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A restaurateur, a chef and the terror attack that changed everything.
One bullet ruined restaurateur Ahmed Jahangir’s health, another ended his chef’s career, and together they put six other staff out of work. Six months on from the Christchurch mosque shootings, Ahmed is fighting to reclaim his life and start serving authentic Hyderabadi dum biryani once more.
By Conan Young
Ahmed Jahangir has forgotten the alarm code for his restaurant, and is on the phone trying to find somebody who knows it.
Once he knew it by heart, punched it in almost every day, but this is only the second time he's been back to Bawarchi since 15 March.
It's Friday. The 36-year-old would normally be making sure Bawarchi (Hindi for chef), was ready for its busiest night of the week. A halal restaurant, Bawarchi quickly became a focal point for the Christchurch Muslim community in the 13 months it was open. "People used to stand in queues for food … the whole dining area used to be full, all the tables occupied," Ahmed says. “You won't believe it [but] we had a few clients who used to come here every day for a meal." He would look at the customers enjoying the fruits of his work, and feel proud.
Ahmed gets off the phone, enters the alarm code, and goes inside. Standing in the middle of the empty dining room, he remembers how his chef looked in full swing, how the waiters hurried to serve customers.
Remembering hurts. On 15 March, the restaurant’s seven staff were instantly put out of work, and the queues of people waiting for the only authentic Hyderabadi dum biryani in town vanished.
Worshippers at the Linwood mosque knew something was wrong when the Imam stopped the prayer, looked out the window, and announced that somebody was in the carpark shooting people.
Ahmed ran across the soft carpet from the male to the female prayer rooms and told the women to keep down and move to the corners.
The gunman was firing through the windows, but as the mosque's chairperson, Ahmed had always felt he should look after everyone, and on 15 March it was no different. "I thought, I'll just slowly sneak and see where exactly he is and how I can rescue everyone.” Ahmed emerged from behind a petition wall. “He was right in front of me and bang!"
Ahmed found himself on the ground, unable to get up. He had a wound in his shoulder and was losing a lot of blood. His mouth started filling with blood too. “I was spitting out all of the blood because I knew I should not intake that blood otherwise my lungs will get damaged."
Of the 80 people gathered in the modest weatherboard building, dozens were injured and seven were killed. The gunman had already been to the Al Noor mosque, a short drive away, and fatally shot 44 worshippers and injured many more.
As Ahmed lay on the ground, with intense pain in his right hand, the gunman ran out of ammunition, dropped his gun on the doorstep and ran to his car to get a second firearm. Worshipper Abdul Aziz ran after him, threw an eftpos machine towards him, and the gunman fled.
When emergency services arrived, Ahmed was loaded into an ambulance. "I didn't know whether I would be able to reach the hospital or not.” He kept asking, "How far are we from the hospital?" He didn’t want to close his eyes until he knew he had made it safely. His head was filled with horror and thoughts of his wife and kids.
In another ambulance, heading to the same hospital, was Barwachi’s chef, Mohammad Sahadat. He too had been shot.
Barwachi wouldn’t open tonight, or any time soon.
Tazeen Fatima had a fractured shoulder and was covered in cuts from broken glass, but the 33-year-old could only think of her children and her husband. She’d last seen her husband being loaded into an ambulance at the Linwood mosque. "I keep telling myself that nothing will happen, be calm, everything will be okay."
Ahmed and Fatima’s two boys - one at kindergarten, the other at primary school - were in lock down, as police tried to keep the city’s residents safe. Fatima was finally able to see them at 9:30pm. After checking they were okay, she headed straight to Christchurch Hospital for news of her husband. "I don't know whether the operation is done or not, [if] he's alive or not, I don't know anything, just I'm standing and praying."
She waited the whole night for news. Then at 6:30am it came: Ahmed's chest had been opened to clear blood from his lungs. He was in a lot of pain, but he was alive.
"He is not conscious, but he is listening. All the machines cover his face … that was a very horrible thing for me, that I see my husband like this, I never imagined before and I don't want to imagine afterwards."
The boys were desperate to see their father and Fatima reluctantly agreed. But she worried about how they would react to seeing the ventilator and other tubes emerging from him. "The older one was a bit upset and cried a lot. The younger one was very scared."
Fatima felt alone - and in some ways she was. There was no one from her family or her husband's family there - both live in India. "There was no moral support, nothing was there."
When Ahmed came out of his coma, four days after the attacks, he told Fatima she was brave and he was proud of her. And Fatima tried to be brave, reassuring him that, God willing, everything would be alright, everything would be like it was before.
But she knew what he faced. The doctors had told her the bullet had smashed Ahmed’s collar bone and destroyed a collection of nerves. A constellation of about 30 small pieces of shrapnel that remained in his shoulder couldn’t be removed. He needed many more operations and there was only a 50 percent chance he would regain use of his right hand.
