CHRISTCHURCH: New Zealanders flocked to memorial sites to lay flowers and mourn the victims of the twin mosque massacres on Sunday, as testimony emerged of epic heroism and harrowing suffering in the gun attack that has claimed 50 lives.
As the bodies of some victims were released to their families, a list circulated by relatives showed they ranged in age from three to 77 and included at least four women.
The list also documents the international scale of the tragedy, with those killed hailing from across the Muslim world and including members of two generations of the same family.
The accused gunman, self-confessed white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, documented his radicalisation and two years of preparations in a lengthy, meandering and conspiracy-filled far-right ‘manifesto’.
Ardern said on Sunday that her office had received the manifesto some nine minutes before the attack.
“It did not include a location, it did not include specific details,” she said, adding that it was sent to security services within two minutes of receipt.
For almost three days forensics teams have been working through multiple crime scenes — at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques as well as a house in Dunedin, the southeastern city where the Tarrant lived.
Bodies of those he gunned down had remained inside the mosque awaiting autopsies and identification by increasingly distraught family members desperate to begin Muslim burial rites.
Ardern tried to reassure them on Sunday.
“I can confirm that the bodies of those who have died are beginning to be returned to their families from this evening,” she said, adding that all were expected to be released by Wednesday.
Authorities said 34 people remain in hospital.
Among those fighting for their lives is four-year-old Alin Alsati. The pre-schooler was praying alongside her father Waseeim at the Al Noor mosque when she was shot at least three times.
Her father, who was also shot, recently emigrated to New Zealand from Jordan.
“Please pray for me and my daughter,” he pleaded in a Facebook video message from his hospital bed before undergoing surgery.
Amid the sadness, there have also been tales of heroes such as Alabi Lateef and a fellow worshipper, who followed the 28-year-old Australian gunman to his car and used a discarded rifle to smash the vehicle’s back window.
Alabi said he told worshippers to duck down and then described how he and a ‘brother’ decided to confront the attacker during a lull in the gunfire.
“By the time he got there (outside the mosque) the bullets were finished and the gun was used,” Lateef recounted.
The pair’s actions may have helped saved further casualties, as Tarrant was apprehended by two armed police officers soon after.
Daoud Nabi, a 71-year-old Afghan man, reportedly ran into the line of fire to save fellow worshippers at the Al Noor mosque and died shielding someone else from a bullet.
“He jumped in the firing line to save somebody else’s life and he has passed away,” his son Omar told AFP.
Around Christchurch, New Zealand and the world there have been vigils, prayers, memorials and messages of solidarity.
“We stand together with our Muslim brothers & sisters” were the words on a large-red banner above a sea of flowers at one of the sites in what one resident dubbed the ‘city of sorrow’.
At Christchurch’s ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ — built after the 2011 earthquakes that still scar this close-knit city — Dean Lawrence Kimberley held a service to stand “in solidarity with the Muslim community.”
Across the Tasman Sea, Australians shocked that such an atrocity in their sister nation could be perpetrated by one of their own, vowed to provide any help they can.
In Sydney, a silver fern — the symbol of New Zealand — was projected onto the side of the world famous Opera House.
On Saturday, Tarrant appeared in a Christchurch court to face the first of what is expected to be a host of murder charges.
Flanked by armed police, the former personal fitness trainer gestured an upside-down ‘okay’ — a symbol used by white power groups worldwide. He will be held in custody until an April 5 court appearance.
Another man arrested on Friday will appear in court on Monday on charges that are “tangential’ to the attacks, though he was not believed to be involved in the shootings, police said on Sunday.
The mosque attacks have shaken this usually peaceful country, which prides itself on welcoming refugees fleeing violence or persecution.
Ardern has vowed to change the country’s gun laws and to uncover how a self-avowed extremist legally purchased two semi-automatic weapons, reportedly AR-15s, two shotguns and a lever-action gun without drawing the attention of the authorities.
It has also has emerged that a former soldier raised concerns about extremism at Tarrant’s gun club in Dunedin.
Ardern said the cabinet would be briefed on Monday on the aftermath of the disaster and begin discussions “around issues like, for instance, gun policy.”