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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Hajj stampede death toll rises

The death toll of Hajj stampede near the Islamic holy city of Mecca on Thursday has risen to 769, the deadliest incident to occur during the pilgrimage in 25 years, BBC reported.

As well as the fatalities, 934 people were injured.

The incident occurred at around 6:00 GMT as millions of Muslims were travelling to Mina, a valley which is about 3 miles away from Mecca to throw stones to Jamarat pillars which represent devil which according to Islam tempted Prophet Abraham.

Security has been tightened across Mecca to prevent possible attacks by Jihadist groups and stampedes.

Social media photographs showed hundreds of white-clad bodies piled high on each other as security forces carried wounded victims, some of them crying while other chanted ‘God is great’ into ambulances.

Iran’s supreme National Security Council accused Saudi Arabia of ‘incompetence’ and urged them to ‘take responsibility’ for the deaths, according to the BBC.

The Nigerian government has also dismissed remarks by the Saudi health minister blaming pilgrims for "not following instructions".

Earlier, the country's most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin-Abdullah al-Sheikh, defended the authorities, saying the stampede was "beyond human control".

King Salman has ordered a safety review into the disaster.

The disaster is the second to strike in two weeks, after a crane collapsed at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing 109 people.

Saturday was the final day of the Hajj, with no further incidents reported.

Deaths reported so far by nationality

Iran: at least 140

Morocco: 87 (media reports)

Cameroon: at least 20

Niger: at least 19

India: 18

Pakistan: 18

Egypt: 37

Chad: 11

Somalia: 8 (media reports)

Senegal: 5

Algeria: 4

Tanzania: 4

Turkey: 4

Indonesia: 3

Kenya: 3

Nigeria: 3

Netherlands: 1

Burundi: 1

Burkina Faso: 1

Other nationalities (numbers not yet known): Benin

Saudi helplines: 00966 125458000 and 00966 125496000

Thursday, September 24, 2015

310 pilgrims die in stampede on way to Jamrat complex

MINA: Tragedy struck Mina on Thursday morning when more than 310 pilgrims died in a stampede on the way to the Jamrat complex.
Saudi Civil Defense forces said more than 450 were injured. The exact cause of the accident could not be determined easily.
Many of the injured were in semiconscious state. The harsh summer weather has only added to the problem. The injured were not in a position to speak.
Sirens were wailing as the ambulances brought in the injured. Hundreds of Saudi security forces and Haj volunteers are at hand helping the injured.
Most of the injured were taken to Mina Emergency Hospital. Other were also rushed to the hospitals in Makkah.
The Jamrat area, where the pilgrims have to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil ritual, has seen stampedes in the past. But the Saudi authorities have expanded the area by constructing a multilayered complex to ease the flow of pilgrims.
The pilgrims had spent the night in Muzdalifa and had come to Mina to throw seven pea-sized stoned at one of the three wall-like structures.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pilgrims throng Arafat for peak of Haj

Around two million white-clad Muslims on Wednesday poured into the vast Saudi plain where Prophet Muhammad had given his final sermon, for the peak of the Haj pilgrimage.
Many of the faithful from around the globe camped at the foot of Mount Arafat where they slept, exhausted from their journey, and prayed despite the scorching sun.
Carrying colorful umbrellas, they walked from dawn in massive crowds toward the slippery, rocky hill which is also known as Mount Mercy.
It was here that the Prophet gave his final sermon 14 centuries ago after leading his followers on Haj.
To organize the flow of pilgrims, security forces formed human chains along the roads of the vast Arafat plain.
Along the way, volunteers handed out boxes of food and cold water bottles.
For many pilgrims, Haj is the spiritual highlight of their lives.
“We feel blessed. I got goosebumps, a feeling that cannot be explained, when reaching the top of the mountain,” said Ruhaima Emma, a 26-year-old Filipino pilgrim, who said she has been “praying for a good life for everyone.”
For Akram Ghannam, 45, from war-torn Syria, being in Arafat is a “feeling that cannot be described. I pray to God for the victory of all those who are oppressed.”
Many reached Arafat by bus while some walked from the holy city of Makkah about 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.
Other pilgrims arrived from nearby Mina using the elevated Mashair Railway linking the holy sites of Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina, a tent city where many pilgrims spent Tuesday night.
After sunset on Wednesday they will move to Muzdalifah. There they will gather pebbles for a symbolic stoning of the devil ritual on Thursday, which is also the Eid Al-Adha feast of sacrifice marked by the world’s more than 1.5 billion Muslims.

