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SA hujaaj saw bodies being removed: Operator

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A South African operator with Al-Mujahideen Hajj and Umrah Travel says Thursday’s tragic stampede has brought back memories of similar incidents in previous years in the tent-city of Mina, with the area being something of a hotspot of pilgrim overcrowding. Isgaak Cassiem, currently on hajj in the Saudi Kingdom, has described the incident as extremely gruesome, especially for someone who has witnessed similar tragedies during the annual Islamic pilgrimage.

Pilgrims travelling with the Al Mujahideen group were close to the site of the stampede when the incident occurred, witnessing scuffles and seeing numerous police and ambulance vehicles arriving at the scene. The group were however turned away by security and advised to use an alternative route.

“We saw the royal guard and police coming in stopping the people from going through the roads and so on. My experience told me this was a stampede and I turned to my hajis and said there is something happening here and we have to turn around,” he explained.

On Thursday evening the group again headed towards the jamarat to complete the ‘stoning of the devil’ ritual, this time using an alternate route that took them past the scene of the stampede. Here pilgrims were able to witness bodies being removed from the site and transported.

While other eye-witnesses have described the general mood amongt hujaaj as sombre and downbeat, Cassiem said many pilgrims were still fairly oblivious as to the gravity and impact of the incident.

“I experienced something like this when we still had the old camp 19 and 20 close to the jamarat. We had a contingent of Egyptians coming from the jamarat and a contingent of Iranians heading towards it and they clashed, and I was in the middle of it with my wife and my mother. Luckily I got them out in time,” he explained, detailing his own experience.

“I don’t think it has affected our hujaaj that much, because they have not experience something like this before.”

While Saudi authorities have spent millions in the way of curbing congestion and chaos in Mina, constructing a new and safer bridge and introducing new systems to limit the amount of pilgrims that pelt the jamarat at any given time, Cassiem suggested the tragedy was rather down to negligence on the part of security. While the new systems have worked well until now, he said security personnel were becoming less diligent and more nonchalant in their control of pilgrims.

“I think the generation of police they have now and which they had in previous years are different. They have younger people now doing the work,” he said.

He also suggested that if the second group heading towards the jamarat were prevented from doing so, the tragedy could well have been avoided.

“I think there was non-compliance from the security side where that was concerned. They could have avoided this in my opinion,” he concluded. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)

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