Saving New Zealand’s murder capital: ‘We don’t want to be defined by death’

Kaitaia has seen four homicides and six suicides in a single year. Now the locals are trying to save their community

Ringed by golden beaches and temperate Pacific seas, Kaitaia is unconscionably pretty, dotted with flaming red pohutukawa trees and blessed by year-round blue skies.

The town of 5,000 people on the northern tip of New Zealands North Island should be known as a holiday resort, but instead it has been dubbed the murder capital of New Zealand after four homicides and six suicides in a single year.

It is like the town has become haunted, says Nina Griffiths, 18, who lost two friends to suicide this year. People say you have to get out of Kaitaia, you have to get out of this shithole. There is a sense of hopelessness if you stay here … we dont feel like our lives are valued enough to put effort in to save them, and make sure this never happens again.

Kaitaia is the last major stop on state highway one in the far north; 300km from Auckland or a $150 plane ticket out.

Half the town earn less than NZ$20,000 a year, and 60% are Maori, with unemployment at more than double the national average.

While it is pretty, the town is also remote, poor and increasingly stigmatised as the place dreams go to die.

We are a community that feels doomed, said He Korowai trust chief executive Ricky Houghton in October, still reeling from the suicide of his nephew, and four other young men aged under 25.

Kaitaia map

If these deaths happened anywhere else in New Zealand it would be front-page news – a crisis. But because its Kaitaia were forgotten, no one cares what happens to us. People think there is no future for the people here.

Senior leaders openly acknowledge that Kaitaia has a range of entrenched and long-standing social problems, including a lack of viable employment, isolation and strong gang and drug links.

But they also say 2016s glut of deaths may finally prove a turning point for their forgotten town that the deaths have spurred a formerly broken community to unite and stick up for itself in a way they havent seen in decades.

Earlier this year, Kaitaia fire chief Colin Kitchen considered quitting his job after attending two hangings and a stabbing homicide in a 24-hour-period.

Our town has been knocked for sure, were still in shock. When it happens once or twice, well sadly that is expected, but when it keeps happening you think what the hell is going on here? I did feel at one point that I would have to walk away from it, that Id had enough, says Kitchen, who has been with the fire brigade for more than four decades.

He Korowai trust chief executive Houghton in Kaitaia, Northland, New Zealand. Photograph: Jessie Casson for the Guardian

But if we stepped away from it, who would look after our community, and what kind of message would that send, if the leaders desert? I think this year has been so bad its been a wake-up call, and I am finally starting to see things turn around. The town is getting stronger and regrouping.

By August six people killed by their own hand had passed through the Kaitaia morgue. With some of the strictest guidelines in the world for the media reporting on suicides, the slew of sudden deaths fuelled Kaitaias reputation as the murder capital of New Zealand, and rumours in town twisted and warped, with some hearing as many as 15 people had died.

Griffiths was feeling sick to the guts. Traumatised by the futility of her friends lives so bluntly ended, but also frustrated by the communitys initial response which she describes as muted and repressed, with people referring to the deaths as passings instead of suicides and murders.

Griffiths felt Kaitaia and young people especially had two options: implode, or change, fast.

This town is so small everyone was affected by the deaths, literally everyone, says Griffiths, who has received a NZ$10,000 AMP scholarship to set up a youth space in town, intended as a retreat for vulnerable kids.

People are always asking me when we go away for sports events and stuff oh so youre from the murder capital. And that doesnt help us feel better about ourselves, or our town. It makes us feel really embarrassed of where we live and this past year there has not been a lot of pride around here.

In July Griffiths contacted comedienne and mental health advocate Mike King, begging him to travel north and facilitate a straight-up conversation about suicide in Kaitaia.

Suicide professionals tried to dissuade her, as they had attempted to dissuade King when he visited in 2013, saying discussing the deaths in a public forum could inspire copycats, or stir up emotions.

But Griffiths ignored their warnings and went ahead with the meeting attended by hundreds all desperately seeking guidance from King on how to stem the flow of young lives.

King and Griffiths say most of the suicide prevention teams in Kaitaia refused to attend.

I know for a fact that Nina got a lot of flak for organizing the meetings, and told she was a silly little girl who didnt know what she was doing, says King.

But she was absolutely right, her approach is backed up by the latest research, that talking about suicide is what communities need to do. There are a lot of young people up there who feel like no one cares about them, and no one loves them, they feel hopeless. Until that is addressed and brought into the light, the stats will continue to rise.

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