Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Hajj deaths: Egyptian pilgrims ‘completely deserted’

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Comment on the photo, Tarek (right) says his 77-year-old mother, Efendia (left), “couldn’t handle the heat of baking.”

  • author, Sally Nabil
  • Role, BBC Arabic
  • Report from Egypt

Hundreds of people are believed to have died amid high temperatures while performing the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Those who died came from more than twenty countries, with most deaths from Egypt. The BBC visited a community there where more than 20 people were missing.

Many Egyptian pilgrims come from poor villages. They spend their savings on the spiritual journey to the holiest city in Islam.

Afendia, a 70-year-old mother of five from the northern Menoufia governorate, sold her jewelry to pay for her trip, her youngest son Sayed told me, but she died while performing her ritual.

“I was devastated by my mother’s death,” he says, crying. He explains that going to Hajj was his mother’s biggest dream.

Efendia, a widow, went to Mecca on a tourist visa, not an official Hajj visa.

She was among hundreds of thousands of unregistered pilgrims who hoped to fulfill their religious duty this year without obtaining special Hajj permits.

The Saudi authorities considered these unofficial visits a violation of their regulations. But the process of obtaining official Hajj permits can sometimes become expensive or complicated.

“She couldn’t stand the heat of the bread.”

Riding an official Hajj caravan in Egypt – a country in deep economic crisis – can cost around $6,000 (£4,700) per person.

The reality, they say, was very different.

On Arafat Day, this year falling on June 15, pilgrims spend from sunrise to sunset gathering on Mount Arafat – about 20 kilometers away. [12 miles] From Mecca – for prayers and sermons.

“The bus dropped them off about 12 kilometers from Mount Arafat and left,” says Tariq, Afendia’s eldest son. “She had to walk all the way.”

“Whenever I video-called her, she would pour water on her head. She could not bear the heat of the bread.

“On our last call she seemed exhausted.”

Comment on the photo, Efendia’s younger son blames local travel brokers for not providing adequate protection to pilgrims from the heat

Pilgrims usually stay in air-conditioned tents, have buses to transport them between the holy sites, and are provided with medical care.

Efendia and other unregistered pilgrims “did not have any of these facilities, they were completely abandoned,” says Al-Sayed. He adds that they tried to protect themselves from the scorching heat by using bedsheets to make a tent.

Her family says they have been unable to contact the broker who organized her trip.

Hajj is one of the basic pillars of Islam. Muslims are required to participate in it once in their lives – if they are financially and physically able – and believe that they will return from the Hajj cleansed of their sins.

It is one of the largest annual religious gatherings in the world. Nearly two million pilgrims traveled to Mecca this year.

“I just wished I could be with her”

Egyptian authorities say many of the deceased pilgrims are not registered, making it difficult to officially determine the death toll. The State Department said it would take more time and effort to identify the dead and contact their families.

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said that an investigation will be opened into the activities of all tourism companies involved in sending unregistered pilgrims to Saudi Arabia.

“Without my mother, I feel afraid,” says Manal, Afendia’s eldest daughter, her eyes filled with sadness.

She remembers that she started screaming the moment she received the news of her mother’s death.

Comment on the photo, Manal says she feels afraid without her mother anymore

Manal tells me with tears streaming down her cheeks: “Shortly before her death, she called my brother and told him that she felt her soul leaving her body. I wished I had been with her at the time.”

Efendia died as she lay breathing in the shadows on the street corner.

Her grieving children find some solace in the fact that she was buried in Mecca.

Manal says: “She wished to die and be buried in the Holy City.”

Rainerio Manuel
Rainerio Manuel

"Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst."

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