‘Not enough medics’ to help pilgrims with heat, Hajj witnesses tell CNN as toll mounts

There were not enough medics or basic facilities to protect Hajj pilgrims from the effects of the sweltering heat in Saudi Arabia last week, two pilgrims recently returned from Hajj told CNN, as the official death toll from this year’s Hajj pilgrimage soared to almost 500.

Witnesses said worshipers losing consciousness and walking past bodies covered in white cloth became a norm during the mass religious event.

This years’ Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has been held amid extreme weather conditions which saw temperatures consistently soar above average figures. The exact death toll remains unclear and is expected to rise much further, as each country has been independently announcing the deaths of their nationals.

Additionally, the governments are only aware of pilgrims who have registered and traveled to Mecca as part of their country’s quota – more deaths are feared among unregistered pilgrims.

Zirrar Ali, 40, who returned to London on Friday from his pilgrimage with his 70-year-old father, told CNN that authorities did not provide enough water, shade or medical support to Hajj pilgrims during the week he was there.

“To me, it felt like there are too many people, there are not enough medics, so they are just waiting for the worst of the worst to happen and then they will step in,” Ali said, adding that people passing out came to be a regularity.

“I couldn’t focus on my Hajj when I saw these people suffering,” he added.

Ali’s comments were echoed by another witness, 44-year-old Ahmad from Indonesia, who told CNN he saw many people falling ill and even dying from the heat.

A woman uses a fan to cool off a man lying on the ground during Hajj. - Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images
A woman uses a fan to cool off a man lying on the ground during Hajj. - Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

“Along the way home, I saw many pilgrims who died. Almost every few hundred meters, there was a body lying and covered with an ihrom [white fabric] cloth,” he said.

“Every time there is a distribution of water from local residents or certain groups, it is immediately overrun by the pilgrims,” he added, saying that he didn’t see health workers or a single ambulance along the road.

Both pilgrims lamented the poor infrastructure and organization of this year’s pilgrimage, especially for those who travelled independently, outside of licensed tour groups.

Saudi Arabia requires each pilgrim to acquire one of the 1.8 million available licenses to legally access Mecca. These licenses can cost several thousand US dollars. Unlicensed pilgrims typically don’t travel in organized tour buses with air conditioning or easy access to water and food supplies.

Muslim pilgrims use umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. - Rafiq Maqbool/AP
Muslim pilgrims use umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. - Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Despite the luxuries on offer to some, all pilgrims spend the bulk of their day walking outdoors in the scorching heat.

According to Ali, five hours walking every day is the minimum, but many pilgrims spent 12 hours outside per day.

For him, although the long walk is a fundamental part of the Hajj experience, he believes the Saudi government should have provided more assistance.

“Taking eight hours to get from A to B, that’s part of being patient and that’s considered hardship…but at no point were we told ‘if you don’t have water for ten hours, that’s considered part of Hajj’ it’s not considered to be part of Hajj, we should be giving comfort and taking care of ourselves,” he said.

The daughter of an elderly Indonesian man who died during Hajj told CNN her family was “happy” he was buried in the Islamic holy city of Mecca after he had waited for years to go on the pilgrimage.

Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Heru Jumartiyah said her 86-year-old father Ngatijo Wongso Sentono registered for Hajj pilgrimage in 2018 and travelled to Mecca with his 83-year-old wife and neighbors from the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta.

“My father was very enthusiastic about going on the Hajj. He wanted to leave immediately,” she told CNN.

According to Islamic belief, to die and be buried in Mecca is considered to be a blessing, with many Muslims travelling in their old age after having saved for the pilgrimage.

CNN has reached out to Saudi authorities regarding the reportedly inadequate response to this year’s heat and has yet to hear back.

More than 1.8 million people took part in this year’s Hajj, one of the world’s largest religious gatherings, according to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics.

While deaths among pilgrims are not uncommon (there were more than 200 last year), this year’s gathering is being held amid particularly high temperatures.

Hajj season changes every year according to the Islamic calendar and this year it fell in June, one of the hottest months in the kingdom.

It occurs two months and 10 days after Ramadan ends, during the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar and shorter than the Gregorian calendar, the timing of Hajj on the Gregorian calendar shifts slightly each year.

CNN’s Masrur Jamaluddin and Manveena Suri contributed reporting.

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