

Armed police guarding Christchurch Hospital where many wounded were rushed after the massacre. Zekeriya Tuyan was among them. Photo / Amber Allott
Armed police guarding Christchurch Hospital where many wounded were rushed after the massacre. Zekeriya Tuyan was among them. Photo / Amber Allott

Hamimah arrived back in Christchurch around 10am on March 16.

As the man accused of murdering and wounding so many appeared in court for the first time, Hamimah was arriving at her husband's bedside.

She described the moment she first saw Zekeriya to CNA days after the attack.

He was unconscious, lying amid a "tangle" of tubes and wires.

Hamimah said she just wanted to get him back.

"But at the same time, understanding that he's in Allah's hands," she explained.

She spoke to her husband, her sons never far from her side.

"We're not sure whether he can hear anything at the moment, but we pray and recite the
Quran for him," she told CNA.

Zekeriya's brother and father also arrived in Christchurch and positioned themselves at the hospital.

The family moved from his bedside to the relatives' room, where another Turkish family
also maintained residence, proffering food and support.

"I try not to think too far, and after every update we try not to have too high hopes," Hamimah said on Monday, March 18.

"Because of the injury that he sustained, there's a whole lot of possibilities.

"But if Allah wills for him to go, then that's Allah's will. So, I try not to think too far."

The night of March 15, 2019. Police were armed and on high alert near the Al Noor mosque. Photo / NZME
The night of March 15, 2019. Police were armed and on high alert near the Al Noor mosque. Photo / NZME

Losing Zekeriya


Zekeriya Tuyan fought for 48 days.

But his body gave up.

The fight was simply too much.

Until that day, the March 15 death toll had been 50.

Zekeriya was the last to die.

His name was released by the police, his body by the hospital.

His family began to grieve.

Hamimah was now a widow and she had to work out how to forge ahead without her family's leader, the love of her life.

She later described Zekeriya as an entertainer, the favourite chef, a loving father who had "big hopes and dreams" for his little boys.

But now she had to work out how to move forward - very, very quickly - as a family of three.

Hamimah told the Herald when the attack first happened she did not have a chance to speak in depth about it with her sons, now aged 10 and 5.

"I did not have time to properly explain the situation to my sons until a few days later when we attended the burial of a close friend's son, Sayyad Milne.

"He was also one of the boys' favourite companions.

"Sayad and his family had just visited us in January of 2019 and we had truly enjoyed that reunion. So to lose him in March was surreal for us."

Sayad Milne was also killed at the mosque. He was a friend of the Tuyan family. Photo / Supplied
Sayad Milne was also killed at the mosque. He was a friend of the Tuyan family. Photo / Supplied

Sayad was just 14 and was at Friday prayer at Al Noor with his mother.

Hamimah said explaining the deaths to her sons was made easier by several family tragedies in the lead up to the massacre.

"Six months after we returned to Singapore in 2017 my mother, whom the boys were starting to get to know, passed away peacefully in her sleep," she told the Herald.

"Her body was prepared for burial at my house. The boys were there when we said our last goodbyes and prayers.

"This was the first opportunity I had to introduce the Islamic concept of death as "returning to Allah".

"I did not go into too much detail and let them lead by answering their questions."

Then in July 2018 Hamimah's brother passed away.

She said her sons had just started becoming closer to him after their return to Singapore.

"His body was also prepared for burial at my house. So the boys now have had two experiences with death in the family," said Hamimah.

"This time they asked why he had died.

"I used the analogy of life as a transit to the hereafter and that we all will have a turn to
go to our final destination except we don't know when our turn is.

"Looking back I see it as God's way of preparing them to deal with the death of their father. They appeared calm and accepting of their father's passing."

Wife, mother, widow - survivor


Hamimah said the journey of her husband's death was hard.

She not only lost her love, but her children's father - and those were two very separate paths of grief.

In terms of her son, she made a plan to help them navigate early in the process.

"I had consciously reminded myself to remain calm when I was with them and went on with our routines," she said.

"When their father was mentioned it was always in the context of recalling fond, happy memories and sending him our prayers.

Most of the victims of the March 15 terror attack were buried together in a Christchurch cemetery. Photo / Alan Gibson
Most of the victims of the March 15 terror attack were buried together in a Christchurch cemetery. Photo / Alan Gibson

"I reinforced the idea that Baba is with Allah and that we will meet him again when our turn comes.

"I believe the boys needed a happy mommy for them to be happy. So, regardless of how I was feeling, I made sure that they saw me happy."

Coping with her own grief was made easier because she had much to do.

"I had the boys to keep me busy," she said.

"In addition to that we were kept busy packing and cleaning the home [in Christchurch] as we had to leave for Singapore.

"Most importantly I found solace and healing from my faith."

In August, Hamimah attended Hajj - the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest city for Muslims.

That trip did a lot to help her heal.

"Hajj had left me recharged," she said.

"I had come from a place that has just witnessed the detrimental impact ignorance, hatred, and bigotry could have on a community - to a gathering where communities came together from different parts of the world irrespective of their races, skin colours, languages and cultures, stripped off all markers of social status and wealth.

"That gave me some kind of closure … a renewed sense of purpose from and for this experience."

Hamimah was initially reluctant to share the intimate details of her grief and Zekeriya's
death.

"I refuse to give [the accused gunman's] supporters the satisfaction of reading about the impact and damage caused," she said last year.

But she has recently opened up more about that.

"It's hard for me to say the word 'killed' but he was shot and killed and … we hope that that then gives him the title of the martyr, the shuhada," she said in a podcast episode.

Hamimah wanted people to remember her husband for more than being a victim, for being the last to die, for being part of an unprecedented and horrendous massacre.

"He was a filial son, beloved husband, awesome father, doting uncle, protective brother, reliable friend, principled man," she told the Herald.

Where to get help:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Whats Up?: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.