He Took a Bullet to Save His Son in Christchurch. Can They Ever Heal?
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — He often sees his 3-year-old son thrashing at the world, screaming “I want to go home” and covering his eyes to avoid glimpsing anyone resembling the Muslim men who were shot beside him.
Sometimes he holds the boy tight. Mostly, though, he feels guilty for bringing his son to the mosque where gun blasts shattered Friday Prayer, and for not protecting him from being hit.
“I saw smoke coming from a hole in his diaper,” says Zulfirman Syah, recalling the day a gunman walked into his mosque and another in Christchurch a year ago Sunday, killing 51 people and injuring dozens, including him and his son. “I couldn’t care for him.”
Mr. Syah, an artist with dark, stoic eyes, knows the guilt is irrational; he couldn’t help his son because he had slipped into unconsciousness after diving over the boy and taking bullets in his own back and groin. He nearly died saving his only child’s life.
But terrorism scars both bodies and minds. For Mr. Syah, his wife, Alta Sacra, and their son, Roes, the past 12 months have been defined by an anguish that recedes and then rushes back.
The pain comes when they have to deal with a health care system that leaves them on their own. When they confront conspiracy theorists who use video of Mr. Syah to deny reality. When their son’s bruised psyche pushes them further from normalcy. And now, as the anniversary delivers another emotional jolt.
Their searing experience points to forces the world has yet to contain: guns, technology and white supremacy.
In their day-to-day lives — documented through repeated visits by a reporter and a photographer for The New York Times — the story is simpler. It’s stubborn love battling a trauma that won’t let go.
“Do you think that pain relief has kicked in?” the nurse asks. Mr. Syah nods. A few days after the shooting, he is lying in a bed at Christchurch Hospital. The nurse pulls off the bandage covering his back, revealing a moist red hole as wide as a tennis ball.
Probing the wound with what looks like a narrow straw, the nurse follows a winding, foot-long path through his insides — one of many signs leading doctors to believe the gunman used hollow-point bullets, which rip through flesh more than regular ammunition does.
“Is it very sore?” the nurse asks. “No,” Mr. Syah says without hesitation.
Physical trauma tests independence while magnifying personality, and in the days and weeks after the shooting, he and his wife go down different paths.
Mr. Syah, 41, a painter whose works have appeared in a respected gallery in his native Indonesia, tries not to be a bother. Ms. Sacra, a 35-year-old teacher from Delaware, is stormier and more demanding of a health care system that has never seen so many gunshot wounds.
What they’re grappling with, together, is a complicated set of injuries. In addition to his back, bullets tore through Mr. Syah’s upper thigh, his elbow, the top of his penis and his scrotum.
“I’m afraid of having to deal with something that isn’t my job,” Ms. Sacra says, sitting beside her husband after the nurses leave. “There’s this giant question mark: What does his recovery look like? They say they’re going to take care of us, but what if they don’t?”
Like many of the other victims, they are immigrants in this city of 380,000 people, wedged between mountains and the teal Pacific.
They arrived on temporary work visas two months before the attack, having been married for three years after meeting on a Muslim marriage app.
“Alta came to me like a gift from God,” Mr. Syah says.
Her version is less mystical. She grew up a daughter of fundamentalist Christians, married young, divorced, moved to Bali, converted to Islam, met her husband, married and had Roes (pronounced Row-ees).
The happy family part, she says, “all happened very fast.”
And efficiency is how she plans to preserve it. One minute, she’s stopping at the store to buy her husband a tablet so he can watch movies and go online; the next, she’s in his room, putting balm on his chapped lips, joking about how she hopes he can handle her germs.
When he comes home two weeks later, however, she struggles. Mr. Syah arrives at their first-floor, two-bedroom apartment carrying a device that draws pus from the wound on his back, but the hospital forgot to include a charger.
He has a catheter, too — but it comes with no instructions, prompting frantic YouTube searches. Nor is there a clear plan for his medicine, or for physical or psychological therapy.
“There’s nothing in the discharge papers telling me what to do,” Ms. Sacra says.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised to prioritize victims’ care — she visited Roes right after the shooting, handing Ms. Sacra her phone and asking for her number. But New Zealand’s public health system is producing exactly what Ms. Sacra feared: errors.
First, she explodes in a fit of swearing. Then she spends her days fighting bureaucracy.
While Mr. Syah lies in bed, trying to lure Roes with chocolate, she’s trying to organize therapy for her son and get her husband a general practitioner.
What consumes her most is elemental: What if he dies?
Late one night, a few weeks in, the pressure becomes too much. She yells at her husband, at her older sister, Leah Sacra, who has come from America to help, and at the world.
“I’m going to slit my throat,” she shouts.
Her sister sits with her as she falls to the floor and cries. “I feel like such a failure,” Ms. Sacra tells her. “I’m not a good mother. I’m not a good wife.”
“What a total invasion.” Ms. Sacra is on the couch, glaring at a mention of her husband in some story on the internet.
News of him saving his son spread quickly through both Indonesia and the United States with a mix of half-accurate articles and social media posts.
To Ms. Sacra, it feels like tragedy porn: People far away feel good, and the traumatized feel used. She spends hours messaging the sources, the platforms, the police and the F.B.I. to ask that images and posts be removed.
Then she discovers another outrage: Her family’s raw suffering is being played on an endless loop by online trolls who claim the Christchurch shootings were a hoax. The conspiracy-mongers have annotated a video from inside the Linwood mosque, shot by a survivor, to accuse her husband of being a “crisis actor” because he holds up a cellphone.
