New Zealand Families Begin Receiving Bodies Of Terror Attack Victims

Mar 18, 2019
Originally published on March 18, 2019 9:49 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

They were fathers, wives, sons, daughters. Some had moved to New Zealand for a better life. Some had built their entire lives in New Zealand. Over the weekend, thousands of people gathered to remember them and all of the 50 people who were killed in the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on Friday. The suspected gunman survived, and his court-appointed lawyer tells reporters the suspect plans to represent himself in court. NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Christchurch and joins us this morning. Good morning, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: It is the third day since the shooting happened in Christchurch. You've been talking with survivors and the families of victims. How are people managing right now?

SCHMITZ: Well, they're very emotional. There's a lot of crying still. There's a lot of tears. Today I was with family members and friends who were finally starting to receive the bodies of their loved ones from the hospital, and the sheer number of the dead and the way that they died made identifying the bodies a difficult and time-consuming process for hospital staff. And that's - I guess what's made the situation more pressing is the Muslim tradition of burying the deceased as soon as possible.

I met a man named Karkun Miah (ph), an immigrant from Bangladesh, who lost four close friends. I met Karkun as he was waiting outside the hospital for his friends' bodies, and here's what he said about one of them.

KARKUN MIAH: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: He says here that his friend Hosne was like a mother to the tiny Bangladeshi community here. She helped teach the Quran, she worked as a midwife, and she helped solve marital disputes. Her husband is in a wheelchair, and she was shot and killed soon after wheeling him into the mosque. He, incredibly, survived. But Karkun says losing her feels sort of like losing his own mother.

MARTIN: And there were others who were injured who may have survived, but they're still in the hospital, right?

SCHMITZ: That's right. There were around 50 people injured. More than two dozen of them remain in the hospital. Nine people are still in critical condition, including another friend of Karkun's, the man we just heard from. The 25-year-old wife of his roommate was shot in her chest twice and is miraculously still alive. He told me she has a 50-50 chance of surviving.

MARTIN: New Zealand's prime minister, Jacinta Arden, has said that after these shootings, the country's gun laws need to change. And she said today that details would come out about how those changes might take shape. What is the debate like there about gun laws in New Zealand? Is there a debate?

SCHMITZ: Well, there is and there isn't. I mean, this is a complicated issue because many New Zealanders own guns. There is nearly one gun for every three citizens here. And many people I've spoken to agree, though, that rifles like the AR-15, which was used in this attack, should be banned, and that very well could be the outcome from New Zealand's government.

I spoke to Andrew Taylor today. He owns a gun shop in Christchurch. And he told me he's refusing to sell certain guns, as well as the magazines that enable them to shoot more bullets.

ANDREW TAYLOR: Anyone can buy those magazines. They're just not allowed to put them in their gun. But if they do, what can we do? So we've pulled the sales of those, and we've pulled the sales of all of our AR platform guns until we hear further notice from the police or the government to what we're supposed to do.

SCHMITZ: And that includes the AR-15. He's no longer selling that, despite the fact that his phone has been ringing off the hook since the attack from people who want to buy that gun because they're scared it's going to be banned soon.

MARTIN: I noted that the 28-year-old man who is charged in this attack plans to defend himself in court.

SCHMITZ: Right.

MARTIN: Are we learning more about him?

SCHMITZ: Well, we know there's concern that he's foregoing a lawyer in order to turn his trial into a platform to further publicize his views. So we'll see how New Zealand's court system handles that.

But today I tracked down a man who spent some time at the same rural gun club where the attacker spent much of his time prior to the attack. I spoke with Pete Breidahl today. He's a former soldier in the New Zealand Defence Force. And he says the guys that hung out at this club really disturbed him. He says they were blatantly racist and seemed to glorify mass shootings. He remembers one conversation this group of guys had about the 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia, where a man named Martin Bryant killed 35 people. Here's what he said.

PETE BREIDAHL: But these guys kind of were talking about him like, oh, he could have done this. If he'd done this, he would've got more kills and - you know, but they were discussing Martin Bryant's tactics in a way that made me very, very uncomfortable.

SCHMITZ: So Breidahl told me that when he heard the attacker in this shooting attended the same gun club that had disturbed him so much, he became very frustrated because he told me he had called the police in that area to complain about these guys. But according to him, the police just shrugged it off.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting from Christchurch, New Zealand. Thanks so much, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.