Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A poor performance?

The relatives of 96 Egyptian pilgrims missing after the recent tragedy in Saudi Arabia have criticised the official response of the Egyptian government, reports Amany Maged

Al-Ahram Weekly

Just as the pilgrimage to Mecca is an annual rite, so too have stampedes at Mina become an annual incident. Many have grown used to anticipating and then reading about accidents and deaths during the hajj, one of the major pillars of the Islamic faith.

But more recently, it had seemed that stampedes such as the one that occurred at Mina were a thing of the past due to alterations to the site made by Saudi Arabia, which is responsible for organising the pilgrimage.

This year, however, Muslims around the world were stunned by the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims, with hundreds more still missing. The victims had come from all parts of the world, but above all from Egypt, Iran and various African countries. The total death toll is around a thousand pilgrims from 24 countries.

In the Egyptian case, the response of the authorities has been poor and far from appropriate to the horrific experience of the Egyptian pilgrims, as related by many relatives of the victims.

Initially, Egyptian authorities denied that the stampede had affected Egyptian pilgrims. On 24 September, Sayyid Maher, chairman of the Egyptian Pilgrimage Mission, said there were no Egyptians among the dead or wounded.

Speaking by phone to the CBC Extra TV channel, Maher added that efforts were being made to coordinate with the Saudi authorities to acquire information on the welfare of Egyptian pilgrims at Mina.

He explained that Saudi authorities had closed off traffic to the area to prevent more pilgrims from reaching it, as 220 pilgrims had already been confirmed dead, and said that everything had been proceeding normally before what he said was a freak incident.

Yet, a few days later, Egyptian officials began to announce the numbers of the Egyptian dead. The latest figure, according to Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mukhtar Gomaa, is 138 dead. Gomaa, who led the official Egyptian delegation to the pilgrimage this year, added that 17 Egyptians were injured and 96 are listed as missing.

In view of the government’s poor performance in handling the crisis, Egyptians in Saudi Arabia were spurred into action. The Egyptian community in Saudi Arabia Facebook page launched a campaign, using the hashtag #missing_Mena_2015, to search for people who had gone missing in the Mina stampede.

The campaign posted the pictures of 42 Egyptians who were reported missing after the incident, together with personal details about them and phone numbers of their relatives for people to contact if they had any information. The website also posted pictures of unidentified victims, adding that there were Egyptians among them as they were wearing pilgrimage vestments with the Egyptian flag printed on them.

The tragedy at Mina has led to a number of rumours, one being that Egyptians caused the incident. Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Razeq Omar, head of the religious sector at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, denied reports in the international media that quoted one pilgrim who claimed that Egyptians triggered the stampede.

The ministry official described the reports as “inaccurate” and said that everyone who took part in the pilgrimage this year had seen for themselves that those who were involved in the stampede were Iranians as well as pilgrims from various African countries.

He continued, “The pilgrims were on their way to perform the rite at Mina when suddenly others emerged from a different direction. Confusion followed, as well as a lot of shoving, as the numbers accumulated and led to numerous casualties.”

Ishaq Akintola, a pilgrim from Nigeria, accused Egyptian pilgrims of triggering the stampede. According to Akintola, a professor of Islamic eschatology, some of the pilgrims, whom he claimed were Egyptian, insisted on using the entry route into the area where the rite of stoning the devil is performed instead of the proper exit route.

Writing on the Nigeria Nobis 360 website, Akintola claimed that this is what caused the jam that triggered the stampede, resulting in large numbers of people being trampled to death.

In an interview with the Nigerian e-magazine Punch, Akintola said, “We found that some of those who had thrown their own stones made a U-turn instead of moving ahead and came through the route meant for the entrance and not the exit.

“They were in a very large group, and the road was not wide enough to allow the free flow of those coming to throw stones at the devil and those who had already stoned the devil.

“The road was not wide enough for those coming and those going. And most of those who took the wrong route were Egyptians,” he said.

Meanwhile, a press conference in Cairo organised by the Press Syndicate, including relatives of the missing pilgrims, turned into a vehement attack on both the Egyptian and Saudi authorities. Relatives accused officials of being negligent in their response to the injury and death of hundreds.

Mahmoud Kamel, a member of the syndicate’s board and rapporteur of its cultural committee, said the committee decided to hold the press conference to focus attention on the crisis as there are still 96 Egyptians missing.

He said that from interviews with family members the committee concluded that the Egyptian authorities, notably the Pilgrimage Mission, the Egyptian Embassy and consulate, and the Saudi authorities were all deficient in their responses. He also condemned the lack of compensation for family members of the victims.

Salah Al-Din Mohamed, the husband of one of the missing pilgrims, Ilham Al-Sayyid Mahmoud Othman, expressed his gratitude to the syndicate for giving him and other relatives the opportunity to voice their feelings.

He also expressed his gratitude to members of the Egyptian community in Saudi Arabia, who set aside their work and other concerns to help with the search for the missing persons.

Mohamed said that he saw his wife in a video recording. She appeared to have been injured. Oddly, a soldier, rather than a medic or nurse, was standing next to her.

He was informed that she was taken to a hospital in Mina, but later learned that she had left the hospital, again in the company of a soldier rather than an official pilgrim guide (mutawwif) as would normally be the custom.

After some delay, the Ministry of Health has begun taking tissue samples from relatives of missing persons in order to obtain DNA. Relatives were asked to report to the Sheikh Zayed Al-Nahyan, Dar Al-Salam and Nasser Institute hospitals to provide the necessary samples, which will be sent to Saudi Arabia to be matched with those obtained from bodies at the Muaysam morgue.

At the press conference, Minister of Health and Population Ahmed Emad asked relatives of the missing pilgrims to fill in the necessary forms at the hospitals. He added that some of the pilgrims may have suffered a temporary loss of memory due to sunstroke.

He said that he travelled to Saudi Arabia at the request of Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to ascertain the welfare of the Egyptian pilgrims there. He stressed that Saudi authorities are sending updates to the Egyptian mission on Egyptian fatalities and missing persons.

“The procedure has been followed to the letter. We met with the Saudi authorities on Friday and forwarded the information to the Ministry of Religious Endowments for publication,” he said.

However, relatives of the missing have made it clear in their statements to the press that they feel that the government response to the tragedy at Mecca has been slow and poorly organised.

The government, they said, had not considered the possibility of offering compensation for the missing persons or assisting their relatives to travel to Saudi Arabia so that they could search for their family members.

The Egyptian government, meanwhile, believes that it has fully performed its duty to the public. Whatever the case may be, 96 Egyptians are still missing and hopes now rest with the results of the DNA analyses.

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