It’s Hajj time, a time when thousands of pilgrims from all around the world perform one of the five pillars of Islam.
It’s incumbent on all Muslims, who can afford it, to go on the holy pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The Hajj period started on Thursday July 8. Eid-ul Adha is celebrated on the third day of Hajj and lasts for three days. Muslims around the world will celebrate from Tuesday July 20 until Thursday July 22. Hajj starts ten days earlier every year.
While a spiritual and peaceful time for many Muslims, Sumaya Doutie remembers the painful loss of her mother, Gadija Doutie, and stepfather, Malick Cozyn, during the 1994 Hajj stampede in Mecca that claimed the lives of 270 pilgrims.
Sumaya was born in Walmer Estate, but her family moved to Lansdowne when she was 11. She was 37 when she joined her mother and stepfather on Hajj, after saving her money, starting with a R2. They left in January 1994 for a four-month trip, but only Sumaya would return to South Africa.
Towards the end of their trip, while on their way to take part in a ritual that symbolises the stoning of the devil (pilgrims throw pebbles at three stone pillars called the Jamaraat), Sumaya’s mother and stepfather were caught up in a stampede and trampled.
“People were coming in and out in both directions; there was no access control,” says Sumaya, who took part in the ceremony separately with a group of women.
Later, hotel staff told her she needed to phone home. She learnt her mother’s brother had died in Cape Town. But when she went to her mother’s room to give her the news, she wasn’t there.
Others at the hotel told her her mother had left to pelt the Jamaraat. Sumaya then left the hotel, but when she returned later that evening, there was still no sign of her mother or stepfather.
“It took us five days to look for my mother,” she says.
With the scale of the stampede tragedy unfolding, she called her brother back in Cape Town and told him the chances were 50/50 the couple were still alive.
“I was thinking maybe my mommy got hurt, maybe she is not close to a telephone. You go into denial. With the tour operator, Faried Galant, we went to various hospitals and morgues, and because of the number of deaths, there were so many makeshift morgues. Men and women were in separate morgues.”
Sumaya was called to identify a body.
“I asked them to open her feet and keep her face closed, and then I saw that it was not my mom. There were ten beds all covered in white sheets, but my mother wasn’t there,” she says.
It was the early hours of the morning, about 3am, she recalls, and she was sitting outside one of the makeshift morgues in Mina. The bodies of the dead were piled on top of each other, the smell was bad, and she was alone. It was scary and dark. She prayed.
“At the time, they were looking for my stepfather as well. I just prayed. Then they came out with his body. His arm and leg were just hanging, which indicated that it was crushed in the stampede. There was still no sign of my mother.”
Three days later, during fajr (early morning prayer) all of the pilgrims present prayed for Sumaya’s mother and other missing pilgrims to be found. That day, she again looked for her mother. She went to the hospitals and heard one of the security guards saying they had found a Sumaya from Cape Town.
Gadija had been carrying her daughter’s book of Qur’anic texts, leading to confusion over her identity.
“She had my surah yaaseen kitaab, which I gave to her after she forgot hers, with my name written in it so they thought that she was Sumaya.”
But then, inexplicably, the mortuary presented Sumaya with a body that was not her mother’s.
“They brought a body down to me, but it was not my mother. It was an Indian woman.”
She left the hospital and returned to the hotel in Mecca.
“I could not stand the fact that I didn’t know if my mother died or not and couldn’t tell my family,” she says.
“I was lying on my bed and I had a vision of someone telling me my mother was nearly touching the ceiling.”
With this vision giving her fresh resolve, she returned to the mortuary again, where this time, finally, she was presented with her mother’s body.
“I greeted my mom for the last time, and said, ’Until we meet again, Mommy.”
Sumaya accompanied the women to the ghusl (the ritual washing of the dead) and salaah-tul-janaazah (prayer for the dead) was held. Her mom and stepfather were buried in Mecca. That was the last week of their four-month trip.
Saudi authorities said at the time that a record 2.5 million pilgrims had been on Hajj that year. They also noted that 829 people died during the Hajj: apart from the 270 killed in the stampede, 536 died from natural causes, including sun stroke, and 23 from isolated incidents.