Two weeks on, 50 Pakistani victims of the Mecca tragedy are still missing while the government has failed to follow through on promises and Saudi authorities are inaccessible
The death toll of Pakistani pilgrims in the horrible Mecca tragedy during Haj this year reached 87 last Thursday. Around 50 Pakistani pilgrims were untraced with families still grieving.
In the last many years, this has been the deadliest accident during Haj, with at least 717 pilgrims from around the world killed and more than 850 injured. The largest number of deaths is from Iran followed by Egypt. The number of Pakistani pilgrims that are missing or have died has gone up to 135.
Though Saudi Arabia has officially announced fair investigations into this tragedy, the criticism on Saudi Arabia for this incident is getting sharper day by day. Iran, with more than 131 deaths, is demanding Saudi Arabia to officially apologise to the Muslim world for this tragedy while Nigeria is demanding probe into the cause of the deadly accident.
Among various stories of mismanagement, the most oft cited one on social media is about the temporary closure of entry gates to Jamaraat for the Saudi crown prince who was also performing the ritual with heavy protocol. A brief yet unverified video clip shows a prince pelting stones while sitting in his vehicle.
Although Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) has restricted tv channels from criticising a friendly country (Saudi Arabia), families of the misplaced pilgrims are still waiting for assistance from the government authorities to find their dear ones. According to the latest report, 89 Pakistani pilgrims have been pronounced dead and around 50 have been traced by the relatives. Around four dozens are still missing, according to Federal Religious Ministry Islamabad.
Lahore-based Sheikh Afzal, brother of missing pilgrim Ismat Asif and her husband Sheikh Asif whose death was confirmed after eight days through a relative, tells The News on Sunday that they had been waiting for help or response from the Pakistani or Saudi authorities aimlessly.
"We came to know through some of our relatives in Saudi Arabia who went to Mecca to look for the couple in hospitals and found both of them dead," he says. "I can’t express what agony we went through. There was no help. Pakistani authorities in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia did not take our phone calls," says Afzal. He says Saudi Arabia should be held responsible for this tragedy. The couple has four schoolgoing children -- two sons and two daughters. Asif ran a cloth shop and lived with his family in a lower middle class locality of Lahore.
Muhammad Ibrahim, 65, from Lahore, was a former security guard in a private company who went to perform Haj after saving money for many years. He died in the Mina accident. "We traced our father’s body with the help of a relative and the government offered no help," his son Muhammad Zahid says. "We tried calling the ministry numbers but nobody responded. We came to know about his death on the third day after the Mina tragedy," he says.
Riaz Hassan Nini, another brother of a missing airhostess of a private Saudi airline, laments non-cooperation of the Pakistani government in tracing the relatives. His 37-year-old sister Khadijatul Sughra went for Haj with a group of four friends and a brother of one of them. All of them are missing till the filing of this report.
"Pakistani authorities were available for the relatives of the Hajis during the week following the Mina tragedy," he bemoans, adding, "I am waiting for special visa to go to Mecca to find my sister." He condemns the Pakistani authorities for barring the media from questioning the Saudi authorities for this horrible accident.
"What Saudi Arabia has been doing with the dead bodies is strange. They have been throwing away the bodies in a mass grave with cranes. It is said that our authorities are directing media not to criticise the ‘friendly’ country." He calls for immediate issuance of visa to the affected families on humanitarian grounds.
Those returning from Haj are urging Saudi Arabia to take better care of pilgrims in future. "As far as the incident is concerned, we are not sure. Rather nobody is sure. I was at the camp at that time while mother had done Rami (the act of throwing stone at satan) just five minutes before the incident. I have talked to a number of pilgrims, who were there at that time. Some say there was bomb hoax others say it happened due to the protocol of Prince Sultan. Four to five routes leading to Jamaraat were jampacked. Stampede was due to one of these reasons. Dozens of people are still missing," says Muhammad Din, a recently returned pilgrim.
Moreover, last week, in the parliament, the government declared that relatives of the victims would be given opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia to offer prayers at the graves of their loved ones. However, the government cannot explain to people why there are delays in getting accurate death toll and identification of the bodies.