Direct impacts of the terrorist attack
Affected whānau, survivors and witnesses who had lost loved ones told us how the terrorist attack had affected them.1 Survivors who suffered physical injuries as a result of the terrorist attack, including from trying to escape, told us about the often slow progress of their recovery. Some suffered severe injuries, both mental and physical, that will have lifelong impacts.
We heard from people who had undergone multiple surgeries as part of their physical recovery but had not fully healed. Some survivors will never regain the full use of limbs. People are living with ongoing pain and numbness from bullet fragments that remain in their bodies. Some survivors require fulltime care and purpose-built facilities in their homes to help them live with their injuries.
On that day, I was shot in my right upper leg with the shrapnel travelling to my liver, causing further damage and it is still inside me. I was recently experiencing pain in my stomach … The surgeons told me the shrapnel has moved from its initial place, to the muscle. They let me know that if it moved towards the stomach, they would have to consider taking it out, but at this stage it is safe to be inside [me].
Most survivors could not return to work immediately, and some had to change vocation because of their injuries. While many survivors reported that their employers were supportive, giving them ample time off to recover, some people lost their jobs because they could no longer perform their tasks. A few survivors lost their businesses.
We heard from affected whānau about the impacts in the hours and days immediately after the terror attack. We were told about the challenges people faced in being able to track down their loved ones.
An acquaintance of my parents said that she had seen [my brother] in operating theatre. …Mum and Dad rushed to the hospital with this news and after waiting outside Al-Noor Mosque for four hours, they then proceeded to wait at the Christchurch Hospital for another six hours. After this, they found out that the person my parents were waiting for, patient number 13, was not at all [my brother.] They were finally told my brother was unaccounted for.
Many affected whānau, survivors and witnesses who we met with felt that both the victim identification process and the process for identifying people being treated in hospital caused them additional and unnecessary grief. Some people said they received conflicting and inconsistent information from New Zealand Police and hospital staff in the first 24 hours after the terrorist attack. In one case, a whānau member who had witnessed their loved one being killed was told by New Zealand Police and hospital staff not to lose hope and that their loved one could be being treated in another hospital. This false hope caused considerable additional grief.
People we met with were frustrated about how long it took for their deceased loved ones to be moved from the scene, and for their loved ones to be formally identified as deceased. In one case, we were told by a close whānau member of reading about the death of their loved one in a newspaper article without being informed by New Zealand Police beforehand.
Some affected whānau were also frustrated that they were not permitted to go inside the New Zealand Police cordon at the scene to search for their loved ones. We were told that some watched the video of the attack live stream by the individual in order to determine whether their loved ones had been killed or whether they might be able to find them at the hospital.
Between the lack of information, communication, and access to the mosque and their loved ones, and the refusal by police to allow medical staff to enter the premises for hours, victims are resigned to remembering the incident as a display of callous neglect and carelessness.
People were also frustrated about how long it took for people being treated in hospital to be identified. They questioned whether inexperience and lack of understanding about traditional Muslim naming conventions, and variations in how Muslim names are spelt may have contributed to these delays. This also led to confusion for whānau members who were trying to find their loved ones and understand what had happened to them.
Everyone we met with, whether they were affected whānau, a survivor or witness of the terrorist attack, had experienced some form of psychological distress, such as anger, fear, stress, depression, anxiety, paranoia and/or survivor’s guilt. Many people had received, or were still receiving, counselling or other psychological support and wanted it to be ongoing support. Some people said their spouses and children had also experienced psychological distress.
Many affected whānau, survivors and witnesses we spoke to have difficulty sleeping for reasons that include fears of the dreams they might have or of being vulnerable while they sleep. The experience of seeing people in their last moments of life was haunting. We heard many examples of gruesome nightmares and visions that survivors are experiencing on a regular basis, and were told:
…it’s better to stay awake, talking to people rather than sleep and have nightmares.
We heard from the parents of children who survived the terrorist attack, often because they were able to escape the masjidain, who have not been the same since. Some children have displayed behavioural changes, do not want to attend school or continue to be traumatised by loud sounds. One parent told us that they felt like they had lost their child, despite their child having physically survived the terrorist attack.
Some expressed concern to us about the longer-term effects on children, commenting that they may carry anger about what has happened. We were told that it will be important to engage with Muslim children in Christchurch, providing practical support to them in their longer-term recovery from the terrorist attack.
We were told that some witnesses to the terrorist attack who did not suffer physical injuries were not provided with support until third-party advocates stepped in to help. Others who have tried to access support have been told they are not eligible and/or are not classified by Public sector agencies or non-government organisations as victims of the terrorist attack. We heard from a number of people about discrepancies in who qualified for different types of support, an issue that we discuss further below.
