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Christchurch, once ravaged by quakes, is re-traumatized by mosque shooting

Muslim worshipers grieve at a makeshift memorial at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Tuesday. (Mick Tsikas/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — 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.

Now, Christchurch is dealing with an entirely different kind of trauma after 50 people were killed in two mosques here on Friday in New Zealand’s worst terrorist attack, sending shock waves through the city and the wider country. . 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 re-triggered and feeling anxieties about all the uncertainties,” said Carl Shaw, manager of Christchurch’s Charity Hospital, which offered free counseling after the earthquake and has renewed this service in the wake of Friday’s attacks. More than 30 counselors 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 traumatized by watching it,” Shaw said.

The 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.

Some 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 on Friday.

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed March 19 to not speak the name of the suspect in the Christchurch mosque shootings, which killed 50 people. (Video: Reuters)

The police provide support services for those directly affected by the shootings, and a community welfare center 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 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,” 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 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 on Friday, and many students sheltered in their classrooms until after 6 p.m. Being unable to go outside during all that time —and having to use a bucket if they needed a bathroom break — was traumatic for children used to short earthquake drills but not American-style active-shooter lockdowns.

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Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel said her focus was on “providing practical support for families” dealing with the trauma. “We’ve all been affected,” she said. “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 centers 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 behaviors change after trauma,” said Iona Holsted 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.” 

“There is a tragedy that has happened. We wanted to support people,” Jones said. 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,” Jones said, as a fellow high school student came up and hugged her.

“It’s our way of making it a bit easier,” said McVicar.

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

Cashmere 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,” he said. “It’s difficult for people to comprehend, and everyone reacts differently.” He described the mood at the school on Monday as “quiet and somber.”

At a special assembly, 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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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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