Christchurch haka
Students perform the haka at the Al Noor Mosque on Monday. (Image: AP/Vincent Thian)

Last night, at dusk, I watched a mass haka performed beside the Al Noor Mosque. And in that moment the gap between where I live, Australia, and where I am from, New Zealand, felt like it couldn’t be wider.

The haka itself was the rolling kind. After the first one, a smaller group of teens in school uniform got even closer, up against crime scene tape blocking us from the mosque, and started to perform a second haka the moment the first finished.

We could hear the teenagers saying “don’t film us” so we stood back and, as they started their haka, dozens of people from the first rushed past to join in. Caught between the two groups, it was a challenge to keep standing — the same feeling you get when you’re hit by a wave — but strangers’ hands steadied me on their way past.

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The NZ anthem and other Māori songs were sung throughout the evening, but that rolling haka was the most emotionally raw moment for me since arriving in Christchurch last weekend. It’s impossible to not get swept up in it all, even if you have a foot trapped in each world across the Tasman.

Look, it’s been a big week. Before I left for NZ, I was working on a story about the first birthday of Isabella — the baby who has spent her whole life in a Melbourne immigration detention centre. Now, it feels like there are too many stories to tell.

There was our Uber driver. He picked up a woman from the hospital whose husband and son had been shot. She had spent all night beside them. She was alone, so he gave her his business card and told her to call if she needs anything at all. He’s still terribly worried about her. We sit with him for another five minutes outside our accommodation because he seems upset.

There is the young man who quietly reveals he had been at the mosque when the shooting started. He downplays his survival and experience so comprehensively that we can’t stop thinking about him.

A social worker from one of the poorest schools in the city tells me how he talked down parents who were trying to hammer their way through glass doors to get their kids during Friday’s lockdown. He wasn’t allowed to let them in, and stood beside them for as long as he could.

Then we attend a press conference with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She thanks the first responders to last week’s terror event. Ardern makes it clear she had wanted to meet these staff out of sight of the media. “I am so sorry, I had wanted this to happen somewhere quiet with a plate of lamingtons”. She moves quickly to get them into a side room.

I feel a tap on my shoulder. An old friend has managed to get there from the UK and we haven’t seen each other in 14 years. We hold on to each other like we are standing on a boat in a storm. Multiple outlets prepare to go live.

The world is watching as the NZ PM announces there will be a two-minute silence tomorrow to mark a week since the terror attack. The call to prayer will be broadcast live on both national radio and television channels.

We see Waleed Aly and chat briefly. I don’t ask him if Scott Morrison is still threatening to sue him because I can’t actually get my head around how to bring it up.

Then I see an alert on my phone: a message from a Muslim man, an asylum seeker I will call “L”, who has been held in various Australian detention centres since 2012. A week before the attack, L had asked me if it was true that NZ didn’t have detention centres. I confirmed it was true. An uncomfortable silence followed — at least, it was uncomfortable for me.

When L found out about the Christchurch attack, he sent me a series of emojis: praying hands, a heart and a crying face. When L found out about Fraser Anning’s encounter last weekend two new emojis appeared: an egg and a laughing face.

After the presser, many of us receive another alert: Morrison is going live to announce cuts to migration in Australia. There are quiet groans in certain corners.

The cognitive dissonance between Ardern’s steely and controlled compassion towards the victims — some of whom were refugees and recent immigrants — and Morrison’s continual tsunami of fear-mongering on asylum seekers and refugees has rendered me almost speechless. Almost.

Crikey has two reporters on the ground in Christchurch this week. Read more of their coverage here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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