Ahmed sits propped up in a chair, wearing a dressing gown and resting his injured arm on a pillow. It’s June and he’s back in hospital. His initial stay lasted eight weeks, his life dragging by in a blur of drugs, operations and flashbacks.
He’s just come out of another round of surgery. The temporary plate that was holding his collar bone together has been replaced with a graft using bone from his hip.
He’s on methadone, pregabalin, tramadol, paracetamol, temazepam and nortriptyline, and to control the side effects of these painkillers (constipation, involuntary jerking), he’s taking many other medicines. In total, he swallows 30 tablets a day.
He’s living in a fog of drowsiness, he says, and worries about the long-term impact on his kidneys, but he knows if he skips even one dose, the pain will become unbearable.
"Anything you live with in your life, you just get used to it [and] that is what's happening with me. Every day I learn how to manage the pain."
The nights are better than the days, because he can take high-dose sleeping pills and drift off. But then come the nightmares.
A SINGLE BULLET
‘This huge energy just goes boom into the soft tissues’
An x-ray of Ahmed's shoulder.
An x-ray of Ahmed's shoulder.
Gordon Beadel, head of orthopaedics for Canterbury and the West Coast, operated on Ahmed and 29 others who were shot in the Christchurch mosque attacks.
"I don't quite know how to describe the experience of seeing so many people with gunshot wounds. You never want to see that in your career ... so many people who had been shot [and] injured, their loved ones and friends killed in front of them … and their quietness."
The gunman used hollow point bullets designed, Beadel says, to do as much damage as possible.
"A bullet's just a tiny little thing, but when it's travelling at 1500 metres a second, that's a huge energy shock when it hits the body and so we have damage from the bullet fragments themselves, but there's almost a blast type injury, this huge energy just goes boom into the soft tissues and damages muscles, nerves, blood vessels."
They are tough injuries to fix. "We get just one attempt to fix nerves ... it can take up to two years for the nerve to re-grow [and] for us to know that we've got a good result.
"Nerve pain is a relentless burning, what we call neuropathic pain. It's very difficult to manage, no medications work particularly well. We hope the pain will be better but it's not always. It's a very major impact on patients."
Beadel was also working on 22 February 2011 when the magnitude 6.3 Canterbury earthquake struck, and hundreds were brought to hospital with crush injuries. He says March 15 felt very different. "The mosque shooting was no accident, this was a deliberate attack on lots of innocent people. Many of them have suffered horrendous injuries that will change their lives and affect them long term and their families."
The long shadows of a sunny mid-winter’s day stretch across Ahmed’s small back garden. A well-used trampoline is tucked into one corner, and a plastic ride-on car waits for its small owner to return home from preschool.
It’s July and inside, the three-bedroom house is full of activity. Ahmed's older brother, Mohammed, his wife and their children are visiting to lend a hand. They dropped everything at home in India and moved to Christchurch after the shootings. But shortly afterwards, Mohammed’s and Ahmed’s mother fell ill and Mohammed had to turn around and fly back.
Ahmed went with him. To make the journey, he had to swallow even more drugs than usual, but he insisted on going. His father died when he was six months old, leaving his mother to raise him and his 13 siblings. He credits her with the fact that all 14 of them are now well educated and well settled. It’s because of her that he came to New Zealand to study management, then stayed. It was also her, along with Ahmed’s sisters, who gave him a passion for cooking, who taught him to use spices to turn ordinary food into something special. “She's such a great personality, she's my hero actually."
Ahmed and Fatima are about to get ready for Friday prayers at the Mosque. He never misses a Friday, even though he can no longer get down on the floor to pray, but has to sit above the other worshippers in a chair. He looks drowsy. Staring off into the distance, his eyes well up with tears and he speaks quietly. "Unfortunately I can't do what I want to,” he says.
The pain in his hand is as bad as ever and the muscular jerks from the methadone are worsening. He’s struggling to be the father he wants to be.
Overcome with emotion, he stops talking. Fatima looks for tissues. Ahmed grabs one, dries his eyes and takes a deep breath. "I always thank God that at least I'm alive and I'm with them. It does bother me when I can't play with them and I can't cuddle them [but] it's a very big gift ... from Allah that he has still kept me alive."
In the decade they’ve been married, Fatima had never seen her husband cry until the shootings. “He's more sensitive now,” she says. Seeing how he has changed makes her feel “very bad and … very sad”.
But she’s staunch in front of Ahmed, and he’s full of praise for the role she has been forced to take on. "She's a very strong lady and I'm blessed with such a strong and caring and loving wife."
Fatima says their roles have reversed. "Before this incident he encouraged me, he supported me whenever I would become low, but now it's totally changed.
"Life has totally changed.”
FEAR AND FINANCES
‘We have already gone through so many things’
The bullet entered Bawarchi chef Mohammad Sahadat’s right hand, travelled all the way up his arm and broke his collar bone. The nerve damage cannot be repaired, and he has lost most of the strength in his arm. At 36, and having been a chef his whole career, doctors have told him to find a new profession.
