I was shot nine times in the Christchurch massacre – now I claim the terrorist’s journey | Temel Ataçocugu

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ILast year, during the commemoration of the terrorist attack, I gave a speech in which I recalled my memories of the youngest victim of March 15, Mucaad, who was three years old. Remembering those details really touched me. I was so upset. He was such a little boy.

I thought so much about the children and teenagers who were injured and killed. I’m a father of two boys, so I put myself in those parents’ shoes and tried to figure out how much worse they must feel than me. I can’t compare my pain to theirs.

I wanted to do something to remember these young people and as a gift to future generations. Then it came to me quickly: I could walk. On March 15, 2019, the terrorist traveled from Dunedin to Al Noor, my mosque in Christchurch, where he began his massacre. He made this trip out of hatred. I thought, what if I did the opposite? I will reclaim this trip by marching for peace.

Temel Ataçocuğu and his partner Mel Logan during breakfast in Geraldine, New Zealand. Photography: Jim Huylebroek/The Guardian

In the mosque that day, I was shot nine times. I prayed to Allah for forgiveness, for the chance to stay alive and raise my children. Allah saved my life and gave me a chance to continue. And the mission I had was to spread peace.

The distance from the terrorist’s apartment in Dunedin to the mosque in Christchurch is 360 km. For months I planned how long it would take me to walk there, testing myself on how far I could walk in a day.

I calculated that I could walk 30 km in about six hours, so I had to start on the first of March to arrive at the anniversary of the attack. And I decided to take advantage of it raise funds for three charities who support children.

It wasn’t going to be easy. I’ve had maybe 20 surgeries since I was shot. I lost count. My next surgery will be cosmetic surgery on my left arm, which has metal rods in it because I was shot three times there. I was also shot in both legs. Before I started walking, I went to see my knee specialist and he told me I could manage it with the help of anti-inflammatories.

Temel Atacocugu walking in Geraldine, New Zealand.
Temel Ataçocuğu recovers the shooter’s route from Dunedin to Christchurch. Photography: Jim Huylebroek/The Guardian

Being outdoors and being active has been a big part of my recovery. Before the attack, I played sports and did physical work. After being shot, having to stay inside with my thoughts was one of the hardest things. Every time I have surgery, I want to get my life back right away. I never gave up because I didn’t want to be a loser. And I have hope.

When I started my walk, I was so scared at first that someone would attack me or insult me. But after the first day, the second day, the third day, I had people around me walking with me. There was a lot of whistling, truckers honking, people cheering and clapping, lots of positive things. People stopped for hugs, to shake my hand. And I realized that I don’t have to be afraid because there are a lot of beautiful, beautiful people here. I am safe.

Temel Ataçocuğu cycles on Highway 1 arriving in Timaru, New Zealand after being discharged from hospital.
Temel Ataçocuğu continued his cycling journey after being hospitalized with a blood infection, possibly caused by blisters. Photography: Jim Huylebroek/The Guardian

Before starting each day of this trip, I try to eat a big breakfast. I tape my feet, which takes about half an hour or 45 minutes. At the end of the day, I have to take everything off again. On the third day the blisters started. When they got really bad I started tiptoeing but got blisters under my toes.

After eight days, I had done more than half of my walk, but I woke up feeling unwell and things got worse. I was taken to the hospital where the doctors said I had a blood infection, possibly from my blisters. People were offering to walk in my place. It was amazing. But I didn’t want to miss a single kilometer. So when I got out of the hospital two days later, I bought a bike and rode on.

There are so many nice people. In Oamaru, I said hello to a guy who was working in his garden. Three hundred meters later, he was chasing me down the road. He realized who I was and he wanted a selfie. He said to me, “I read your story and you are a legend.

Temel Ataçocuğu takes off his shoes to inspect his blisters.
Temel Ataçocuğu takes off his shoes to inspect his blisters. Photography: Jim Huylebroek/The Guardian
Temel Ataçocuğu is cycling on Highway 1 entering Timaru.
Temel Ataçocuğu still suffers from anxiety following the Christchurch bombing and has memory problems. Photography: Jim Huylebroek/The Guardian

One day it was 28 degrees and there was a woman, Helen, who made us blueberry muffins and Earl Gray tea and brought out picnic blankets for us to sit in the shade.

When I walked past Waitaki Girls High School, there were signs outside saying “We’re with you Temel”. I was so moved when I saw this, I almost cried. I realized that my walk for peace was working.

Even though I’m following the terrorist’s route, I try not to think about him at all. My goal is to remove him from history, to remove his hatred and his ideology from this land. He will be forgotten. I hope people will remember what I do instead.

Three years after the terrorist attack, my anxiety is still difficult. I’m still not confident about a lot of things. I can not concentrate; I have memory problems. The trauma will haunt me all my life. But I’m not giving up. If you lose hope, it’s all over.

Temel Ataçocuğu before starting today's trip to Temuka, New Zealand.
Temel Ataçocuğu plans to arrive at Al Noor Mosque at the same time the shooter started shooting three years ago. Photography: Jim Huylebroek/The Guardian

I want to arrive at the mosque exactly when the terrorist started shooting, 1:40 p.m. My plan is to cycle just outside of Christchurch and take a few days home to rest. Then I will end my journey on foot. It will be a great day. I think I will cry tears of joy.

This peace is for all who have been affected by extremism. It does not matter the color, the nationality, the religion; anyone affected by violence. It’s from us, for everyone. It does not belong to me. It belongs to humanity.

I want people to know that we are all still human. I am Temel. You like sports, I like sports. You like to eat ice cream, I like to eat ice cream too. We are the same. Our beliefs are the only thing different about us, but your religion is yours and my religion is mine. He says so in the Quran.

We shouldn’t hurt ourselves. That’s all.

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