Azan and Iqamah by Sheikh Farooq Al Hadrawi
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|Pilgrims brave downpour|
MINA: Millions of pilgrims spent the first day of this year’s Haj (Yaum Al-Tarwiyah) in prayers in Mina on Wednesday as rains soaked the faithful and flooded roads snarling traffic. Security forces and other government agencies were striving to clear the mess caused by the rains and guarantee a safe and peaceful stay for the pilgrims in Mina. The pilgrims will converge today (Thursday) on Mount Arafat marking the climax of this year’s Haj.
Violent storms caused havoc at various Haj sites as pilgrims battled the forces of nature to reach their base camps safely. Arab News received reports of hundreds of pilgrims left stranded due to severe flooding at several places between Mina and Makkah on Wednesday.
The day started ominously as dark clouds gathered over the mountainous landscape surrounding the holy sites. However, this did not deter the pilgrims as they made their way to their white tents.
In a tunnel leading to Mina and the Jamrat Bridge, 29-year-old security guard Mohammed Rashed told Arab News he was confident that all necessary resources were in place to tackle natural disasters such as heavy storms.
“There is no problem. We will have more security forces and Civil Defense personnel to help us just in case,” he said as it started drizzling.
Then the heavens opened and pilgrims rushed for cover, thankful that the drainage system installed in the area appeared to deal with the heavy rain effectively.
Other places were more badly hit. Unable to start, vehicles were left half-submerged in the Bahra and Muzha areas as well as the Jawasat checkpoint that leads into Makkah. Key routes between Makkah and Mina were closed down.
When it became apparent that emergency services and Civil Defense forces were unable to cope with the situation, stranded pilgrims began wading through the water and across busy highways as they began to make their way to the holy city.
Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, who is also chairman of the Central Haj Committee, said in a press statement in Mina that all pilgrims arrived in Mina and spent the day safely despite the heavy rains in Makkah and holy sites.
“There are a number of projects of canals and dams to guarantee the safety of pilgrims from rains and floods in Arafat and Mina,” Prince Khaled said.
The prince added that “The No Haj Without Permit” campaign was a great success and resulted in preventing a large number of pilgrims entering Makkah illegally.
In Mina, stranded pilgrim Sami Al-Khatami said, “The emergency services failed to cope with the situation. They were ill prepared for it.”
Some Hajis refused to let the wet weather dampen their spirits.
“Today’s rain caused us trouble but still it was a good omen. The Haj started with Allah showering his blessings on us,” said pilgrim Sharique Arfin Shamsi. Despite the severe weather, the majority of pilgrims safely gathered in Mina before they embark on the crucial journey up Mount Arafat.
However, the weather misery is set to continue until Thursday, with several forecasts predicting more heavy rains.
Meanwhile, health officials scrambled to assure pilgrims that the deluge isn’t going to exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases.
“The health status of the pilgrims is secured. The ministry isn’t worried. There aren’t new cases of swine flu so far,” said Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah in a public statement. “There have been a few accidents due to slipping because of the heavy rain.”
He pointed out that the ministry prepared three hospitals and 26 health centers in Arafat to serve the pilgrims and receive cases. There are also medical teams and emergency teams scattered in Arafat.
Civil Defense Director General Saad Al-Tuwaijri said there has not been any car accident due to the heavy rain in Makkah and the holy sites.
“The situation is secure and under control. We continue to implement the detailed plan to address the hazards of flooding in the holy city of Makkah,” said Al-Tuwaijri.
He added that there is a specialized rescue team ready to intervene in the event of emergencies stressing that some of the camps cannot allow entry to the pilgrims in case of heavy rain in Arafat.
Al-Tuwaijri noted that the Civil Defense started executing the detailed plan to address the risk of flooding in coordination with the concerned authorities. They have stationed specialized field units fully equipped with boats, swimmers and divers in hazardous locations ready to take prompt action, depending on the nature of the situation and evacuate pilgrims from the most common sites at risk of floods to safe locations.
“There are 300 buses ready to transport pilgrims if the need arises. Things are under control in Makkah,” said Al-Tuwaijri.
Media spokesman for the Civil Defense Maj. Abdullah Al-Harithy said that the Civil Air Defense in Makkah saved 47 families who were trapped by the heavy rains in Rabigh district. Rains started early Wednesday and continued for more than five hours inundating a number of steep valleys.
“Our forces managed to evacuate 22 other families who were trapped due to the floods. They were evicted from their homes to a number of hotels and furnished residential units,” said Al-Harithy.
— Amjad Parker, Faisal Ali, Hamid Al-Sulami and Badea Abu Al-Naja contributed to this report