From the news desk

Over 2million prepare for Arafat

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In scenes of devotion seen nowhere else on the planet, over two million pilgrims, wrapped in seamless white cloth, made their way into an extremely hot Mina on Thursday. They came in buses, large utility vehicles, two-wheelers, wheelchairs, and on foot for the journey of a lifetime.

As they walked into the valley, they were greeted by a sea of white tents as far as the eye could see. At one end was the massive multistoried concrete structure of the Jamarat, with Masjid Al-Khaif one side and Masjid Al-Kuwaiti at the far end. Pilgrims traversed through a maze of roads to reach their tents. Vehicles were not allowed inside the tent city. The pilgrims were dropped off at various bridges and walked to their camps.

Once inside, the pilgrims prayed Dhuhr, Asr, Maghreb and Isha. The able-bodied walked to Masjid Al-Khaif to say their prayers. Inside the massive mosque, they recited verses from the Qur’an. It was scenes full of piety and devotion to Allah.

Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif said a total of 1,389,053 foreign pilgrims have arrived for Haj this year from 163 countries. Among them 757,981 are men and 631,072 women.

“There was an increase of 8,545 pilgrims or 0.6 percent compared to 2013,” he said. Of this year’s foreign pilgrims, 1,315,850 came by air, 59,204 by land and 13,999 by sea.

As the day wore on, the intense heat subsided and a light wind sprang up, cooling the city considerably, making it more pleasant for the pilgrims.

“I no longer feel alone,” said Nasser Aref from Syria. “We had to endure a lot of hardship to come here.

The fact that we are alive is a miracle,” he said and narrated the difficulties that his family had faced in escaping from Aleppo on their way to the Haj.

Omar Obaidat, a journalist from Amman, Jordan, said: “It is a great spiritual experience for me. This is my first time. It is a dream come true for me because in Jordan only the elderly are allowed to go on Haj. I came here as part of the media delegation and that is how, even though I am only in my 30s, I am getting this wonderful chance. I am happy and excited. Saudi Arabia is a great place and all the negative stuff that I read and heard are untrue. The Saudi authorities are handling the Haj arrangements with utmost care. They deserve praise.”

Habib Qaiser from Karachi, Pakistan, refused to discuss anything other than the spiritual aspect of the Haj with Arab News.

“I am here to seek atonement for all the sins that I have committed in my 59 years,” he said. “I am surrounded by thousands of people here but I am alone because I am looking within.”

Qaiser said he wanted to live a pious life.

“Allah has given me the chance to correct myself, my ways. If I am good, then I can become a role model for other members in my large family. I am so thankful to Allah for choosing me to be among the people performing Haj this year.”

There are many young pilgrims this year from the United Kingdom, who feel excited and privileged to be performing Haj this year. Yusuf Matadar from the Council of British Hajis (CBH), the body providing on-the-ground support to British pilgrims, was one of the first to arrive in the tent city of Mina on Thursday.

“The transportation from Makkah to Mina has been an easy ride compared to previous years,” he told Arab News. “We arrived in record time at Fajr by coach and those undertaking the walking Haj arrived a few hours later.”

Altaf Arif from Arif Haj & Umrah Services based in Nelson, United Kingdom, said: “The transportation to Mina has been extremely efficient this year. Our group has arrived. Many are first timers and are resting ahead of Arafat on Friday.”

One pilgrim, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “It is very hot compared to previous years, and I am disappointed to see that some air conditioning units have not been serviced. I hope this is resolved very soon.”

For the majority of the 100,000 Indian pilgrims the movement from Makkah to Mina was hassle-free. “Our pilgrims started their journey in groups from Makkah at 10 p.m. on Wednesday and by 10 a.m. on Thursday, all of them were in their tents,” said Indian Consul General B.S. Mubarak.

One reason for the smooth flow of Indian pilgrims is that most of them are housed in Makkah’s Aziziah district.

“The distance from Aziziah to Mina is pretty short and the roads are also very wide. All this facilitated the easy movement of our pilgrims,” said Mubarak.

However, some 300 pilgrims had anxious moments when the buses hired by their operator failed to arrive. The Indian Haj Mission then used their staff vehicles to ferry the pilgrims to their tents in Mina.

“Our pilgrims are resting and catching up on some sleep after being awake the whole night,” said Mubarak.

Mubarak said some pilgrims had suffered under the 45-degree heat at noon on Thursday.

“Even the younger pilgrims are feeling thirsty,” said Mubarak. “Once you are inside the tents, it is even hotter. The air-conditioners are on but they will take some time to cool the tents,” he said.

Among the heads of state present were Sudan President Omar Bashir and Bangladesh President Mohammed Abdul Hameed. The Haj will climax on Friday when all the pilgrims assemble on the plains of Arafat, for what many describe as a reflection of the Day of Judgment when every person will be held accountable for their actions.

Despite checkpoints, many pilgrims without permits still managed to enter Mina. They were seen sleeping under the bridges and on the hilltops that surround the city. A top official told Arab News that the government is not against anyone performing the Haj.

“Pilgrims without documents have no place to sleep or pray. So they make themselves comfortable in pedestrian pathways, blocking the movement of pilgrims. If they come through a proper operator, then they have proper accommodation and do not become a problem for other pilgrims,” he explained.

Saudis are here in large numbers to help pilgrims, and getting a lot of praise for their dedicated service.

“It is a source of pride to us that the majority of healthcare providers at the Haj are Saudi,” acting Health Minister Adel Fakeih said in a press statement on Wednesday night following a tour to inspect the readiness of the field and emergency facilities.

Nearly 22,000 medics, paramedics, and administrators are here to provide healthcare services at 182 healthcare facilities. Around 60 percent of those are Saudis from different parts of the Kingdom.  The facilities include 25 hospitals with 5,250 beds, and 157 primary healthcare centers at the holy sites in Makkah, Madinah, Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat.

Tariq Al-Arnoos, the commander of the field and emergency medicine fleet at the Haj, said that the Health Ministry has mobilized around 157 ambulances at the holy sites for emergencies, including overcrowding, fires, and unexpected rains. Mina’s tent city, which is in a valley, comes to life only during the five days of Haj. The fire-resistant tents remain in place throughout the year.

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