I was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, many years ago. It was a quiet place then. In fact I would say it was actually boring. As kids we wandered the streets and played till dusk. We had no fear as it seemed that there was nothing to fear. We felt safe then, but something has changed.
I’ve revisited my home town several times since the earthquakes, which changed my childhood landscape so dramatically. My most recent visit was in March and I happily wandered the city to reacquaint myself with how all of the new building work is coming along. I noted the new buildings and precincts. The new library is absolutely stunning and the steps and building along the iconic Avon River, whilst retaining the beautiful trees, looked wonderful. Shops looked inviting and cafes buzzed with activity.
My sister and I were driving up through Kaikoura when the text messages started coming through. The drive was slow with lots of stops for road works due to the post-earthquake repairs to tunnels and roads. We were in a relaxed mood, as three days of road tripping awaited us – something that we had both been looking forward to. The messages baffled me and as I had no internet until we checked in at our accomodation, I was not sure what was going on. ‘Are you okay?’ they asked. ‘Are you near the shooting?’ What shooting, we thought. Hours later – with Wi-Fi connection – we learned the unfolding news. Horrified, we heard that many people had been shot in two mosques in Christchurch. What? Christchurch? Hasn’t she suffered enough with the aftermath of the earthquakes? Why Christchurch?
As the night wore on and the death toll escalated more of the tragic tale unfolded, thanks to the immediacy of our newsfeeds. We were both sombre as we went out for dinner in the wonderful city of Nelson, where we were staying at a place overlooking the bay. The mood on the streets was quiet, the wait staff mentioned the event and their concerns. Why Christchurch? Why New Zealand? Hadn’t beautiful Aotearoa copped enough lately?
We proceeded to enjoy our next two days journeying through the pristine and splendid bush, snow-fed gorges and mountains of the West Coast, towns like Murchison, Fox River, Cape Foulwind and Hokitika, the beautiful coastline looked as unchanged and permanent as it had always done. I pondered on what the mood of my home city would be as we returned on our last day. We stopped at Arthur’s Pass and a woman in a shop regaled her experience of the event, she was shopping in the upmarket department store Ballentynes on the day and the store was put into lockdown. She said she felt safe, but they were watching as the situation unfolded on television screens. Schools and other public spaces were put into lockdown. People were advised to stay home. Helicopters were overhead day and night.
Entering the city seemed the same as usual, it was only when out and about there was an edginess, a sense of looking over one’s shoulder, that was out of place. I stood on the historic Bridge of Remembrance and as police cars with their sirens blaring rushed past at full speed, a woman standing near me on the bridge looked white and shaken. I asked if she was all right. She replied: “I just don’t feel safe anymore. Anything can happen, first the earthquake, and then this …”
I don’t live in Christchurch or New Zealand any more, but in the ensuing days, I noticed the atmosphere was different. People were subdued. A woman in a shop serving me ducked behind the counter and hid when a car backfired outside. Fear of what the future holds. I’m not going to discuss the gunman, or his agenda. He deserves no words from me. I am just sad for my childhood home, my friends and family that remain, and the many families who lost loved ones in the tragic event.
My sister and I were silent as we walked past the many floral tributes, candles and messages of solidarity and condolences that lined the Botanic Gardens. I wept as I read them. An elderly woman nearby said this was the first time she had ventured out since it had happened, five days previous. She said she was too frightened.
The morning I flew out, bleary-eyed I bought a coffee at the airport to wake me up. Next to me were huge policemen, both holding machine guns. It was a sight I never thought I’d see in my hometown. I will not let what the evil of one man has done affect the love I have for the place of my birth. Christchurch will always retain a special place in my heart. Kiwis are a tough and resilient people. Optimistic, good humoured and generous, we are people who generally bounce back from adversity. And we will again.