The Ripple Effect: Long road ahead for mosque shooting survivors, families

The long-awaited Royal Commission report into the Christchurch mosque shootings is out today. Have those victims and survivors of the tragedy who spoke at the gunman’s historic sentencing four months ago found peace? How do the events of March 15 still affect their lives? Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer reports.

You would struggle to meet a nicer, more gentle man than Rahimi Ahmad. Calm, caring, a doting husband and father.

But if he could have walked, if he wasn’t wheelchair-bound, he would have punched the man who shot him.

The Ripple Effect: A look back at the worst terror attack on New Zealand soil. Video / NZ Herald

“The anger is still there,” he says, 21 months after he was shot in the back at the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch by a mass killer and terrorist on March 15 last year.

He was wheeled into the High Court during the third day of the historic sentencing by his wife Nor Abd Wahib.

Nor Abd Wahib supported her shot husband Rahimi Ahmad during the terrorist’s sentencing. Photo / Pool

She had told her Victim Support officer that she couldn’t face reading her own statement aloud before her husband’s attacker.

The couple dreaded their day. They couldn’t sleep.

Nobody knew how the 29-year-old Australian terrorist was going to act in court. Would he play up? Would he try and hijack the process? How terrifying would he be?

But that morning, something changed. Other victims had become empowered. One by one, as the parade of devastated mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children stood in court to have their say and tell the killer how his actions had torn apart their lives, they gained confidence.

They wanted to be sure they didn’t let the moment pass. They wanted to let him have it.

And Wahib wanted to have her say.

“I wanted to speak in front of the terrorist and get out what I felt,” she says.

“I tried to let it all go.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Rahimi Ahmad in hospital while he was still in a coma after the shootings. Photo / Supplied
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Rahimi Ahmad in hospital while he was still in a coma after the shootings. Photo / Supplied

Summoning all her reserves of courage – along with pent-up anger and frustration – she spoke directly to the killer in the dock.

“Look what you have done to my husband and my family,” she said.

“You already lost this battle from the moment you thought of harming us – even the last drop of your soul.

“But our souls are alive.”

The attacks changed their lives forever.

The Ahmads had migrated to “calm, friendly, safe” New Zealand from Malaysia in 2014.

Rahimi had a good job as a service technician and Wahib just finished a biomedical engineering PhD on March 14, 2019 – the day before the mass shooting, which left 51 people dead.

When the shooting started, Rahimi reached for his 11-year-old son’s hand but the terrified child ran off.

Moments later, Rahimi was shot in the back and lay bleeding face down, not knowing if his son was alive.

He would spend six days in a coma. The first thing he asked when he finally woke was: “Where’s my son?”

Since then, he’s been learning to walk again.

He can manage to hobble around the house on crutches and splint – but anything further than that, he’s still confined to a wheelchair.

The pain comes and goes – and can still be debilitating. It’ll likely last the rest of his life.

After the sentencing, when the terrorist was jailed for life without parole, the Ahmads felt drained.

“It took about two weeks for our feelings to settle down,” Wahib says.

“I had mixed emotions – a bit down, overwhelmed with the situation.”

After the shooting, she had no time to reflect or speak with any other victims. Their world became smaller. Her sole focus was her badly-injured husband and caring for her traumatised children.

When she got to court, and spoke with other victims, and saw and heard what they had to say in court, she knew she wasn’t alone. But it provided little comfort.

“When I heard their stories, it made me feel even more sad and down,” she says.

“And for us, it was so hard to relive it all.”

For Rahimi, while it was a relief it was all over, he came away left unsatisfied.

It felt like his attacker got off easy.

“As a father, as a husband, I feel it’s still not fair, what he did to us,” Rahimi says.

“I accept what the judge gave to him.

“But I still feel in my heart … I’m not satisfied with this guy.”

The Ahmads feel ambivalent about the Royal Commission of Inquiry’s report into the shootings.

But they feel the Government needs to do more for the surviving victims – especially the breadwinners like Rahimi.

He’s been unable to return to work since the attacks. His mobility is so limited, and medication barely controls his pain.

He’s on ACC but he doesn’t know how long it will last.

“For us breadwinners, we have just been left hanging,” Rahimi says.

“For the injured persons, the Government thinks they will just recover by themselves. But they don’t think of the psychological impact on us and our families.

“There is a lack of support for the injured person.”

While 2019 and 2020 have been dark, uncertain years, the Ahmads approach the New Year with hesitation.

Rahimi just hopes his rehabilitation – weekly acupuncture, swimming, gym sessions, along with counselling – goes well. He is making progress, but it’s frustratingly slow.

“I know it’s very tiring for my wife who has to handle everything,” Rahimi says.

“I just want to get better.”

Since the sentencing hearing in August, Temel Atacocugu, who was shot nine times at Masjid Al Noor on March 15, 2019, has struggled to return to normal life.

He supported his friend and fellow Turk Mustafa Boztas read his victim impact statement in court. Boztas called the terrorist a “rotten cloth” that had been thrown away.

“You are not even human … you are classified as someone who’s dumb enough not to realise that behind the skin all humans are the same,” Boztas said.

Mosque shooting survivors, from left, Mustafa Boztas, Wassail Daragmih and Temel Atacocugu celebrate as they leave the Christchurch High Court after the sentencing.
Mosque shooting survivors, from left, Mustafa Boztas, Wassail Daragmih and Temel Atacocugu celebrate as they leave the Christchurch High Court after the sentencing.

