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New Zealand turns to Haka to start healing after mosque shootings

A woman reacts at a flower tribute area at Botanical Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019.
A woman reacts at a flower tribute area at Botanical Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su

New Zealanders are gathering to thump chests, stomp feet and stick out their tongues -- staging impromptu performances of the haka wardance to show solidarity with a Muslim community shattered by the mass shooting in Christchurch.

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Kiwis ranging from heavily tattooed bikers to business executives, children and the elderly have lined up to perform the intimidating ceremonial dance which begins with fierce chants roughly translated as "I Live! I Die!"

New Zealand 'battle cry'

As the country struggles to respond to the horrific tragedy, it was perhaps inevitable that many would turn to the haka -- a dance whose origins lie with the indigenous Maori community but which has become a global symbol of New Zealand as the battle cry of its national rugby team, the All Blacks.

A woman places flowers at a memorial as a tribute to victims of the mosque attacks, near a police line outside Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019.
A woman places flowers at a memorial as a tribute to victims of the mosque attacks, near a police line outside Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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The aggressive ritual and threatening histrionics may seem out of step with the sombre atmosphere gripping the nation after Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian and avowed white supremacist, allegedly gunned down 50 Muslims during prayers last Friday.

But the haka is not only meant to intimidate, but also to mourn, melding both hostility and beauty into an outpouring of true emotion, said Te Kahautu Maxwell, a professor of Maori at Waikato University.

"Haka is used for death and mourning. It is an integral part of the Maori mourning process. Haka is used to show love and compassion. Haka is used to uplift the spirits of bereaved families," Maxwell said.

With their eyes bulging while bellowing out the ritual's loud rallying cries, tattooed members of one of New Zealand's biggest criminal biker gangs joined with local children to channel that emotion through a haka for relatives of the dead gathered near Christchurch hospital this week.

Haka across Christchurch

Other haka performances have burst forth across Christchurch and elsewhere in the country as well as in Australia, where large communities of New Zealanders live.

The haka stirs strong emotions in shooting survivor Kawthar Abulaban.

She was in Christchurch's Al Noor mosque when the shooting erupted, eventually escaping through the back door.

A woman places flowers at a memorial as a tribute to victims of the mosque attacks, near a police line outside Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019.
A woman places flowers at a memorial as a tribute to victims of the mosque attacks, near a police line outside Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

In the days since, she has repeatedly watched videos of the haka performances staged in response to the massacre, welling up each time.

"Because you can feel it when you see them. You feel it, it touches your heart. Every time I see it I cry, it means too much," she said.

In a further show of solidarity, the New Zealand government invited a Muslim imam to intone the Koranic bismillah in praise of Allah at the opening of the parliamentary session on Tuesday.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern followed up by saying "Wa alaikum salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh" -- "May the peace, mercy, and blessings of Allah be with you too."

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