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The heartbreaking moment New Zealand was put on the map


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A week before the Christchurch terror attack, I’d been in touch with American friends in LA. We hadn’t exchanged emails for a long time, so there was family news to catch up on: a new grandchild there, a son’s latest escapades here. David wrote despairingly of US politics and joked about planning their escape to New Zealand if Trump was re-elected and we hadn’t started building a wall.

Politically, I had nothing much to report, as usual. I mentioned we had a young female prime minister, of whom many of us were rather proud. I wrote there was no need for the great South Pacific wall as we’d been left off the world map – again. This latest cartographic indignity had been sparked by Ikea, after the global furniture chain announced it was scoping its first mega-store in Auckland. Someone had noticed a framed world map for sale at its store in Washington DC that didn’t include New Zealand, let alone Auckland. I told David I rather liked being left off the map.

Seven days later, I sent him a sorrowful postscript. New Zealand was suddenly, heartbreakingly on the map. The Christchurch terrorist’s deadly, hate-fuelled rampage was leading news bulletins from London to Sydney. Our office had recently installed overhead TV screens. The one above our desks had been tuned to the BBC News feed and for the first couple of weeks in March, the wide screen delivered a steady diet of Brexit, Trump, wild world weather and football upsets. I figured New Zealand would warrant a mention around Rugby World Cup time. I so wish I’d been right. Instead, on the afternoon of 15 March, everything changed, and the flickering words and images above us reflected our country’s new, deeply unwelcome place in the world.

By the following Monday, the BBC news-roll showed familiar streets around Hagley Park knee-high in flowers, a headline read “Thank you for your tears, your love”; the face of our young, female prime minister was captured, etched in sadness. By then, of Jacinda Ardern, we were all rather proud.

A friend of North & South, a Kiwi who’s lived in the US for most of his adult life, emailed me. “What can I say?” read the subject line. All he could do was add his voice to those of expats everywhere confronting this unspeakable horror back home. He also noted that, proportionally, our 3/15 loss was almost identical to 9/11. This event would percolate through New Zealand society for years to come, he wrote. But here, it was New Zealand’s small Muslim population that was targeted; proportionally for them it’s a loss of the worst civil-war magnitude. Everyone in their community knew someone who was killed or injured in Christchurch. Some of them had fled war zones for the peace and safety of these last, loneliest islands.

Every right-thinking New Zealander grieves for them – while hoping 3/15 makes us a kinder, more tolerant people. I hope, too, that Ardern’s government holds firm to its commitment to rid the country of military-style assault weapons. I hope we all work together to stamp out hate speech, while continuing to champion free speech – and to know the difference.

Read more: Guns aren't a cornerstone of democracy, but free speech is

Here in the office, I hope the BBC feed returns to Westminster’s latest woes, Washington’s swamp and the weather. I want New Zealand restored to its rightful place, with the occasional reference to an All Blacks triumph, Lorde, Rocket Lab, another Shrek the sheep excitement… And maybe a headline on our prime minister, back at the United Nations addressing the National Assembly, even more assured in her message about the “simplicity of peace, prosperity, fairness” – of the power of “kindness over fear”.

The North & South team sends its condolences to New Zealand’s Muslim community; for further reflections on the tragedy by deputy editor Joanna Wane, senior writer Mike White, art director Jenny Nicholls and photographer Ken Downie, see the latest issue of North & South.

This editorial was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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