Families of Christchurch dead in agonizing wait for burials

Massacre toll rises to 50

Families of Christchurch dead in agonizing wait for burials
Mourners lay flowers on a wall at the Botanical Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, Sunday, March 17, 2019. (Source: AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — Families of the 50 people killed in the Christchurch mosque shootings are enduring an increasingly agonizing wait for the bodies of victims to be released as New Zealand reels from the unprecedented tragedy.

Three days after Friday's attack, New Zealand's deadliest shooting in modern history, relatives were anxiously waiting for word on when they can bury their loved ones. Islamic tradition calls for bodies to be cleansed and buried as soon as possible after death, usually within 24 hours.

Aya Al-Umari, whose older brother Hussien Al-Umari died at the Al Noor mosque, wept as she talked about a kind man, a quintessential big brother who delighted in teasing his little sister.

On Monday, the family was still waiting for the release of Hussein's body. They have tried to be patient, and understand that police have a job to do, but they are growing weary of the lack of information.

"It's very unsettling not knowing what's going on, if you just let me know — is he still in the mosque? Is he in a fridge? Where is he?" Aya said. "I understand the police need to do their job because it's a crime scene, but you need to communicate with the families."

On Monday morning members of the Muslim community and police were at a cemetery which has been fenced off and obscured with white netting. Backhoes had stopped digging and police officers said they were setting up a media area inside the cemetery.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said authorities hoped to release all the bodies by Wednesday, and Police Commissioner Mike Bush said authorities were working with pathologists and coroners to complete the task as soon as they could.

The suspect in the shootings, 28-year-old white supremacist Brenton Harrison Tarrant, appeared in court the day after the shootings amid strict security, shackled and wearing all-white prison garb.

He showed no emotion when the judge read one murder charge and said more charges would likely follow. The New Zealand Herald reported Monday that he had dismissed his appointed lawyer and plans to defend himself.

Tarrant had posted a muddled, 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto online before the attacks and apparently used a helmet-mounted camera to broadcast live video of the slaughter.

Facebook said it removed 1.5 million videos of the shootings during the first 24 hours after the massacre. The revelation in a tweet provided a chilling snapshot of how quickly provocative and often disturbing images circulate on the internet.

Thousands of people struggling to make sense of the tragedy have paid tribute to the victims at makeshift memorials in Christchurch, a leafy city of 400,000 people known for its English heritage and the river that meanders through it.

Hundreds of flowers were piled up amid candles, balloons and notes of grief and love outside the Al Noor mosque and the city's botanic gardens.

"We are a nation who will never accept acts like this!!!," said a poster-sized message decorated with hearts attached to the iron fence of the botanic gardens. "We stand with the Muslim community. We will always fight for the safety of our community. We will always stand as one."

Some people sang tributes and others prayed as camera crews from around the world filmed the moving scenes.

“We are supposed to be a safe place to go about your business and regardless of what your faith is no one should’ve had to go through what we went through on Friday,” said city resident Russell Falcome-Price.

Copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved.