South African hajj doctor Salim Parker shares his latest hajj story. More stories at hajjdoctor.co.za
He was an engineer working during Hajj at the Jamaraat. Immensely aware of his duties in assisting with the smooth flow of the pilgrims during the days of pelting, he wore his uniform with pride and served his country with distinction. As he was a member of the National Guard, which was part of the Defence Ministry, he, like all other members, wore the army uniform. Even the medical personnel falling under the National Guard wore military uniforms when not performing clinical duties.
It never occurred to him that the clothe indeed marks the man and one incident shattered his perception of what the uniform meant to the ordinary Hujaaj who undertakes the most important journey of their lives. He, who was under the impression that he was there to help the pilgrim and indeed felt honoured to be able to do so, was in fact considered to be not a guardian angel but a conspirator of the enemy.
It was 2006 and millions were in attendance for Hajj that year. The ultimate peak of the journey, the Wuqoof of Arafat passed without any incidents and most did not anticipate any problems during the next few days. However we were all shocked when on one of the days of Tashreeq, the days of stoning, just after midday, a stampeded occurred with the resultant death of over three hundred and sixty pilgrims. I was amongst the South African medical contingent that was asked to assist and what unfolded in front of us was horrifying as the suffering that our martyrs endured was evident from the injuries we witnessed. It was soon evident that a major catastrophe has taken place and credit has to be given to the Saudi authorities who soon redeployed enough personnel to render the need for further assistance obsolete.
He was part of the engineering team that was tasked with photographing whatever they could see in front of, and around them. First they were torn in performing their duties and assisting the battered bodies and shattered souls that clearly needed desperately needed help. However, as soon as reinforcements arrived, they manfully stuck to their task and did as much as possible within the limitation of the environment that they worked in.
He was in charge of the division that had to photographically document the tragedy and when this was accomplished, gave his team the option to leave the scene or assist the medical personnel with rendering assistance to the wounded or respectfully help in removing the bodies of the deceased. Needless to say, all stayed behind to help in whatever way they could. With some it was easy as they merely needed to transport them to the medical facilities to be treated. With others it was much, much more heart wrenching.
He had no medical training. As he scouted a certain area, he noticed a lady crouching. She was seemingly in a state of shock. She was an elderly Turkish lady and, despite the mayhem around her, was immobile with her head down. He approached her and noticed a man laying on the ground, his head on her lap. Amidst the frantic scurrying that was occurring around them, no one was noticing this couple. He then noticed her gently and very slowly stroking the forehead of the elderly man, most likely her husband. ‘At least she was moving,’ were his relieved thoughts. The man showed no evident signs of injuries and he asked her in Arabic whether he could assist her. She was completely silent and did not respond, merely continuing to stroke her husband’s forehead in a loving manner. It then struck him that the chest of the husband was not rising and falling as with all the other survivors he assisted. The man was showing no signs of life.
He was not trained to deal with disaster nor with the heartbreak of the loss of a loved one. In full military regalia he kneeled down and, in his own uncertain way, tried to establish any sign of life. There was none. The elderly lady was clearly aware of her loss. Still, she did not make any attempt to communicate with anyone and clung onto the last physical manifestations of her long-standing soulmate. She was profusely sweating, a combination of her response to the heat and the cold clammy response to shock. He had his water bottle attached to his belt and detached it. He opened it and, with the utmost of empathy, handed it to her. It was the least he could do. He however did not expect her response. She did not sip on the bottle to relieve her very evident thirst. Nor did she put some of the water on her husband’s forehead which she was still stroking. She hurled the water back at his face, waved him away and turned her back on him.
He was completely taken aback and retreated a few steps. The lady did not look at him and stayed exactly in the same position. He just stood there, not knowing what to do as he wanted to help and she clearly did not want is assistance. A doctor, in a white coat and stethoscope approached the lady. She allowed him to examine her husband, allowed him to examine her and had some of the water that the other medical team members, that by had now joined them, offered her.
The lady started first to cry, then started wailing as the reality of her loss sunk with the medics consoling her as much as they humanely could. The engineer could not understand what has just happened to him until he noticed the fear and apprehension that was evident in the faces of the pilgrims that he passed. He was in full military uniform, and it was evident that he was perceived to be the enemy.
He made some enquiries and realised that the long-standing tension between the security forces and the Hujjaaj they monitored and policed was a long- standing unresolved issue. Often the security forces, with no explanation and in a very military manner, would very forcefully impose rules on the pilgrims. Sometimes they would suddenly divert them, sometimes completely deny them access to a road, and sometimes very rudely yell orders that did not make sense to the bewildered hujjaaj merely attempting to complete their rituals.
The lady clearly was previously traumatised and possibly felt that the actions of the security forced led to the death of her husband. When he spoke to the security forces, he realised that they considered the pilgrims to be their enemy as well; a bunch of ill-disciplined and lawless illiterates that needed the full physical might of the law to force them to comply.
He held a relatively junior position and clearly was unprepared to deal with this matter. He decided to study crowd psychology and over the next few years did his doctorate in the subject. Ten years later, and now in a senior position, he was able to start to change the mindset of the security forces, instilling a sense of serving the pilgrims in them instead of monitoring an unruly mob. Instead of shunning away pilgrims, the soldiers now spray the pilgrims with cooling water in the oppressive heat. Maybe his ideal has not been reached but at least he realised that there was a problem. He gained a deep understanding of it and, in his small humble way, is bringing about major shifts in mindsets in order to harmonise the experiences of all those involved in the fifth pillar of Islam.