Anguish, trauma lingers amongst Kashmiri survivors

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SRINAGAR: Despite the passage of time, returning and surviving hajjis are traumatized with the horrors of the Mina stampede and Makkah crane crash. People who witnessed this horrendous events have hair raising ordeals to narrate.

It is pertinent to state here that an updated account puts the overall death toll at the Hajj Stampede at 1453 deaths. The official death count trotted out by the Saudi Authorities stands at 769 dead and 934 injured.

 “I saw people dying, getting injured, screaming and there was no space for escape,” says Mr. Altaf Khan who and his wife survived in the Mina stampede disaster.

Mr. and Mrs. Altaf Khan from Rawalpora who witnessed the Mina stampede recall this incident as a nightmare. They were all set to throw stones at Satan in Mina, little did they know what future had in store for them.

“There was a huge crowd, all the gates were closed, and only one gate was open through which we managed to escape. The authorities meant  to facilitate the pilgrimage knew little as to what was happening and how people were dying; they were not even able to guide the pilgrims properly,” Mr. Khan says.

Another couple, Mrs. Muzzaffar Zargar and his husband residing in Buchpora, who have witnessed this horrific incident, have gone through dreadful experience in their life. According to them, while they were offering the ritual duty of stoning the Satan, they got separated by the huge crowd coming from the wrong way.

Mrs. Zargar got unconscious and was taken to the hospital where she was recuperating for three days. Her arm was injured badly. She had no idea whether her husband was still alive or not.

“After three days, I came to know about my husband using the belt number allotted to us by the state Hajj committee of Kashmir. It was through our group mates, we were able to find each other, and not by the authorities. There was no help from the Saudi government,” says Mrs. Zargar.

In tears, Mrs. Zargar says, “it was all in fate and was bound to happen.” And her three daughters are exultant as their parents came back safely.

Mr. Sujahat Ahmad Malik – age 45 – who had been married only a couple of years lost his life in the Mina stampede while his mother, Mrs. Shamsheda Malik, survived and was bought back to Kashmir safely.

Dr. Shariq Malik – younger brother of Sujahat – says “my brother got separated from my mother in the overwhelming crowd in Mina. She somehow returned to the pilgrims’ camp hoping her son would return but the wait was in vain. Days passed, yet no sign of her son. In the meanwhile, Saudi government took the DNA sample of my mother to match it against the DNA of the people who lost their lives in order to speed up the identification process.”

 Mr. Malik added “we have a cousin who works in Saudi Arabia who helped us a lot during this ordeal. The moment he heard about the Mina stampede, he rushed to the pilgrims’ camp and came to know that Sujahat was missing. He then immediately started searching for Sujahat. Saudi government had published partial lists of the deceased people, and my cousin used to check these lists regularly, but Sujahat’s name wasn’t on any of them.”

Mrs. Malik returned to Kashmir ten days after the stampede, whereas the whereabouts of his son were still unknown. Three days went by, and still the Malik family hadn’t received any word about their son. Saudi government had failed to provide any concrete assistance in order to find their son. They decided to fly back to Saudi to search for their son but Shariq’s cousin called from Saudi to inform that he had located their son. He informed that he had been buried in the Mina graveyard like many others.

Sujahat is survived by his wife, Shaziya, and a thirteen month old child.

There is still no final word from State Hajj Committee about the exact toll of Kashmiris.

They, like Saudi government have not updated the list since September 26, three days after the tragedy and insist only eight people from Kashmir went missing during the Mina stampeded. 

Mohammad Ishaq, executive office at the State Hajj Committee says that so far only three people have been found. He identified them as Ghulam Rasool from Pulwama and Mohammad Ashraf and his wife from Byepass, Srinagar.

Two major themes emerge from the both the ordeal and how it was dealt with. One implicates the Saudi Authorities and the other the Hajj committee of Jammu and Kashmir. The Saudi authorities, as can be gauged from the accounts of survivors, do not appear to have been adequately prepared. The management oversights coupled with language barriers and the arrogant attitude of enforcers may have added to the problem.

In terms of  the Hajj committee of J & K, they too seem to be ill prepared for contingencies and disasters like the Mina stampede. The primary reason for this is that the Hajj Committee members are political appointees and not professionals; this affects their workings and accountability , which, in the broader sense affects the welfare of Haji’s.

Lessons need to be drawn from the Mina tragedy. Both the Saudi authorities as well as the Hajj Committee of JK need a total revamp and reorientation. It is then lives may be saved and future disasters prevented.

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