Hajj Tragedy: The Last Flight And Its Attendant Pain, By Imam Imam
The tragedy that befell the Islamic world during last Hajj may now be a fading memory to majority of people; but to the families of the victims, the pain and anguish of the tragedy that happened in Saudi Arabia this year remains ever fresh. As it is the case with personal misfortune, no matter how long others attempt provide support and shoulder to the victims to lean on, in the end, those who suffer losses are left to feel their pains alone.
I came face-to-face with the soreness of the loss, and anguish of the families of the victims, about a week ago at the Sultan Abubakar III International Airport Sokoto, where the last batch of the state’s pilgrims touched down in Nigeria from the Holy Land after the conclusion of the annual exercise. The atmosphere was filled with apprehension especially in the waiting area as families waited to see if their loved ones were on the plane or not. The nervousness was logical. Few days earlier, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) announced that the number of Nigerians confirmed dead in the Jamarat stampede rose from 168 to 173 after some of those earlier declared missing were identified among the corpses in the hospitals.
The Commissioner of Planning, Research, Statistics, Information and Library Services (PRSILS) of the commission, Dr. Saleh Okenwa, told reporters in Makkah that only six Nigerians remain admitted in hospital and are responding to treatment. Although, he did not give the detailed figures, Okenwa regretted that Sokoto topped the list of states with the highest casualties from Nigeria with majority being females. While the overall total of those injured was put at 35, he said those still declared missing stood at 137. “The numbers of dead from the state pilgrims are 135 comprising 60 males, 69 females, four male officials and two female officials. Thirty-three consisting of 18 males and 15 females were injured, while 124 are still missing comprising 67 males, 55 females and two male officials. The tour operators recorded 28 deaths with 24 males and 14 females, two were injured and among the six in admission, while 13 comprising 10 males and three females are still missing,” he added.
The news of the arrival of the last flight was greeted with a mixture of joy and anxiety. As Chika Bello, one of those waiting at the airport told me, he did not speak with his mother for the last one month but somehow, he has kept the hope that she will be among those to return home that day. He said his hope was hinged on the premise that those declared missing would somehow be identified and transported back home. He was disappointed. Bello’s story was similar to that of 18 year old Zahra’u who came to the airport in the hope of meeting her mother and sister-in-law. Seated alone in the car away from the rest of the crowd, Zahra’u thought she had to be there one last time hoping God will answer her prayers and somehow make her two dear siblings to be in the plane. Like Bello, she had not spoken to them since the tragedy over a month ago. She had piled up emotion within her, and being alone in the car, away from the nervy scenario, was one avenue to escape reality.
Zahra’u sanctuary didn’t last long. As soon as the aircraft landed at about 10.00pm, and all de-boarding processes completed, the airport turned into one huge crying arena. Bello and Zahra’u, like many others, saw each and every one passenger that disembarked from the plane, except the ones they were there to see. What followed was one of the most touching scenario imaginable. Families hugged each other for support, tears flowed relentlessly, kids left dazed and confused, mothers sought comfort in any helping shoulder available, and fathers restrained themselves from crying. It was emotional and incomprehensible for them all.
At the far corner of the airport waiting area, I saw a young boy who I was told lost his father in the misfortune. The story goes that few minutes after speaking to his dad on phone on that fateful day, the tragedy occurred. They never spoke again. What he left were pictures and memories for them to hang on to. My heart was broken into a thousand pieces. Even knowing that the world grieves with the victims must be a small comfort when they know the enormity of the pain they are bearing. What I saw on the face of that young boy told me the pain of his family must be nearly unbearable I hope there is some comfort in knowing, as we Muslims believe, that they have died in the best way possible.
As I struggled to hold back tears of my own that fateful evening, I felt nothing other than compassion for all those who were in pain at the airport. I comforted the ones I could. I lifted my hands and prayed: Dear God, bless and take care of these innocent children and other victims’ families. Bless the souls of those who died while in your worship in the Holy Land. I ask that You take care of the parents who lost their kids; take care of the kids who lost fathers and mothers, brothers and uncles, sisters and aunts, I ask that You comfort us all and fill our hearts with positive memories of our departed brethren, I ask that You ease our pain and never let us witness such a monumental but preventable tragedy. Be with us, comfort us, and make us among those who You will favour. Amen.
*Imam is Sokoto-based journalist