Home News Soaring temperatures and profiteering make Hajj dangerous

Soaring temperatures and profiteering make Hajj dangerous

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Huda Omari sat outside a broker’s office in Jordan for two days, waiting for a visa to travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

In Egypt, Magda Moussa’s three sons pooled together nearly $9,000 to fulfill their mother’s dream of accompanying her on the Hajj. She said her relatives and neighbors in the village cheered when she received approval to go.

The multi-day pilgrimage is a deeply spiritual journey and a strenuous trek at the best of times. But this year, at least 1,300 pilgrims were unable to complete the pilgrimage amid record high temperatures. Saudi authorities say more than 80% of the dead were pilgrims without permits.

Ms. Omari and Ms. Moussa are among the Unregistered Pilgrim Both said they knew the once-in-a-lifetime trip would be physically and financially taxing, but neither foresaw the horrific heat and abuse they would endure.

“We were humiliated and punished for being here illegally,” Ms. Omari, 51, told The New York Times after she returned home.

Nearly 2 million people take part in the Hajj each year, and it is not uncommon for pilgrims to die from heat stress, illness or chronic diseases during the pilgrimage. It is unclear whether this year’s death toll is higher than in previous years because Saudi Arabia does not regularly report deaths. Last year, 774 pilgrims died. From Indonesia In 1985 alone, more than 1,700 people died around the Holy Land, most of them from heat stress. A study at the time found.

But the deaths this year have shone a spotlight on a disturbing underside of an industry that profits from pilgrims who often spend years saving to perform one of Islam’s most important rituals.

In order to control the influx of tourists and avoid similar tragedies 2015 StampedeThe Saudi government has been trying to register pilgrims, who must buy government-approved travel packages, but the cost is too expensive for many.

Pilgrims entering on other types of visitor visas have limited access to safety measures put in place by the authorities. Therefore, the pilgrims’ financial means determine the conditions and treatment they experience, including whether they are protected from the increasingly dangerous and extreme heat in the Gulf region.

Registered pilgrims stay in hotels in the holy city of Mecca or in Mina, a city of white tents that can accommodate up to 3 million people and offer showers, kitchens and air conditioning. They also have access to transportation to and from the holy sites, so they don’t have to endure the scorching sun.

According to some visitors to Mecca, unregistered pilgrims are squeezed into empty apartments in the southern region, which has become a popular destination for travel agents, who rent entire buildings and fill them with pilgrims in the months before and after the ceremonies.

But many did not give up. As the pilgrims returned to their homeland, the extent of their suffering became clearer.

Jordan, which has worked with Saudi authorities to limit the number of people who can take part in the annual Hajj, said last week it had arrested 54 people and shut down three travel agencies after 99 Jordanians died during the pilgrimage.

Ms. Omari, who lives in Irbid, Jordan’s second-largest city, where she said she sells spices for extra income, scraped together 140 Jordanian dinars, about $200, to get a visa that allows Muslims to visit Saudi holy sites but not the Hajj.

Ms. Omari paid a total of 2,000 dinars (more than $2,800) for a package that included travel, insurance and accommodation. She said that while it was “not a small amount,” it was still only half the cost of the official Hajj package.

Egypt, which has seen rising inflation and a depreciating currency that has prevented many from making the pilgrimage, could have one of the highest death tolls this year, but authorities have not confirmed the death toll. Officials recently shut down 16 travel agencies and arrested and charged two tour operators.

Magda Moussa’s three sons have always dreamed of taking her on the Hajj, and this year that dream finally came true. Magda Moussa’s trip alone will cost 120,000 Egyptian pounds (about 2,500 US dollars), and the cost of each of them accompanying her will be 100,000 Egyptian pounds. However, this cost is still much cheaper than the official package.

When Ms. Moussa, a widowed grandmother who worked as a telecommunications technician, was granted a visa, her family and neighbors in the village of Bahada, near the capital, Cairo, rejoiced at her good fortune.

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and dates back centuries when pilgrims first tread in the footsteps of the Prophet. All Muslims who are physically and financially able must perform the pilgrimage at least once.

Today, registered tourists can enjoy tiered tourist packages, and the gap between tourists who can afford these packages and unregistered tourists who cannot is widening.

Ms. Omari said that when she arrived, she was assigned a room in a building with little air conditioning.

“It felt like the hall was on fire,” she said.

So she spent more money, checked into a nice hotel, and shared a room with women from her hometown.

Ms. Moussa was much luckier: While her sons paid hundreds of dollars for her and three other women to sleep in a hotel room, her sons paid more than $200 to sleep on a mattress on the floor of another building in a room crammed with eight men.

Witnesses said police raids intensified as the Hajj date approached.

“We are pilgrims. We are Muslims,” Ms. Omari said. “We are not here to cause trouble.”

Witnesses said agents, fearing arrest, panicked by cutting power or internet service to some buildings to make them appear uninhabited. Some even chained building gates to keep out pilgrims and police.

“We often feel like we are imprisoned,” said Ahmed Mamdouh Masoud, one of Ms. Moussa’s sons. He said he had gone on the pilgrimage before as an unregistered pilgrim. But this year, he felt deeply unwelcome.

“I’ve never seen anything as bad as this,” he said, describing a large police presence, dozens of checkpoints and random inspections.

Ms. Moussa said her family survived on canned food brought from Egypt during the Hajj and only ventured out of their homes out of fear to buy yogurt and dates in Mecca.

Ms. Omari, who arrived nearly a month before the Hajj began in mid-June, has been hiding in a room she shares with four other women, leaving only for religious ceremonies.

“We knew we could only go once in a lifetime, and this was it,” she said.

Ms. Omari said that on the eve of Arafat Day, when pilgrims gather near Mount Arafat as part of the Hajj ritual, no car or bus came to pick her up because she did not have the correct pass. So she walked 12 miles to the Arafat Plain in the scorching sun and humid heat. During the Hajj, temperatures can exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It’s like a fire falling from the sky and landing at your feet,” she said.

Ms. Moussa said she tried to board a bus but a Saudi police officer asked her and the woman she was traveling with for their Hajj permits, threatening to end their pilgrimage, which was about to reach its climax, if they did not produce them.

“We’ve been looking forward to this day for so many years, and now they want to stop us?” she said.

Ms. Moussa said she was stung by the treatment and quietly got out of the car through the back door. She packed her luggage, put it on her head, and started walking. She only stopped to pray or ask for directions, and walked all night.

“I was wearing plastic slippers,” she said. “By the time I arrived, they were so worn out that it felt like I was wearing nothing at all.”

As she walked, she said, fellow pilgrims in air-conditioned buses stared at her, watching her limp along the road. One of her videos went viral online In Egypt.

The families of the two women reached the Arafat Plain, but on their way back the tragic situation became apparent.

“People younger than me have died,” Ms. Moussa said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

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