“I’d like to tell you that you’d be remembered as a scared killer and nothing more.

“An insignificant killer who is lonely, scared and left behind to suffer for eternity.”

Atacocugu still struggles with his physical injuries and mental health, trauma, and PTSD.

“Anxiety is still very high in our community,” Atacocugu says.

“It was a big relief that he was sentenced to life without parole and we finally got justice.

“But we are still seeing racism and extremist views being reported in the media.

“We still have many questions. What danger are we in in New Zealand, will this happen again? There wasn’t just one person – there are other extremists in New Zealand and Christchurch.

“How quickly will agencies respond to any future attacks? Will they be too late again?

“What are the secret agencies doing about it?

“What is the Government doing to ensure our safety?

“It’s very complicated in my brain at the moment. I can’t answer my own questions.”

Temel Atacocugu, who was shot nine times at Masjid Al Noor on March 15, 2019, has struggled to return to normal life.
Temel Atacocugu, who was shot nine times at Masjid Al Noor on March 15, 2019, has struggled to return to normal life.

Atacocugu fears losing his business – Ottoman Kebabs, a small shop he co-owns in the ENTX Hoyts complex in central Christchurch. His business partner has already returned to Turkey.

“I can’t concentrate on my business and face closing down because of my circumstances.

“I am isolating myself most of the time.”

Last week, when he spoke to the Herald, it was a fine, sunny day and he couldn’t face going to work – or even outdoors.

“I’m still inside and sitting on my sofa,” he says. He feels re-traumatised every time he looks at his own disabilities.

Although he remains on ACC, he doesn’t know how long that will continue.

He has contacted his psychologist again because he is struggling to cope.

“All of my life I saved for my business and now I’m losing it because of that terrorist. I can’t handle it. Covid-19 is not helping and I don’t know what to do,” he says.

“And I am expected to go back to a normal life? I am feeling left behind.

“Yes I am grateful for the compensation money but it was not much and it is not enough to continue with a normal life.

“The Government has to do something.

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Atacocugu has just returned from a “happy and secure” visit to Turkey where he stayed with family.

But as soon as he arrived back in the city of the shootings, and endured the mandatory fortnight quarantine, his flashbacks returned.

“The flashbacks are getting longer and longer and putting me into depression,” he says.

Last week, when he visited Masjid Al Noor he immediately started shaking.

“It felt like yesterday,” he says.

“I noticed that Christchurch is really not helping me.”

Aya Al-Umari is now an only child.

Her “very loud and chirpy” big brother Hussein Al-Umari, 35, was murdered at Friday prayers at Al Noor Mosque on March 15, 2019.

Hussein Al-Umari was killed during the shooting at Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch on March 15, 2019. Photo / Supplied
Hussein Al-Umari was killed during the shooting at Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch on March 15, 2019. Photo / Supplied

Even since his killing, her perspective, and priorities in life have changed.

“No matter what challenges life throws at us, family time always comes first and that’s what I look forward to in 2021,” she says.

The dignified, thoughtful victim impact statement made in court during the terrorist’s sentencing by her and grieving parents were some of the most powerful, and emotional words, to emerge from the courtroom.

Her mother Janna Ezat said she weeps for her dead son every day.

It was her birthday, and Mother’s Day in the Middle East, when she received her son’s body which was still riddled with bullet holes.

“He used to give me flowers for my birthday but instead I got his body,” she said in court.

And when she told the terrorist that she had decided to forgive him “because I don’t have hate … I have no choice”, it was one of the only time’s the man sat in the dock appeared to acknowledge any of his victims.

He gave a slight nod and wiped an eye.

Aya Al-Umari (left) and her parents were glad to have given victim impact statements at the terrorist's sentencing in August this year. Photo / Pool
Aya Al-Umari (left) and her parents were glad to have given victim impact statements at the terrorist’s sentencing in August this year. Photo / Pool

It took Aya Al-Umari a long time to decide whether she was going to stand in court and confront the mass murderer.

In the end, she was glad she did.

“I actually reached out to victims of similar crimes,” she says. “I asked them how they felt and whether there was any regrets. The common consensus was that it felt right and that encouraged me to do mine as well.

“I felt empowered and regained control that Hussein my brother was robbed of. It was gratifying to be able to look him in the eye and essentially tell him he failed and now my faith is even stronger because of his actions.”

Once Justice Cameron Mander sentenced the terrorist to life behind bars without parole, Aya Al-Umari felt stunned. There was an “eerie silence” inside the overflow courtroom where other families had gathered.

“I had to double-check with my friend to make sure what I heard was correct,” she recalls.

“Once we exited the courtrooms, that’s when everyone broke out in cheers and I breathed a sigh of relief. Up until the sentencing concluded, we had been so busy in the background with police, court advisers and so forth, and now that it was over, I remember asking myself, ‘Okay, now what?'”

Now, Aya Al-Umari and her family are learning to adjust to their new family dynamics without Hussein.

His absence is dearly missed every day. Every place, every scent has memories tied with her brother.

“My parents buried their son,” she says.

“It is very distressing to have to go through that. It’s not the circle of life, let alone the circumstances he was murdered in.”