It could have been mistaken for a graduation ceremony.
Proud parents, welcome hugs, long embraces. Small groups standing around chatting, laughing. Mewling infants hoisted onto shoulders.
But take a closer look. The bursts of laughter are cut off short. Sudden tears wiped away.
Many people hobbling on crutches, bandages over recent surgeries, latest rounds of treatment. Deep shrapnel setting off the security wands, overseen by troops of armed police.
Holding a March 15, 2019 Christchurch terror attacks anniversary memorial event was not a consensus decision.
Many families, gunshot victims, survivors recoiled at reliving the tragedy which, two years on, haunts them every day.
Some preferred to mark it silently during Friday prayer at Al Noor and Linwood mosques – the scenes of New Zealand’s worst mass shooting.
Others, like New Zealand’s most prominent Muslim Sonny Bill Williams, say they remember the fallen every day. As Muslims, they pray five times a day and the fallen are always in their thoughts.
But for those who attended yesterday’s “We are one” national remembrance service in Christchurch – about 700 victims and families, dignitaries including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and about 150 members of the public, it felt like the right thing to do.
“Two years have passed by, we gather here to remember the 51 beautiful souls,” said Kiran Munir whose husband Haroon Mahmood was killed in the attack.
The grief and pain filled the cavernous Christchurch Arena.
“The ripples of sorrow and grief we endure may never subside – but we have faith,” said a stoic Maha Elmadani whose beloved “baba” Ali Elmadani was also murdered two years ago tomorrow.
Those who died in the attacks had their names read aloud while their photographs filled a big screen.
They were wearing All Blacks jerseys and caps, posing for happy holiday snaps and described as loving fathers, mothers, sons, daughters. Children. Filial. Pious. Humble. Loving. Loved.
Survivor Temel Atacocugu – who was shot nine times on the day – broke down recalling the bloody aftermath of the massacre at Al Noor.
He described how a man sat beside him cradling his small son.
“The paramedics told him that his son was dead … there was nothing they could do for him,” Atacocugu said, breaking down in tears.
“Suddenly my own pain felt insignificant, my heart wept for them.
“I still go to Al Noor each week for prayers and I see that father with a big smile on his face – he is a remarkable man.”
Members of the public also wept as he spoke, offering tissues and cuddles of comfort.
“We grieve for you all, we cry,” said Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy who also acknowledged the survivors, the wounded, those who bore witness, first responders and the two police officers who prevented the gunman taking any more lives when they arrested him.
“There can be no us and them, there can only be we – together we shine a light into the darkness, together our children learn that kindness and decency … are not the monopoly of any ethnicity.”
After the 90-minute service, they walked out holding hands, colourful headscarves fluttering in the blustery easterly, which brought sounds from the neighbouring Crusaders rugby home stadium.
With heads high, they felt better, at least momentarily, for having shared their painful memories and grief with others who know exactly how tough the past two years have been, and how tough the future is going to be.
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