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Pain lingers a year after hajj tragedy

MAKKAH: Pilgrims touch the golden door of the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in this holy city yesterday. - AFP
MAKKAH: Pilgrims touch the golden door of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in this holy city yesterday. – AFP

MAKKAH: Despite being emotionally scarred by the death of two childhood friends during last year’s hajj stampede, Muhammad Sani has still returned to Saudi Arabia for another pilgrimage. The Nigerian pharmacist, 46, says his faith remains unshaken even after the deaths of at least 2,297 pilgrims during the hajj stoning ritual last Sept 24. A year after the worst disaster in hajj history, Sani is among more than 1.4 million foreign pilgrims expected at this year’s pilgrimage after the kingdom made safety improvements.

The event, one of the largest gatherings in the world, starts on Saturday. “I miraculously escaped unhurt, but the incident has left a scar in my heart that will never heal,” Sani said after arriving in the kingdom with his wife. He and others are making the journey reassured within themselves that death can come anywhere – stampede or not – and with the expectation that safety has improved. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, which capable Muslims must perform at least once, marking the spiritual peak of their lives.

This year’s pilgrimage also follows a July suicide bombing which killed four security officers outside Islam’s second-holiest site, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. No one claimed responsibility, but Islamic State group adherents have carried out other blasts in the kingdom. The stampede last year happened as pilgrims made their way to the Jamarat Bridge for a symbolic stoning of the devil in Mina, east of Makkah’s Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site. Pilgrims blamed the stampede on police road closures and poor crowd control, but Saudi officials said pilgrims had not followed the rules.

After the tragedy, King Salman, who holds the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, ordered “a revision” of hajj organization. Public statements and Saudi press reports show that changes have been made even though no one was ever blamed for the stampede. The Arab News daily reported that roads in the Jamarat area were expanded and some pilgrims’ accommodation relocated. More space was freed up when government facilities were moved out of Mina, Saudi Gazette reported.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah is also taking a high-tech approach to improving safety. For the first time, pilgrims will receive electronic bracelets storing their personal information. The timing of the Jamarat stoning has been restricted, and the hajj ministry says surveillance cameras and other electronic controls will monitor crowd flow, comparing it with computer projections. Pilgrims say they have already detected other changes, including speedier processing at the airport. “We notice a huge improvement in the services and care,” said Asi Wat Azizan, an official with the Thai delegation. “We are not afraid of any accidents,” said Najwa Hassan, a Sudanese pilgrim.

Saudi Arabia “is already taking action” to ensure last year’s tragedy will never recur, said Indonesia’s top official overseeing the hajj, Abdul Jamil. Oumou Khadiatou Diallo, a Malian pilgrim who survived the stampede but saw seven people die around her, says God has called her to return despite the trauma she suffered. “I hope that the safety is going to be improved,” she said before leaving Bamako for Saudi Arabia, burdened by her memories. “I think of all the dead from last year. What I saw often comes back to me, and that hurts.” – AFP

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