A benign city, where nothing much seemed to happen, a place of harmony where the rhythm is measured in rugby matches, and where collective grief was unknown.
That’s roughly how I’d described my hometown of Christchurch after returning there a few days after the 2011 earthquake that claimed almost 200 victims and shattered the lives and nerves of many thousand more.
I’d gone back to check on family and friends, and offer what help I could. It felt, though, like returning to a foreign country. The side of town where I grew up was broken and flattened, hulking military vehicles plied the streets as if in a war zone, usually laid-back locals were on edge and in shock. And the city was bathed in an uncharacteristic miasma of grief.
And over and over, bewildered Kiwis all shook their heads saying the same thing: “But, it was never meant to happen here.” And it wasn’t. Wellington was where the big one was always “going to hit”.
Eight years later, almost to the day, Christchurch finds itself repeating that same thing.
Never. Meant. To. Happen. Here.
This ‘benign’ place of peace and harmony was thrust into the global spotlight for the most grotesque of reasons – a mass slaughter in a place of worship, so horrific it defies belief or comprehension.
Today, as they were in 2011, people are bewildered and grieving.
— Turene (@turenej) March 15, 2019
But in 2019, there is one difference.
An earthquake is an act of God. You can, to some extent, make sense of it, accept it with a sense of fatalism and acknowledging of nature’s indiscriminate fury.
The massacre of innocents by a human boiling with hate and evil in this modest little city perched on the edge of the world, you cannot accept that, nor make any sense of it.
It cannot be explained away as fate or destiny or incidental. It is deliberate, calculated and fuelled by the ugliest of human impulses.
So, this time around, people aren’t just bewildered and grieving – they’re angry, too. And it all came at a time when, after years of aftershocks and uncertainty, it felt like the city was finally getting its spirit and vibe back.
Friends and family can say little, except to ask why? Why in our inconspicuous little city, neither an epicentre of the Muslim faith, nor a hotbed of nationalist extremism?
But, as others have speculated, perhaps Christchurch was singled out for that very reason – to prove that random violence against religion and race, can strike, literally, anywhere, in benign places of little note.
It is not confined to large melting pots like Boston or New York, to Paris or Madrid. It can also happen in provincial cities far from the madding world and can have – as we’ve witnessed – an arguably bigger impact in a smaller community.
Certainly, much of the world seems to be scratching its head that an attack of this magnitude and evil could happen in a place as inconspicuous and far-flung as Christchurch.
Like all Kiwis, I am heartbroken for the victims and their loved ones, I am heartbroken that such hatred could reside in my country – in my hometown. I am heartbroken, too, that this happy, peaceful little city will forever be tainted by the stamp of this attack. Because that is not Christchurch.
As a good friend at home pointed out, the aftermath of the earthquake felt real and visceral. The rubble was all around us, the landmarks of our childhood all bent and buckled, piles of sand thrust up from the earth. As awful as it was, it was somehow all more comprehensible. And people could help in tangible ways, by cleaning up, shovelling sand or making meals for those affected.
The mosque attack is different and has hit the city with such force, unleashing a community-wide grief unlike any other. Numb is the word that keeps coming up.
The attack, some say, feels invisible and surreal, leaving locals struggling to know how they can possibly help, how to heal the wounds. Because the fight against hate and prejudice is a slow burn, a journey of a thousand miles.
But if anywhere can take that journey with patience and compassion, I reckon a city that’s lived through five years of earthquakes probably can.