Affected whānau, survivors and witnesses shared with us a range of secondary impacts that have significantly affected their lives. Some people’s relationships (with spouses, whānau and friends) had been affected. This resulted from issues such as different views within a whānau about distributing the financial support provided by government or the toll that supporting loved ones was taking. It was common for whānau to come from overseas to support loved ones who had survived the terrorist attack. This could have adverse consequences and we heard that it:
…can be detrimental to family members who have successful careers and a stable, flourishing life overseas. In [New Zealand] their qualifications and work experiences will likely not be recognised and in the longer term this places undue stress and pressure on an already vulnerable family unit.
For many of the whānau we met, the husband had been killed or severely injured. For some of the women in these whānau, the consequences went beyond the harrowing emotional impact of the terrorist attack. For many, this meant the loss of the main earner for the whānau. Some women are taking on new roles within the whānau and learning new skills such as driving or financial literacy. Simultaneously, these women are carrying more of the parenting responsibilities, while dealing with their own grief and recovery needs. This limits their time and ability to seek support for themselves and to find paid employment or study.
A few people suffered other deaths or illness in their immediate whānau very soon after 15 March 2019, which they attributed to the impacts of the terrorist attack. We heard from a whānau in which two loved ones suffered heart attacks in the months after 15 March 2019, one of which was fatal. In both instances, the whānau attributed the heart attack to the stress caused by the aftermath of the terrorist attack. Another survivor lost her husband as a result of a car accident in the days after 15 March 2019. She spoke of the trauma he had been experiencing because his friends were killed in the terrorist attack, which for him led to sleep deprivation. The resulting exhaustion and tiredness is thought to have contributed to his car accident.
Support from wider New Zealand communities
Some people reported feeling encouraged by support from non-Muslim New Zealanders. Many spoke of the goodwill they had seen and/or received from people across the country after the terrorist attack. There was a sense that this presented an opportunity to improve social cohesion, unity and interconnectedness between communities.
We heard gratitude for the support shown by friends and neighbours, and one whānau said this provided the encouragement they needed to stay in New Zealand at a time when they were considering moving after the terrorist attack. There was hope that the support shown by New Zealanders would continue, and not be forgotten, as time passed.
Getting the right support from Public sector agencies is challenging
Alongside the accounts of gratitude for the general empathy and support from New Zealanders, we heard many frustrations relating to affected whānau, survivors and witnesses’ experiences in dealing with Public sector agencies for support. Common themes were a lack of cultural understanding, a perceived lack of effort to improve cultural capability and policies and practices that were not pragmatic enough to support people’s recovery needs from this particular, albeit extraordinary, event.
Lack of cultural understanding
Many people we heard from noted the general lack of cultural understanding of staff in Public sector agencies about Muslim communities’ beliefs and customs.
Victim families have been offered services that are transactional, short-term and relatively short-sighted. There has been no deliberate undertaking to understand how the victim community functions, nor to recognise its complexities and the emotional experiences and memory embedded in its story.
We were told that these gaps were not acknowledged and few, if any, efforts have been made by relevant Public sector agencies to address them.
Instead of stepping up to the challenge to improve services and undertake cultural and religious competency training, agencies are either not undertaking any training or relying on people within the Muslim community who have no expertise in the area of ethnic and religious competency training to guide them, in a token gesture to show they are being responsive.
We heard that the services and support being offered by Public sector agencies and non-government organisations often do not appropriately acknowledge the diverse nature of Muslim communities and therefore do not account for different needs. Over 50 countries are represented among those who attend Masjid an-Nur and the Linwood Islamic Centre. There are language and cultural barriers that, we have been told, add to the already complex environment of engaging with Public sector agencies. We heard that:
…going on a year post the attacks, families are still waiting for adequate wrap around services that are culturally and linguistically responsive and which fully addresses their complex needs.
Some whānau felt there was an absence of genuine engagement to understand their needs; cultural, physical, psychological wellbeing and otherwise. As a result, they felt the way Public sector agencies provided recovery support was not always best practice and they were left with a perception that the Public sector was discriminating against them.
Meetings set up by Public sector agencies sometimes did not have interpreters present or relevant languages were not offered. We were also told that this was the case for some affected whānau, survivors and witnesses when they were interviewed by New Zealand Police during their investigation of the terrorist attack. Affected whānau, survivors and witnesses needed to rely on whānau members to interpret police questions. We were told this exacerbated trauma for affected whānau, survivors and witnesses and their whānau members who were interpreting for them.
We were also told the lack of appropriate interpretation compounded the challenges some people faced in understanding what support options were available to them and how to access them. In some cases, it meant that people were relying on whānau members to translate for them what Public sector agencies were saying, and we were told of instances where some felt their whānau member was not impartial or may not have been passing on all relevant information.
