It’s the fragrance of mourning blooms that brings me to tears. Inhaling the delicate, pure floral perfume of thousands of bouquets is something I’ll never forget, long after the horror of the Sydney siege fades. Many bunches of flowers have notes and cards attached – an outpouring of love, sympathy and sorrow for the dead, injured and traumatised in the Lindt Chocolate Cafe hostage nightmare.
Several days after the siege ended, downtown Sydney continues to be a shrine, a field of flowers that grows by the hour. A second site has been set up closer to the ill-fated cafe near the top of Martin Place. Family members come to mourn. Strangers comfort each other. Tears, and more tears. The curious crane their necks to get a better view and snap pictures.
People queue, carrying bouquets, pot plants, candles and cards, and solemnly place them with the other tributes. The large police presence shows no sign of diminishing. Politicians in sharp suits come to pay respects and do TV interviews. The media presence is almost as large as police numbers. Impeccably groomed reporters use the flowers as a backdrop for pieces to camera.
As I stoop to adjust a bouquet, two English tourists standing behind me ponder aloud about their country’s experience – the beheading of Lee Rigby, the July 7, 2005 terrorism attack in London which killed 52. And another death which rocked Britain. “I haven’t seen so many flowers since Diana,” says one.
In 1997 after the Princess of Wales died in a Paris car crash, her home at Kensington Palace was flooded with floral tributes at the gates.
Chaplains at the Sydney siege site offer consolation. Red Cross workers offer water. A large woman in a bright pink t-shirt announces she’s The Tissue Lady and doles them out from a box to weeping bystanders.
An elderly man heckles controversial Senator Jacqui Lambie who has come to lay flowers. The Tissue Lady waves her box of paper hankies at him and yells: “There’s a time and a place, and this is not the place!”
The dead: Katrina Dawson, 38, mother of three children aged under 10, a highly-successful barrister, and one of Australia’s brightest minds. Tori Johnson, 34, the talented Lindt manager who inspired love and loyalty from his staff and who courageously tackled the crazed gunman only to be executed. Heavily-armed police stormed the cafe 17 hours after the siege started and after Tori had been shot. The exact nature of Katrina’s death has yet to be confirmed. The gunman was killed by police.
Iranian-born Man Haron Monis, 50, was a self-styled Islamic fanatic with a long history of violence. He should have never, ever been allowed to become a citizen of Australia. Incredibly, he was out on bail, even though he had been charged with multiple serious offences: An accessory before and after the fact in the murder of his ex-wife, and at least 40 sex assault charges relating to his perverted “faith healing”.
How the sick bastard flew under the radar of national security and the Australian Federal Police, was able to get a shotgun, and get bail, is raising an increasing number of questions. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised a thorough investigation.
The same day the siege ended in gunfire, grief and relief that most hostages had managed to flee to safety, Pakistan was rocked by its own extremist tragedy. Nearly 150 people massacred, mostly children, at a military school. Seven Taliban militants stormed the school on a murderous rampage. The Taliban died in the atrocity. We think schools are secure for children. The US knows so well they can be vulnerable. We think cafes are ordinary, safe places. Although the Port Arthur, Tasmania killing spree of 1996 which left 35 innocents dead also started in a cafe. Religious and political terrorists and/or madmen with guns rattle those assumptions of security and test our resilience.
Australian Muslims were fearful of reprisals after the Sydney siege. Although there has been verbal harassment, their fears have largely been unfounded. The gunman’s message of hatred failed utterly, even if he did briefly terrorise the city. I was moved by the account of a psychologist returning home after his role at the scene of the siege ended. He hailed a cab, and the Muslim taxi driver sobbed uncontrollably, saying he feared he would be killed in revenge. The psychologist spent half an hour reassuring the man his life wouldn’t be in danger.
If you’re a visitor to our otherwise beautiful city, there’s a good chance you’ll feel the sadness and heartache in the air. But stay awhile. We’re as strong as ever. This tragedy is bringing out the best in us, with the exception of a nasty, bigoted ignorant few. We’re sad today, but still hopeful for tomorrow. The funereal field of flowers also demonstrates our unity, our protest against fanatics, and a desire for peace in an increasingly troubled world.
PS: Just when we thought this week couldn’t get any worse, comes the news of 8 siblings in Cairns, stabbed to death, aged between 18 months and 15 years old.