Christchurch, once ravaged by quakes, re-traumatised by mosque shooting

Flowers left by residents are seen at a memorial site for victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks at an Islamic Center in Kilbirnie, Wellington on March 19, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND (BLOOMBERG) - Almost eight years ago, the southern New Zealand city of Christchurch was rocked by a huge earthquake that killed 185 people and wiped out whole suburbs. Thousands of aftershocks kept the population on edge for months to come.

Now, Christchurch is dealing with an entirely different kind of trauma.

Fifty people were killed in two mosques here last Friday (March 15), sending shock waves through the city and the wider country not only because it was New Zealand's first terrorist attack but because of the sheer number of those killed. The death toll far exceeded the nation's annual homicide rate, which stood at 35 in 2017.

It has rekindled memories of the last tragedy to hit Christchurch.

"We're seeing people being retriggered and feeling anxieties about all the uncertainties," said Mr Carl Shaw, manager of Christchurch's Charity Hospital, which offered free counselling after the earthquake and has renewed this service in the wake of last Friday's attacks.

More than 30 counsellors and psychologists are again ready to help people process the events.

"We're also getting a lot of questions about how to explain this to children, and from people who have watched the video and who regret it, who were traumatised by watching it," Mr Shaw said.

The alleged gunman live-streamed the attack on Facebook from a camera attached to his helmet. The social media company said it had removed 1.5 million copies of the video in the first 24 hours.

Even first responders have been struggling to cope with the scenes from the mosques.

"There was a river of blood coming out of the mosque and that's a scene that you don't forget," said ambulance officer Paul Bennett, fighting back the tears as he described arriving at the Al Noor mosque last Friday.

The police provide support services for those directly affected by the shootings, and a community welfare centre has been set up near the hospital in Christchurch for victims.

"I'm still afraid. I don't want to go out to a restaurant or anywhere," said Mr Kevin Avisena, a 19-year-old student from Indonesia training in New Zealand to be a pilot. He was trampled in the crush to escape the Al Noor mosque, where 42 people were killed, and said he was having difficulty getting over what he saw when he could finally stand up.

"I stood up and saw that everyone around me was dead. There was blood on the floor. Someone was screaming for help," Mr Avisena said. "When I saw the video (that the gunman made during the attack), I could see myself in it."

A Ministry of Health helpline for the broader public has been deluged with hundreds of calls from people seeking support, with the calls lasting an average of about 40 minutes.

"I encourage anyone in need to reach out and use these services. They are there for you," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday.

The Health Ministry has provided advice sheets in both English and Arabic on how to cope with traumatic events, including advice on how to support children.

"Tell them that feeling upset or afraid is normal, and that telling you how they are feeling will help, that with time they will feel better," the advice says.

Christchurch schools went into lockdown after the attacks happened last Friday, with many sheltering in their classrooms until after 6pm. Being unable to go outside during all that time - including using a bucket to go to the bathroom - was traumatic for children used to short earthquake drills but not American-style active shooter lockdowns.

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel said her focus was on "providing practical support for families".

She said: "We've all been affected. Everyone has been touched in some way, shape or form."

In a city of fewer than 400,000 people, many have some kind of connection to the victims, often through schools. Twenty schools and three early childhood centres had direct connections to victims, the Ministry of Education reported.

"We have traumatic incident teams, they comprise people who are trained in understanding the impacts of trauma, and how behaviours change after trauma," said Ms Iona Halsted from the Education Ministry.

At vigils and flower-filled memorials around the city, young people have been coming together to support each other.

Shonny Jones, a 17-year-old student at Riccarton High School, was standing at the police cordon near the Al Noor mosque on Monday with a handwritten sign saying "Free Hugs".

She and her friend Cailin McVicar, 15, had been in the park opposite the mosque for three hours. "Hundreds of people came over, and lots more smiled at us," Shonny said, as a fellow high school student came up and hugged her.

The victims of the shootings included two students at Cashmere High School: Sayyad Milne, who was 14, and Hamza Mustafa, 16. Hamza had arrived in New Zealand from Syria with his family only a few months ago. Another former student of the school, 24-year-old Tariq Omar, was also killed.

Cashmere High School principal Mark Wilson said the school was trying to support the students.

"The nature of mass shooting happening in a country like New Zealand creates a real trauma in people. It's difficult for people to comprehend and everyone reacts differently," he said, describing the mood at the school on Monday as "quiet and sombre".

At a special assembly, Mr Wilson quoted Martin Luther King Jr to the students. "I told them that light will defeat darkness, and that the best way to respond to hate is with love."

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