We also heard from many affected whānau, survivors and witnesses that we met with about the challenges in getting new entry visas or visas extended for whānau members who had come to New Zealand to help them while they were getting their lives back together. For example, women who had lost their husbands and only had whānau based overseas, found their whānau were generally offered short-term visas to come to New Zealand to support them. This did not align with their longer-term need for support from whānau in their recovery.
People were also concerned about the requirement for someone to have been in New Zealand on 15 March 2019 to be eligible for the discretionary visa that the Government had put in place for support people. Some expressed their frustration that allowances were not being made in what were exceptional circumstances.
Policies and practices not pragmatic enough to support recovery needs
We have heard much about how Public sector agencies have been engaging with affected whānau, survivors and witnesses. While people commented on the overall generous support from the public and Public sector agencies in the direct aftermath of the terrorist attack, we were also told that Public sector agencies have been uncoordinated and inflexible.
In hearing from some affected whānau, survivors and witnesses we learned of experiences in their recovery that have been re-traumatising and/or have caused additional stress. We were told that:
…if trauma speaks to one’s inability to speak; the inability to articulate, come to terms with, and make sense of loss, then in many ways subsequent experiences with government agencies in the months since the attacks have been for many a concerted process of re-traumatisation, since they have perpetuated the survivors’ inability to recover.
We heard that the way Public sector agencies have dealt with affected whānau, survivors and witnesses of the terrorist attack has made people feel disempowered and added to the difficulties they face.
Presently, a large number of victims feel aggrieved and hampered by their own individual day to day survival, whether financially or emotionally. This is due to the disempowering way services are being provided and the absence of long-term rebuilding or restoration – an absence of both material support for community rebuilding and of support that addresses the sentiments of the attacker through information or awareness about their faith and community.
We were told that the purpose of victim impact statements was not explained to affected whānau, survivors and witnesses adequately. Many told us that they required language support but the Ministry of Justice courts staff did not provide interpreters to help them through the process in advance of the sentencing. This led to some affected whānau, survivors and witnesses not engaging in the process. One person we spoke to told us that the process initially led them to focus on the negative impacts of the terrorist attack on them, which was not empowering. The statement they eventually made in court was instead an empowering one, which was not based on the standard form provided to them.
Some affected whānau, survivors and witnesses were confused about the distinction between victim impact statements and the initial statements that they provided to New Zealand Police during the police investigation of the terrorist attack.
Lack of coordination between Public sector agencies
Multiple Public sector agencies are involved in supporting the recovery of those who survived the terrorist attack or who lost loved ones. Affected whānau, survivors and witnesses who had dealt with these agencies, in particular the Accident Compensation Corporation, the Ministry of Social Development, and Victim Support, spoke to us of overlaps in their support and services, as well as gaps, and a lack of coordination between agencies.
The lack of care is compounded by a lack of coordination. It is not just one or two meetings, or one or two agencies, but all of them, and at the same time.
This added to the stress felt by affected whānau, survivors and witnesses as they often had to repeat their difficult story numerous times, and some continue to need to do this more than 18 months on from the terrorist attack.
Difficulties in dealing with the multiple Public sector agencies were exacerbated by the lack of information sharing between the relevant agencies, and a perceived reluctance to find pragmatic solutions to address the extraordinary needs being presented.
Agencies work in silo and refuse to share information with each other, forcing victims to deal with several different people within the same agency. It has become clear that government agencies use the Privacy Act 1993 as a means to not share information with each other.
Some suggested it would have been better for affected whānau, survivors and witnesses to have dealt with a single Public sector agency.
We were told that these challenges were often greater for former refugee and migrant whānau, survivors and witnesses.
These communities are less able to navigate the current maze of [Public] sector agencies or understand the institutional barriers that exist for individuals engaging with the government, including the plethora of policies they have cited for different entitlements as victims.
Combined with the lack of cultural understanding discussed above, some felt that the support provided was not best-suited to the needs of these former refugee and migrant whānau, survivors and witnesses.
A frequently expressed concern was that Public sector agencies and non-government organisations do not have a common definition or eligibility criteria for those who identify as victims, and do not account for cultural dynamics. For example, while the Victims’ Rights Act 2002 definition of immediate family includes “other culturally recognised family group”,2 eligibility for support often involved a stricter interpretation of family.
The western concept of the nuclear family is accepted by agencies and most do not accept a culturally appropriate and recognised family grouping.
We were told of the impact Public sector agencies’ interpretations of family had on people’s ability to access government support services, particularly in terms of confusion and inconsistency in support services offered. All of this resulted in medical, psychological and employment issues for some whānau who were already in a vulnerable position before the terrorist attack.
