PORT OF SPAIN –– Two hundred and forty Trinidadians who journeyed to Mecca for Hajj have survived yesterday’s stampede which killed more than 700 people and injured 800 others in Saudi Arabia.
Trinidad Guardian sales executive Acklima Mohammed and her husband Mobarak Mohammed who are in Mecca had just performed the Jamaarat ritual, known as Stoning The Devil, in the tent city of Mina and had moved to the third floor of the building, when the stampede occurred.
Video footage provided by Mohammed showed bodies piled upon bodies. Few were moving. Ambulances rushed to the scene while Muslims gawked at the pile-up of still bodies. While international media reports said the cause of the stampede was still being investigated, Mohammed said she believed the chaos occurred when a group of Muslim faithfuls tried to stone the Jamaarat at an unscheduled time.
“There are pilgrims who come here on a low budget for Hajj and they camp out on the streets or anywhere where they can get shelter. They do not have the Saudi government’s schedule for pelting the Jamaarat. These pilgrims use the local transport. In this case they used the train. This train system is sort of new. When they got out they rushed to the first floor to pelt the Jamaarat. It was madness,” she said.
Mohammed added that the building that has the Jamaraat now has four or five levels.
“It is huge. It has huge air-conditional blowers and many escalators. The Saudi government spent a lot of money to make it safe,” Mohammed said.
She added that leaders of the various Muslim groups did a count of the 240 Trinidadians who attended the festival and everyone was accounted for.
Asked to describe the scene of the stampede, Mohammed said: “What I saw was the helicopter hovering downwards and the ambulances. At first I thought nothing of it. We were on the third floor. It was not crowded as expected. The Saudi government had a new system in place. There was a schedule for all group leaders and you had to be there to pelt the Jamaraat at a certain time.”
She added: “ There are four to five different entrances to enter the building. There was no way that groups will crush into each other.”
Saying the experience was a life-changing one, Mohammed said she could not describe in words what she felt.
“Hajj is the fifth pillar on Islam. It is to be done once in one’s lifetime. The experience here gives you a better understanding for life. It makes you a better person as it brings light to what Prophet Abraham had to go through from the will to sacrifice his son Ishmael. It is an experience that cannot be written in words. It is life-changing. I thank God that all of us are safe,”
Contacted yesterday, president of the Trinidad Muslim League, Dr Nasser Mustapha, said the stampede was unfortunate.
Founder and chairman of Caribbean Hajj, Zabar Mohammed Baksh, also expressed relief that all the local Muslims were safe. He said yesterday’s stampede occurred because a group of “hardened” pilgrims had blocked the pathway where the Satan is stoned.
“The entire crowd had to go to one point instead of three. Some of the pilgrims don’t listen to the authorities. They don’t understand the seriousness of the issue,” Baksh said. Saying the Saudi government should not be blamed, Baksh said the leaders of world Muslim groups should be encouraged to train all pilgrims and give them certification before they are allowed to attend Hajj.
“If they don’t have the certificate, they should not come. The Saudis have tried their best to keep things safe. They have deployed hundreds of thousands of troops and they have people helping the pilgrims. The new facility has prevented a lot of chaos. I was surprised that this happened, but maybe this is how God wrote their ticket. They will go to Heaven and this is how things have to be,” Baksh said.
He added that two groups of Trinis would return from Hajj on Sunday while two more would return in two weeks’ time.