Christchurch: At first, the victims of last week’s Christchurch mosque attacks went to their graves in ones and twos. From Wednesday onwards, bodies were slowly released from coroners to relatives eager to say a final goodbye to their loved ones.
But on Friday, shortly after the Muslim call to prayer sounded out across New Zealand, followed by a moment of silence, victims were laid to rest in a mass burial.
“We have never had, in the history of New Zealand, such an incident,” a speaker told an estimated 5,000 mourners, the equivalent of a tenth of the country’s Muslim total population, gathered in the late afternoon autumnal sunshine at Christchurch’s New Park Cemetery.
“We did not expect this, but it is not we who decide, it is [God] … [and] behind every decision of [God], there is a wisdom,” the speaker said.
At least 50 Muslim worshippers were killed on March 15, when Christchurch’s Al Noor and Linwood mosques were targeted by a suspected white supremacist in what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has branded a “terrorist” attack.
Overall, 41 victims were buried in the city this week, including the 26 who were laid to rest on Friday, with nine repatriated or taken elsewhere in New Zealand.
Mourners line route to graves
Inside the New Park Cemetery, the procession of the dead was relentless.
Community leaders overseeing the proceedings announced the names of the victims in batches, allowing for family members to collect bodies from a temporary marquee and carry them to a sprawling burial site on the other side of the cemetery.
Mourners eager to pay their respects gathered alongside a makeshift thoroughfare lining the families’ route. Some cried “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is the greatest,” as they walked; others wept in silence.
Among the names called out in one clutch was three-year-old Mucaad Ibrahim, the youngest victim of the attack.
His uncle, Abdullah, said the pain of putting his baby nephew into the grave was unimaginable.
“It is very sad to say goodbye to the little boy and to not see him again,” Abdullah told Al Jazeera. “He was new to this world.”
Abdullah recalled how Mucaad “loved” the Al Noor mosque, where he was shot dead, and how he hoped his nephew would have grown up to be an imam.
“We are upset … but our boy today, God willing, is in paradise,” Abdullah said, adding he had been too distraught to help prepare Mucaad’s body for burial.
Father and son buried
Amid the movement of bodies, wisps of dust were whipped up by those filling the graves with soil from nearby mounds, which themselves towered above the row-upon-row of gaping holes in the earth.
Above them still sat the loudspeakers put in place across the burial site, which continued to reverberate with name-after-name of the dead. Father and son Naeem Rasheed, 51, and Talha Naeem, 21, were two of them.
Covered with a customary white shroud, Pakistani-born Talha was draped in Pakistanand New Zealand flags for the journey before they were removed and he was buried on sand, as were all else.
Others were carried to the grave alongside flowers or personal mementoes.
‘Forgiveness can bring hearts together’
One of those laid to rest was Husna Ahmed, who was shot dead at Al Noor mosque while trying to usher other women out.
Until last week, the 45-year-old was in charge of Muslim burial customs involving the washing and wrapping of the deceased women in the local community.
Absent of her, Ahmed’s family washed her body themselves.
Her husband, Farid, told Al Jazeera he had was “no hatred” towards his wife’s killer, suspected to be Australian-born Brenton Tarrant, as Islam had taught him to be compassionate. In the minutes before the massacre, 28-year-old Tarrant allegedly published a rambling, racist and overtly white-supremacist online manifesto, which called for “violence” against immigrants.
“He is my human brother and he made a mistake and I pray for him that he will learn [from that],” Farid said.
“Forgiveness can bring hearts together, retribution doesn’t.”
Earlier on Friday, Imam Gamal Fouda, prayer leader at Al Noor mosque and present during last week’s attack, told mourners in Christchurch he “saw hatred and rage in the eyes of the terrorist” who is alleged to have carried out the mass shooting.
In a speech to thousands gathered near the mosque for Friday prayers, Fouda warned, “Islamophobia kills”.
“We call upon governments around the world including New Zealand and the neighbouring countries to bring an end to hate speech and the politics of fear,” Fouda said.
“The martyrdom of 50 people and the injury of 42 did not come overnight; it was the result of the anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim rhetoric of some political leaders, media agencies and others,” he added.
“Muslims have felt its pain before. It has killed people in Canada and it was used against us in Norway and against innocent people in the UK, USA, and other countries around the world.”
On Friday, Christchurch’s Muslim community felt that pain acutely once more.
Shortly after the final bodies were collected, at about 6pm, a small crowd of men gathered in one corner of the cemetery to pray as the sun slid down in the east.
One sported a New Zealand flag, draped over his shoulders and the upper reaches of his thobe.
Alongside him, his fellow worshippers knelt just metres from a pile of discarded, empty caskets which had minutes earlier housed so many of their friends, relatives and fellow Muslims on their final journey to the grave. Each unique, and yet the same.