Various versions, with the sound conveniently muted, spread across the internet. One lie spawns dozens more.
The reality is this: Ms. Sacra was in the middle of cooking lunch when she received a call from her husband that cut out. She called back. “All I heard were horrible sounds,” she says. “People in agony.”
There were prayers mixed with wailing; Arabic mixed with English.
“Say something, say something,” she recalls yelling. “Just one word!”
“Chaos, chaos, chaos,” her husband replied. “I’m down.”
The phone went silent. Mr. Syah had passed out on the carpet. In the video, Roes pulls at his father, trying to climb on top of him — and away from a man in a gray sweatshirt who lies inches away, dead-still.
Roes was hit with burning shrapnel. He received stitches in his buttocks and legs. If not for his father, it would have been worse.
“I did what anyone would have done,” Mr. Syah says.
But he can’t help asking if he could have done more.
After he starts having nightmares that shake him from his sleep, he returns to the Linwood mosque, looking for answers. With a new carpet from Saudi Arabia, it smells like a furniture store.
One Friday, he sees a face he recognizes: the man in the gray sweatshirt. “I thought you were dead,” Mr. Syah tells him. The man explains that the bullets missed his vital organs.
Mr. Syah can hardly believe the good fortune. “I just feel, I don’t know,” he says. “Seeing him, a positive energy came over my body.”
By October, he has become a regular at Al Noor, the other mosque attacked by the gunman. Police in blue uniforms now guard the entrance. One day during Friday Prayer, the imam’s message focuses on “excellence of character.”
“Islam is about relationships,” he says.
Maybe trauma is, too.
At home, Mr. Syah lifts up his shirt to show his scar. Closed, with the texture of melted plastic, it runs the length and width of a pen.
“When I move,” he says, “it’s a little tight.”
He sits on some extra pillows on the couch, the same couch where his wife sat while fighting the conspiracy theories. He seems surprised to hear his ordeal had been manipulated.
“I never told him about all that,” Ms. Sacra says.
Her husband nods and takes it in. She had protected him.
At first, Roes wears sunglasses inside the house. When his father comes home from the hospital, he stares, then averts his eyes and keeps his distance from the man who used to put him to bed every night.
What Roes hates most is seeing his mother or father lie on the carpet — a clear reminder of the shooting. But faces and objects also throw him back. One day, the police drop off the shoes he left at the mosque, and shoes become one of his many triggers.
His healing, like their own, has been slow and incomplete. A week after the shooting, a nurse fills out forms to place Roes in art therapy right away. But it never happens. Appointments are canceled. He falls through the cracks.
So, in June, Ms. Sacra “goes rogue.” She reaches out to everyone in New Zealand who practices a storytelling therapy known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, in which traumas are recalled in brief doses while a therapist mildly distracts the patient.
Allister Bush, a child psychiatrist in Wellington, replies immediately to her email.
He asks her to write the story of their family for Roes, moving from a comforting beginning to the moments of trauma to his current life of love and safety.
“One day, Roes looked and saw Mommy lying on the floor,” she writes in English and Indonesian. “He was takut (scared) and said, ‘Mommy no lay down! Mommy no lay down.’ But it was OK, Mommy was just tired.”
When she reads the entire letter to him in the first session with Dr. Bush, Roes is engaged but angry. On the second time through, Roes seems to be on the verge of tears. To his mother, sorrow looks like progress.
But the trouble doesn’t evaporate. Even after follow-ups with a local therapist, even after they move to the blank canvas of a new home with white walls and skylights, Roes continues to behave in confounding ways.
Some days, he plays without incident. He puts on his shoes now like any other 3-year-old, which means more slowly than Mom and Dad would like.
But there are also unexpected flare-ups. “Hold my hand, hold my hand,” Roes often says, closing his eyes, when he meets someone who looks Muslim or resembles a doctor. Sometimes he does so when they’re just at home eating dinner.
And there are times when he turns explosive — especially as his parents move beyond their trauma cocoon.
At a recent picnic with other Muslim families, Roes covered himself with his mother’s jacket. He screamed for an hour to go home, hitting Ms. Sacra as she tried to calm him. A glance seemed to have set him off.
“It could be anybody from the past or anyone that reminds him of the past,” Ms. Sacra says.
In such moments, his parents often hold his face, insisting he make eye contact.
Opposite poles of physicality — hugs one minute, punches the next — have become his symptom and his salve. Often it can feel as though he’s the only one with permission to act out in honesty the messy emotions that so many Christchurch victims still harbor.
And yet, slowly, the anguish fades.
Ms. Sacra goes into therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. She starts a new job as a mental health advocate, putting her unyielding approach to work for others.
Mr. Syah’s routine begins with prayer at dawn. He makes Roes breakfast, then rides his bicycle to English class or paints in the garage. The only piece he’s finished since the shooting is titled “Momentum.”
Roes no longer looks away from his father. He often pulls a book down from the shelf called “Say Please, Little Bear,” which tells the story of a father teaching his son about friendship. Near the end, when the bears hug, Roes likes to run away — then into his father’s arms, squeezing away the lingering guilt.
Last weekend, Mr. Syah and Roes found themselves napping together on a plush gray rug at home. With one body curled into another, a father again holding his only son, it was a wonderfully ordinary sequel to March 15.
This time, there was no gunfire and no heroism. Only peace.