Many died right in front of us - South African in Mecca

2015-09-25 10:22
Rescuers respond to the hajj stampede. (Directorate of Saudi civil defence agency’s Twitter account. AP)

Rescuers respond to the hajj stampede. (Directorate of Saudi civil defence agency’s Twitter account. AP)

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Pietermaritzburg - Helping a fellow South African pilgrim who passed out moments before Thursday’s stampede in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, may have saved the life of Pietermaritzburg businessman Zaid Ismail Bayat.

More than 700 people were killed at Mina, a few kilometres east of Mecca, when two large groups of pilgrims arrived together at a crossroads on their way to performing the “stoning of the devil” ritual at Jamarat, Saudi civil defence said.

Speaking to The Witness from Mecca, Bayat said witnessing the stampede was a “most traumatic” experience.

“We saw people collapse and die in front of us. People passed out and were completely disorientated. All we could do was offer them water and help them up before the emergency services arrived,” he said.

'Then there was chaos'

Mountain Rise resident Bayat is a volunteer for Khidmatul Awaam Pilgrimage Services, a Section 21 company that assists and accompanies pilgrims to Mecca each year. He said about 2 000 South Africans were in Mecca, including several from Pietermaritzburg.

Bayat, Gift of the Givers founder Imtiaz Sooliman and Pietermaritzburg Islamic School teacher Mohamed Saeed, all confirmed late on Thursday that no South African had been reported seriously injured or killed during the stampede.

Bayat said one of the pilgrims in his group fainted during the start of the stampede and Bayat and his colleagues rushed the man through the crowd to a nearby camp for assistance.

“We made it to a Moroccan camp but by the time we got there, the stampede worsened and people were pushing from all sides to get in. People were screaming and hysterical and it was all very traumatic.”

Bayat said the stampede was caused by people pushing wheelchairs and walking contraflow to the foot traffic.

“Everything is very organised here. But somehow hordes of people were walking in the other direction against traffic, which was strange. Then there was chaos. Police and emergency services were at the scene trying to control the movement of people and even tried forming a barricade to get control.”

After emergency services gained control of the crowd, Bayat said the area of the incident was closed off and people were allowed to complete their pilgrimage via other routes.

People 'tired and broken'

 “The scene was quite dramatic and sad. We tried to help wherever we could by going out to the people and giving them water and sometimes even performing CPR on them. People were just collapsing all around us and many died right in front of our eyes,” said Bayat. He said the scene spoke of distress and trauma as people who made it out of the stampede looked “tired and broken”.

“Their clothes were torn and some soaked in blood. Most people were so disorientated because of the humidity and the heat coming from the crowd. I was helping a man and every time he tried to get up, he kept falling back to the ground like dead weight.”

Bayat said the chaos lasted about two hours and was “quite hectic”.

He said he would return to Mecca for his next prayer a few hours after the interview.

Bayat, who has been in Mecca for six weeks, will return to South Africa next week. “I am so grateful to have survived and the moment I was safe inside the Moroccan camp I thought about calling my wife but I had to help those in distress first.”

He said once he left the camp, he phoned home and updated his social media to inform friends and family that he was unharmed.

“This was a very unfortunate incident but I will surely return. For most Muslims there is a deep desire to die in Mecca. Maybe in not such a tragic way but most want to die in the holy land. I have a passion for pilgrimage, which made me join Khidmatul Awaam to help others get here. We also help make it affordable so that every Muslim has the opportunity to come to the holy land,” he said.

Read more on:    saudi arabia  |  pietermaritzburg  |  hajj

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