Sunday, March 3, 2024

Christchurch attack survivor walking the shooter's path for peace

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On the eve of the third anniversary of the deadly mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, many will not mark the day due to Covid-19 restrictions and the spread of Omicron.

Both targets that came under attack – the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre – sit largely empty as the virus spreads in the community.

But one survivor is on a journey for peace, walking the literal path of the killer, for closure.

Temel Atacocugu, a Turkish man living in New Zealand for the past 13 years, was shot nine times at the Al Noor Mosque. He's had so many surgeries he has lost count, with more to come, and is still often in pain due to his wounds.

"Not only physically, but I'm in pain mentally and emotionally too," Atacocugu told Anadolu Agency. "I'm very sad this terror attack happened in New Zealand, and 51 lives were lost."

On March 15, 2019, the terrorist, Brenton Tarrant, who carried out the attacks, left his Dunedin home and drove to Christchurch to attack worshippers during Friday prayers.

The Australian national pleaded guilty to the murder of 51 worshippers, attempted murder of 40 others and one charge of terrorism. He was given the strongest penalty in New Zealand's modern history – life in prison, with no chance of parole.

Tarrant is being held in a high-security unit at the Auckland Prison.

Also read: Bravery awards for New Zealand mosque attack heroes

Atacocugu, 47, has now been retracing his steps, walking the path the killer took – to reclaim peace.

He left Dunedin a few weeks ago on a journey more than 350 kilometres to Christchurch's Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre.

"I was worried the first few days and had fear, thinking I would have abuse from people or verbal attack, racist attacks or physical harm," he said. "But that didn't happen. People were friendly and very supportive and very positive. It made me feel safe again in New Zealand."

He will finish his journey at the Al Noor Mosque at the exact time the killer walked in the door and opened fire.

"It is a big distance physically, especially when you have been shot nine times, five times in your legs," Atacocugu said. "Emotionally it's a mission impossible, and then finally, this hatred will be clean from this land tomorrow. It's a symbolic time."

He has been raising money for charity along the way and has almost reached $50,000 NZD ($34,000).

"Emotionally, I was thinking I had to do something against the hatred and clear the hatred from this land," Atacocugu said. "I have started a spark that is growing and I am able to support charities while I am walking – Gumboot Friday, Save the Children and Child Cancer Foundation."

Many New Zealanders believe the horror of that day has helped reduce Islamophobia, but say there are still pockets of anger and extremism in society. Atacocugu agrees.

"We have broken that Islamophobia in the last three years with people realising Muslims are not what they thought. Extremism is not acceptable and we won't tolerate that," he said.

But the pain from that day three years ago is deep and will take some time to heal. "We are heartbroken, but we are not broken."

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