The day he got out of hospital, his wife and four young children arrived from West Bengal, India, moving to New Zealand earlier than planned after the government made 15 March survivors, and by extension their immediate families, eligible for permanent residency.
But his Bawarchi wage is a thing of the past, so the six of them have been placed in sparsely-furnished temporary accommodation. It’s freezing, because Mohammad is reticent about switching on the heater after receiving a $400 power bill. His ACC payments are 60 percent of his chef’s wage, which only just covers the cost of food and rent.
As Mohammad is receiving ACC payments, the Ministry of Social Development is reluctant to extend him a grant for a washing machine, so his wife is washing their clothes by hand.
His children have settled into school, but he worries about their future. In a few months they have to move out of the temporary accommodation and he knows securing a Housing New Zealand home is difficult, especially as their permanent residency application has not yet been processed.
Mohammad has limited English, but Ahmed says his former employee lives in fear of another attack. At the mosque he struggles to concentrate on prayer, tuning into the sounds of cars passing, scared one will be driven by another gunman coming to attack.
His fear deepened after a teenage boy and a man bailed Mohammad and his wife up shortly after the attacks, asked if they were Muslims and threatened to kill them. Mohammad and his wife tried to ignore them, but the pair blocked their way and demanded money.
Another day, a teenager swore at them. Since then he has been scared to leave the house.
Ahmed is horrified. "I don't understand, how can they even think of doing things like this? They should just show mercy on them, people like him ... we have already gone through so many things … it's hard to accept the reality, but this is the reality." he says.
Still, Mohammad thanks God he survived the shooting. If he had been looking to the right instead of the left, the bullet would have exited his shoulder and hit him in the head.
The nightly mosque meetings of Ramadan are melting into memory and the worries of Ahmed’s injury and the still-closed restaurant are hanging over the family when the announcement comes: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman will pay for all of the mosque attack survivors to travel to Mecca to perform hajj. “We are the lucky ones,” Ahmed says to Fatima. “Allah is calling us to his house.”
Muslims must complete the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives if they are financially or physically capable.
Ahmed has already been, but Fatima hasn't, and can only go if she’s accompanied by her husband, a brother or a son. She’s worried about leaving her children for two weeks. And how will Ahmed cope? The hajj is a challenge even for the able bodied. They will be in the air for 36 hours, then comes a day of outdoor prayers in the stifling August heat, surrounded by 2.5 million other worshippers. Some people are trampled, some pass out.
But excitement is fizzing in Fatima too. "I have so many things to do there ... prayers and to convince Allah to give [us] a better life and keep us safe, not just us but every person in the world, with this incident especially."
Ahmed is resolute. “Once I'm back from hajj the things that I'm worrying about now will be easily solved ... I have that faith ... I have that positivity. I'm going to Allah's house and I'll pray not just for me, not just for my wife, not just for my kids, my family, but for each and every human being in this world and definitely Allah has to hear us."
The musky sweet smell of agar wood (the scent said to be favoured by the Prophet Muhammad) permeates the Mecca air and people press up against Ahmed and Fatima. It is 48°C.
They have flown for 36 hours, but that part of the journey is already forgotten. In Dubai, Ahmed donned the clothes all men performing hajj wear to show they have entered Ihram, or a sacred state, and to break down barriers and show they are all equal in the eyes of God. He wears sandals, and two sheets of unsewn white fabric - one on top and the other around his legs.
Ahmed and Fatima dropped their bags at their hotel and boarded a bus to Mecca. And now here they are, with so many others, circling Kaaba seven times in a counter-clockwise direction. This distinctive, black granite cube is the place Muslims the world over face toward every time they pray.
Fatima touches the black stone - pilgrims do this to have their sins absolved - and finds peace. "When I touched it and prayed, what I felt was that everything would be alright, everything. Allah is there and everything will be alright."
They both forget everything and leave happy, the scent of agar wood lingering on their clothes.
Ahmed has slept for most of the past few days. The pain was so bad he upped his dose of painkillers, and they knocked him out.
In a few weeks, he’ll have more surgery. Doctors will transplant nerves from another part of his body to his damaged arm, in an effort to ease his pain.
But now he’s up and about, at Bawarchi, surveying the restaurant. The closed sign has been up for nearly six months, but he is determined to tear it down, and throw open the doors. He has a plan: He’s trying to get Immigration New Zealand approval to bring two new chefs over from Hyderabad.
He dreams of re-employing the staff who lost their jobs on 15 March and still haven’t found other work, and feels that if he can open Bawarchi’s doors again it will help him to heal. "I'm eagerly waiting for this place to start running again. That would be the happiest moment of my life.”
Reporter Conan Young
Editors Philippa Tolley and Veronica Schmidt
Photographer Simon Rogers
Additional photographs Getty and AFP
Graphic designer Scott Austin