Relative of Mina victims says only consul general, DG cooperative in hunt for loved ones
KARACHI: Pakistani citizen Zubair Ahmed went to Makkah this year for the journey of a lifetime. Travelling with his parents, aunt and uncle, Ahmed was leading a group of elderly Hajj pilgrims from Karachi to Kaaba when they were crushed near Mina in one of the deadliest crowd disasters in the history of the holy land.
Ahmed and his family were among the 1,621 pilgrims killed in the September 24 tragedy, however, their whereabouts were not immediately known.
The sluggish response to the accident by the authorities forced Ahmed’s US-based relative Zafar Tahir to travel to Saudi Arabia and start a private search for him and his family. As he moved between hospitals and cities looking for his loved ones, what struck Tahir was the absence of Pakistan’s Hajj mission staff – a team most responsible and most needed after the tragic incident.
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“I saw the officials only twice at Mina Medical Complex – the hospital where most victims were taken – during my trips to the medical facility,” he shared. Working with a dozen volunteers, Tahir spent six to eight hours daily at the Complex for several days, scouring frequently through updated lists of patients and the deceased.
Drawing a comparison with Hajj missions of other countries which worked diligently to trace their citizens, Tahir pointed out Pakistani staff appeared inexperienced and uninterested. “You have to be vigilant to do this kind of job. If your mission is not present at hospitals round-the-clock, listening to the names of the victims called out, how do you think you will find your citizens?” he questioned.
Tahir praised the Indian Hajj mission who he said were better equipped with knowledge and technology to deal with the challenge. “They were more active; on their toes,” he stated. In contrast, Tahir said the Pakistani staff was “nalaik” or incompetent.
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He, however, added the chiefs of the Pakistani Hajj mission – Director General Abu Akif and Consul General Aftab Ahmed Khokhar – were cooperative and caring. Tahir stressed that staff for Hajj missions needed to be educated, trained in handling emergency situations, well-versed in foreign languages – like English and Arabic – and sophisticated in their approach.
Piecing together the information he gathered during his search in Saudi Arabia, Tahir accused his relatives’ group leader – a private operator responsible for guiding pilgrims throughout the holy journey – of criminal negligence.
“Group leader Abdul Ghafoor Thanvi didn’t give his group a chance to rest after spending the night at Muzdalifah and arranged a bus without an air-conditioner back to Mina in the unforgiving Makkah weather,” Tahir said, pointing out Ahmed’s father fainted while on the bus. Failing to get help for the elderly, Tahir said Thanvi continued with the journey after exhausting his group’s pilgrims. “Thanvi was also performing Hajj; I believe the person responsible to guide pilgrims should not perform Hajj because he is responsible for the welfare of his group and he should focus on them,” Tahir said.
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Leading a group of roughly 100 pilgrims, Tahir said Thanvi failed to keep a check on all the members of his cohort. “He continued with his Hajj even after getting the news of a stampede; he did not bother to stop and check if all his group members were safe. He went on to Jamarat and then to his hotel to rest.”
According to him, Thanvi started his search for the missing pilgrims late in the evening. When Tahir confronted Thanvi over this issue in Makkah, the group leader said he fainted when bodies started falling around him and his daughter-in-law splashed water on his face to wake him up. “These are all lies; he told me he thought there was a gas explosion and people were caught in a fire,” Tahir said. He added even if that had been the case, the group leader was responsible for the safety of his pilgrims.
“Thanvi and his staff failed; I question the standards according to which the government selects private Hajj operators,” he said.
Acknowledging there may be certain shortcomings in the Saudi response to the tragedy, Tahir said the overall performance was very systematic and cautious.“The authorities were very careful about handing the bodies and the injured; photos, fingerprints and DNA samples were taken of each victim for identification,” he shared, adding Ahmed was identified with the help of their thumbprint database.
Tahir said the DNA samples can be used to identify those who were buried before their relatives were informed.
Denying rumours of mass graves and improper funerals, Tahir said each victim was given ghusl and buried in separate graves. “The authorities did not wait because certain bodies were not in the condition to be stored and had to be buried immediately,” he said. Tahir also praised the Saudi officials who helped him tirelessly in his search for Ahmed and others.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2015.