Christchurch mosque shootings: Victims at ‘heart’ of Royal Commission into mosque attacks respond

Hundreds of pages, multiple volumes of volumes of information, startling revelations, admissions of failings, promises to do better and vows of “never again”.

But at the heart of the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terror attack are the 51 men, women and children whose lives were brutally taken on March 15 last year.

The survivors, the witnesses.

Innocent people who should have been safe, who should have made it home alive that day and who never should have had to live through a terror attack.

Many of those who survived the gunfire that day or were closely affected spoke to the Royal Commission, set up less than a month after the unprecedented horror.

While a lot of their stories of the day and their loss have been told before – the depth of their grief, pain and ongoing fear was canvassed by the Commission on an intimate level.

“This is by far the hardest thing I’ve every had to go through – I am still going through it and suffering the loss of my little brother. He was my best friend,” said one person who spoke about their loss.

“I can still remember when Mum was pregnant with him and I used to speak to him through her sotmach. I couldn’t wait to meet him.

“He was a gentle-natured and kind man who always tried his best … the thought of someone even touching him, let alone killing him, drives me creazy.

“He was so young, his future has been unjustly taken from him and from all his family and friends who wanted to share his future.”

In total 1168 submissions were made to the Royal Commission – 1123 of those from individuals including researchers and academics.

More than 22 countries and 50 language were represented by submitters, who were not restricted in what they shared with the Commission.

“These conversations and submissions have strengthened our process hugely by ensuring we kept the 51 shauhada at the heart of our work,” the report explained.

“We were able to speak to all those affected whanau, survivors and witnesses who expressed a wish to talk to us.

“Many of those closely affected invited us into their homes, sharing their grief… we were deeply humbled and privileged to do so.

“We are extremely grateful to those who agreed to meet with us. The stories they shared about their experiences before, during and after the terrorist attack gave us valuable insight which has deeply enriched this report.”

People were asked about the impact of the attack as well as their lives in New Zealand before it.

They were also asked whether they ever felt unsafe and what the government could have done in the past to help them feel safer – and what it can do to make things better going forward and to prevent future attacks.

The report revealed that some people were “ready and willing to meet right away” but others needed more time.

“We met with people on their own terms…. We were learning as we went through this process and did not always get things right,” the report said.

“There were a number of things we wanted to achieve in meeting with those most deeply by the terrorist attack. We wanted people to have an opportunity to share their stories, their evidence, in their own words.

“Our overall approach was that we were there to listen… people shared stories about the loved ones they had lost or about their own experiences… we also felt their deep grief, trauma and distress.

“We set out these stories and experiences here with the intention giving them the respect they deserve.”

While no specific individuals were named in the report – some of the things they told the Commission were shared.

They spoke of what they saw in the Al Noor and Linwood mosques, of trying to escape the gunman, of their physical injuries and their recovery – often slow with multiple surgeries – and of their mental anguish.

“When I sleep at night, I set up three different beds so if someone was to come, I have one in three chances of being shot,” one survivor said.

“If someone comes to kill me, if I’m sleeping, I could probably survive this way. If someone was to come now – I can’t run away, my leg is gone.

“I’m very disillusioned, I don’t trust the system, nothing comes out of the system.”

They spoke of the lifelong impacts, of never being the same again and never fully healing.

They spoke of the fracas after the attack, of not being able to find their loved ones and waiting for hours outside the hospital, the mosques for news.

“Many felt that both the victim identification process and process for identifying people being treated in hospital caused them additional and unnecessary grief,” the report said.

“Some people said they received conflicting and inconsistent information from police and hospital staff in the first 24 hours…. In one, a whanau member who had witnessed their loved one being killed was told by police and hospital staff not to lose home and that their loved one could be being treated in another hospital.

“This false hope caused additional grief.

“People we met with were frustrated about how long it took for their deceased loved ones to be moved from the scene… in one case we were told by a close whanau member of reading about the death of their loved one in a newspaper article without being informed by the police beforehand.”

People also said they were frustrated that they were not permitted to go inside the police cordon at the scene to search for their loved ones.

“We were told that some watched the video of the attack live stream in order to determine whether the loved ones had been killed.”

One person told the Commission said many of the Muslim community were “resigned to remembering the incident as a display of callous neglect and carelessness”.

Apparent inexperience and a lack of understanding of traditional Muslim naming conventions also contributed to a delay in identifying people in hospital.

“Everyone we met with… had experienced some form of psychological distress, such as anger, fear, stress, depression, anxiety, paranoia and or survivor’s guilt,” the report revealed.

“Many affected… have difficulty sleeping for reasons that include fears of the dreams that they might have of being vulnerable while they sleep.

“The experience of seeing people in their last moments of life was haunting.”

One survivor told the Commission that “it’s better to stay awake, talking to people rather than sleep and have nightmares”.

The report outlined the changes to children who survived who “have not been the same since”.

Some no longer wanted to attend school and others “continue to be traumatised” by loud sounds.

“One parent told us they felt like they had lost their child, despite their child having physically survived the terrorist attack,” the report said.

Ongoing counselling, battles with agencies for support, financial struggles for people who could not return to full time work or work at all, relationship stress and pressure and the specific toll on women who had been widowed were also issues canvassed.

“For some of the women the consequences went beyond the harrowing emotional impact,” the report explained.

“For many, this meant the loss of the main earner for the whanau. Some women are taking on new roles and learning new skills such as driving or financial literacy.

“Simultaneously, these women are carrying more of the parenting responsibilities – while dealing with their own grief and recovery needs.”

The Commission also heard that while in the aftermath of the massacre there was “social cohesion, unity and interconnectedness between communities” much more needs to be done to ensure better cultural understanding in the future, particularly in public sector agencies and non-government organisations dealing with different groups.

“We heard that the services and support being offer… often do not appropriately acknowledge the diverse nature of Muslim communities and therefor do not account for different needs,” the report said.

“Some whanau felt there was an absence of genuine engagement to understand their needs… as a result they… were left with a perception that the public sector was discriminating against them.”

The Commission said from the “terrible events” of March 15 came a “responsibility to reflect and learn”.

While the responsibility of keeping Kiwis secure was on the government, there was more the public and private sectors, local government and community could do.

“New Zealanders can play a vital role in countering terrorism and extremism,” said the Commission.

“To play that role, New Zealanders must be informed about the issues and what they can do to help.

“Fundamental to New Zealand’s future wellbeing and security is social cohesion. While (it) is much higher than in many other countries, there are fault lines.

“Maintaining and enhancing social cohesion is a vital task… we are confident that the will is there.

“These changes won’t be easy but we have laid down the wero and we urge the government to take up the challenge and act.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this afternoon said acknowledged the report – saying whilst it found nothing could have stopped the attack – there were still failings at a high level.

“And for that I apologise,” she said.

“Going forward, we need to ensure an adequate focus of resources on the range of threats New Zealand faces and enhance our security and intelligence, and social cohesion work accordingly.”

She had a message to those most affected and thanked them for their input.

“You, and others, have made New Zealand your home. You, and every New Zealander deserve a system that does its best to keep you safe, she said.

“Thank you for the part that you played in ensuring the Royal Commission was comprehensive.”

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