We also heard of inconsistent application of the criteria for those who identify as victims. Specifically, we were told that the level of support offered sometimes differs depending on the individual Public sector employee offering it and that some people have received different services while having similar impairments. This has created a perception for some that Public sector agencies and non-government organisations are creating a victim hierarchy or a priority list of victims, in some cases causing grievances and straining relationships.
Some affected whānau, survivors and witnesses say there is a disconnect between what Ministers have promised publicly and the reality of how Public sector agency staff are dealing with individual situations. We were told of Public sector agencies promising assistance and then not following through, often without providing sufficient explanation as to why. Requests for assistance were declined at times without affected whānau, survivors and witnesses having an opportunity to supply more information or with no explanation of why the decision to decline was made.
Lack of flexibility in approach
While many people expressed gratitude for the support they received, we have heard that in some cases the government support available to those affected by the terrorist attack is not sufficient, or those who are eligible for it are not always made aware of their entitlements. A concern expressed to us was that a Public sector “one size fits all” approach to recovery had been applied and was not sufficient.
Although these agencies are well-meaning, victims report a diversity of challenges: financial, medical, physical, emotional and spiritual. … The recurring message in victim reports is that the government is not well-organised to understand and address their needs.
We heard that most of the support being offered by Public sector agencies is focused on short-term assistance, which does not account, in a culturally appropriate way, for the ongoing and long-term needs of the communities deeply affected by the terrorist attack. For example, we were told that recovery needed to include long-term community-building initiatives that will enable these communities to be self-sufficient and not dependent on the government. This could include initiatives such as interest-free loans (that account for religious restrictions on interest) to support their businesses, rather than those businesses needing to rely on short-term financial assistance from Public sector agencies.
A few people felt that the Accident Compensation Corporation did not have enough flexibility in its systems for an event such as this, and it was not taking account of the complications caused by firearm injuries, such as retained bullet fragments and nerve damage. For example, one survivor was frustrated by the disconnect between Accident Compensation Corporation expectations and the medical advice they received about their recovery. The survivor felt pressured to return to work by the Accident Compensation Corporation despite medical advice that they were unable to do so.
Similar sentiments were shared about other Public sector agencies. For example, some women whose husbands had been the only income earner said they felt pressured by the Ministry of Social Development to place their preschool children in care so they could look for work.
We heard of the need for immigration issues to be considered on a case-by-case basis given the complexities associated with the circumstances of each individual whānau. This was particularly an issue for members of the Somali community who had lost loved ones or had survived the terrorist attack. We heard that despite the immigration measures that were put in place to support those most affected by the terrorist attack, Somali whānau faced particular challenges, which they attribute to New Zealand not recognising the Somali passport as a valid travel document (although it is accepted by some Public sector agencies for refugee purposes). This made it difficult for them to receive whānau support from Somalia, and in some cases whānau are still waiting for progress to be made.
Some suggested that Immigration New Zealand could create a special entry visa for whānau to travel in and out of New Zealand for support purposes on a medium to long-term basis, to reduce the administrative burdens on grieving people.
We were also told of the deficiencies in support available to affected whānau, survivors and witnesses related to the criminal justice system. This was described as the:
…deep widespread trauma in being excluded from the criminal process and being unable to have input into or feel any meaningful participation in this process.
We heard of disillusionment and a loss of hope and trust largely due to the lack of acknowledgement of victims in the criminal justice process, and the feeling that they are not being heard. The issues and concerns that affected whānau, survivors and witnesses have had in this specific case were seen by some to be a demonstration of the issues that victims face more broadly in New Zealand’s criminal justice system. There were complaints of a disconnect between the principles of victims’ rights as set out in the Victims Code,2 and victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system including re-traumatisation.
Some affected whānau, survivors and witnesses told us they felt intimidated when they attended court on one occasion, because a person stood outside the courts expressing white supremacist views as whānau and survivors entered the court.
Some people told us that when recovery needs have been considered, Public sector agencies do not account for the recovery needs of those who witnessed the terrorist attack but were not physically injured in any way. We have heard of the post-traumatic stress being suffered by many of these witnesses, and they feel that they are receiving inadequate support as they do not fit the Public sector agencies’ definition of victims.
Lack of staff awareness
Some people felt there was a lack of sensitivity and awareness from Public sector agencies of those they were meant to be supporting and that they seemed inexperienced in dealing with people coping with trauma. We were told of:
…the need for agencies and organisations to be more “aware of the emotional needs” of the victims.
This became apparent to some affected whānau, survivors and witnesses when they met with Public sector agencies and felt staff were not responsive if they or their whānau were visibly overwhelmed. Some people were provided with an overload of information at times when they were not able to process it properly:
…where there should be active listening, there is a deluge of information; where there should be advocacy there are endless meetings.
This led some to question whether Public sector agency staff were appropriately trained or supported to deal with traumatised people.