CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — A father and son who fled the civil war in Syria for “the safest country in the world” were buried before hundreds of mourners Wednesday, the first two funerals for victims of shootings at two mosques in New Zealand that horrified a nation known for being welcoming and diverse.
The funerals of Khalid Mustafa, 44, and Hamza Mustafa, 15, came five days after a white supremacist methodically gunned down 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch — a massacre that he broadcast live on Facebook.
Hamza’s high school principal described the student as compassionate and hard-working, and said he was an excellent horse rider who aspired to be a veterinarian.
Those present included Hamza’s younger brother, 13-year-old Zaed, who was wounded in an arm and a leg. The boy tried to stand during the ceremony but had to sit back into his wheelchair, one mourner said.
“We tried to not shake his hand, and not touch his hand or his foot but he refused, he wanted to shake everybody’s hand, he wanted to show everyone that he appreciated them. And that’s amazing,” said Jamil El-Biza, who traveled from Australia to attend the funeral.
The Mustafas had moved to New Zealand last year, after spending six years as refugees in Jordan. Mustafa’s wife, Salwa, told Radio New Zealand that when the family asked about New Zealand they were told “it’s the safest country in the world, the most wonderful country you can go … you will start a very wonderful life there.”
She added: “But it wasn’t.”
Families of those killed had been anxiously awaiting word on when they could bury their loved ones. New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said police have now formally identified and released the remains of 21 of those killed. Islamic tradition calls for bodies to be cleansed and buried as soon as possible.
The burials got under way shortly after the country’s prime minister renewed her call to remember the victims rather than the Australian gunman accused of slaughtering them.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s plea not to give any notoriety to the accused 28-years-old Australian white supremacist first came in a speech to Parliament prompted by the accused gunman’s decision to dismiss his lawyer and represent himself. The move had raised concerns he would use the trial as a platform for his racist views.
During a visit to Hamza’s high school on Wednesday, Ardern revisited that thought and asked students not to say the attacker’s name or dwell on him.
“Look after one another but also let New Zealand be a place where there is no tolerance for racism,” she told students at Cashmere High School. “That’s something we can all do.”
Another Cashmere student, 14-year-old Sayyad Milne, also died in the attack.
The shooter’s desire for attention was made clear in a manifesto sent to Ardern’s office and others minutes before Friday’s massacre and by his livestreamed footage of his attack on the Al Noor mosque.
The video prompted widespread revulsion and condemnation. Facebook said it removed 1.5 million versions of the video during the first 24 hours, but Ardern expressed frustration that the footage remained online, four days later.
“We have been in contact with Facebook; they have given us updates on their efforts to have it removed, but as I say, it’s our view that it cannot — should not — be distributed, available, able to be viewed,” she said. “It is horrendous and while they’ve given us those assurances, ultimately the responsibility does sit with them.”
Arden said she had received “some communication” from Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg on the issue. The prime minister has also spoken with British Prime Minister Theresa May about the importance of a global effort to clamp down on the distribution of such material.
Lawyer Richard Peters, who was assigned to represent Brenton Harrison Tarrant at his initial court appearance on Saturday, told the New Zealand Herald that Tarrant dismissed him that day.
A judge ordered Tarrant to return to New Zealand’s High Court on April 5 for his next hearing on one count of murder, though he is expected to face additional charges. The 28-year-old Australian is being held in isolation in a Christchurch jail.
“He seemed quite clear and lucid, whereas this may seem like very irrational behavior,” Peters told the newspaper. “He didn’t appear to me to be facing any challenges or mental impairment, other than holding fairly extreme views.”
Peters did not return a call from The Associated Press.
Peters told the paper that Tarrant didn’t tell him why he wanted to represent himself. He said a judge could order a lawyer to assist Tarrant at a trial, but that Tarrant would likely be unsuccessful in trying to use it as a platform to put forward any extremist views.
Under New Zealand law, a trial is “to determine innocence or guilt,” Peters said. “The court is not going to be very sympathetic to him if he wants to use the trial to express his own views.”
Ardern previously has said her Cabinet had agreed in principle to tighten gun restrictions in New Zealand and those reforms would be announced next week. She also had announced an inquiry into the intelligence and security services’ failures to detect the risk from the attacker or his plans. There have been concerns intelligence agencies were overly focused on the Muslim community in detecting and preventing security risks.
New Zealand’s international spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau, confirmed it had not received any relevant information or intelligence before the shootings.
As of Tuesday evening, 30 people were still being treated at the hospital, nine of them in critical condition, medical officials said. A 4-year-old girl was transferred to a hospital in Auckland and is in critical condition. Her father is at the same hospital in stable condition.
Sheik Taj El-Din Hilaly, of Sydney, traveled to Christchurch to attend or lead some of the funerals. Through a translator, he said he felt compelled to support the grieving. A nationwide lockdown on mosques was imposed until Monday, which Hilaly said had upset Muslims whom he had visited in Auckland. Police continue to guard mosques across the country.
Residents of this close-knit city have created makeshift memorials near the two targeted mosques and at the botanical gardens, where a mountain of flowers has grown by the day.
Janna Ezat, whose son, Hussein Al-Umari, was killed in the Al Noor mosque, visited the memorial at the gardens and became overwhelmed by the outpouring of love. She knelt amid the flowers and wept, grabbing at daisies and lilies as though she might find her boy in them.
Ezat is comforted by reports that Hussein confronted the killer, charging at him after surviving the first spray of bullets.
“I’m very happy. I’m wearing white. We normally wear black,” she said. “But he is a hero and I am proud of him.”
Associated Press writers Stephen Wright and Steve McMorran contributed.