Wednesday, January 17, 2007

death of the pilgrims

Yesterday I flew to Osh for a short visit. Upon landing at the Osh airport, I waited outside, as usual, for my luggage. And I saw many people, adult men, women, elderly, crying.

“What’s going on?” I asked Malan.

“Did you hear about the bus crush in Saudi Arabia?” he asked. I had read that 22 Krygyz died in a bus accident while returning from Hajj, the trip to Mecca.


“Well, they were all from Osh and the surrounding regions. An empty plane flew out this morning to collect the injured and it will return this evening. These people are waiting for their family members to return.”

“I thought they’d banned buses traveling to Mecca this year,” I said. That was what he’d told me last time, when we walked through the airport crowded with people seeing off their relatives.

“They did. They flew to Dubai, then took a bus to Mecca from there,” he said.

He told me the bus was traveling from Mecca to Dubai at high speed. It hit another bus, also traveling at high speed head on. And then another vehicle hit the bus from the back.

“The bus in the middle was the one with the Kyrgyz pilgrims,” he said. That would mean that those seated in the front of the bus would be crushed in the first crash, and those at the back in the second, leaving only hope for passengers seated in the middle.

He told me that Saudi Arabia has a law that requires people who die there to be buried in Saudi Arabia.

“The Kyrgyz officials got the names of those who died and are injured. Then they quickly went around to visit the families in person to tell them the news and to get their written permission to allow their relatives to be buried in Saudi Arabia. They didn’t want the public to panic.”

The relatives requested that their lost ones be buried as close as possible to Mecca.

“Does this make anyone question their religion?” I asked. “They were in the process of a holy pilgrimage and so many died? Does it make them wonder why God would let that happen?”

“No,” he said. “People die going to Mecca every year. Last year several elderly people died because they couldn’t handle the long bus trip through the cold of Russia. Then people die due to being pressed by the crowds. It can even be considered a source of pride to die so close to Mecca.”

“These people don’t look very proud,” I said, as I watched a man in a baseball cap hug an older woman as fat tears dropped from his eyes.

“That woman in the hat..” Malan said. “She is saying, ‘Whenever I came before, she was always the one to greet and welcome me. Now there will be nobody to greet me.’ She lost her mother. And it seems she’s come back from Russia.”

Malan said they showed the list of the dead on TV. “Most of them were older, born in the 1940s and 50s. But I saw a woman born in 1972 and her husband.” He looked sober.

“This is going to stay with their relatives forever. Many young people who’ve managed to do well send their parents to Hajj. Some do it as a gift. Others do it as a way to achieve social standing. Even if their parents don’t really want to go, it’s hard for them to reject it. And know they must think to themselves that they sent their relatives to their deaths. If only they’d given them $2,000 cash instead and told them to do whatever they liked with it, they would have lived well. But in an effort to do something good, they instead killed their mothers and fathers. They will never be able to forget this.”

I could only start to imagine the profound regret they must feel, the if onlys, the what ifs, the blame - unfair but present nonetheless.

I was there at the Osh airport when people were departing for Mecca. It was festive – more people than I’d ever seen before at that little airport. Vendors had set up shashlik grills with little plastic tables and chairs. The smoke curled upwards and through the crowds of festive people dressed in black, encircling their relative about to make the biggest trip of his or her lifetime. They’d come back with sins forgiven, ready for heaven, ready to assume a place of respect in the local hierarchy. They couldn’t fathom that they might not return at all.

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