Undeterred by crane accident
This year’s gathering is about the same size as last year’s, with 1.4 million foreign pilgrims joining hundreds of thousands of Saudis and residents of the kingdom.
They are undeterred by a construction crane collapse at the Grand Mosque earlier this month that killed 111 people, including foreign pilgrims.
About 400 people were injured by the crane which was working on an expansion of Islam’s holiest site.
Previously marred by stampedes and fires that killed hundreds, the pilgrimage had been largely incident-free for the past nine years after safety improvements.
The Haj is among the five pillars of Islam and every capable Muslim must perform it at least once in a lifetime.
This year’s gathering takes place against a backdrop of increased extremist violence in some Muslim countries, a surge of the potentially deadly MERS virus and the war in Yemen.
About 100,000 police have been deployed to secure pilgrimage sites and manage the crowds.
Authorities say they are on alert for possible attacks by extremists, after Daesh terrorists bombed security forces and Shiite mosques in the kingdom in recent months.
Among other challenges facing Saudi authorities is potential transmission of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
Riyadh saw a jump in infections last month, but health officials say there has never been a case of MERS infection among pilgrims.
The health ministry has mobilized thousands of medical workers to help ensure a virus-free pilgrimage and to care for routine ailments.
Pilgrims began the Haj on Tuesday by entering ihram, a state of purity in which they must not quarrel, wear perfume, or cut their nails or hair.
During ihram, men wear a seamless two-piece shroud-like white garment, while women must wear loose dresses, generally also white, exposing only their faces and hands.
The clothing emphasizes their unity, regardless of whether they spend the Haj in Makkah’s five-star hotels or in shabby highrise hostels.
“I’m hoping for mercy and that Allah accepts our prayers,” said Pakistani pilgrim Abdeghafour Abu Bakr, 38, who came with friends.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Civil Defense chief: high winds toppled Makkah crane

Civil Defense Director General Suleiman bin Abdullah Al-Amro said high winds caused a massive crane to topple over and smash into the Grand Mosque in Makkah, killing at least 107 people ahead of the start of the annual Haj pilgrimage.
Al-Amro told Al-Arabiya TV on Saturday that unusually powerful winds in the area also tore down trees and signs as a storm whipped through the area.
He denied reports that lightning brought down the red-and-white crane or that some of those killed died in a stampede.
The civil defense directorate says 238 people were injured in the accident late Friday afternoon at the mosque, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba and is ringed by several cranes engaged in ongoing construction work to expand the site.
An engineer for Saudi Binladin Group, the company contracted to do the Grand Mosque expansion project, said it was a freak accident and not due to a technical fault
“It was not a technical issue at all,” said the engineer, who asked not to be identified. He told Agence France Presse that the crane, like many others on the project, had been there for three or four years without any problem.
Authorities are investigating the tragedy, which occurred as hundreds of thousands of Muslims from around the world were gathering for the annual Haj pilgrimage.
The engineer said the crane was the main one used on work to expand the tawaf, or circumambulation area around the Kaaba — a massive cubed structure at the center of the mosque that is a focal point of worship.
“It has been installed in a way so as not to affect the hundreds of thousands of worshippers in the area and in an extremely professional way,” he said.
“This is the most difficult place to work in, due to the huge numbers of people in the area.”
The crane’s heavy hook, which is able to lift hundreds of tons, began swaying and moved the whole crane with it, toppling into the mosque, the engineer explained.
A witness said the accident occurred during winds which were so strong they shook his car and tossed billboards around.
The development project is expanding the area of the Grand Mosque by 400,000 square meters (4.3 million square feet), allowing it to accommodate up to 2.2 million people at once.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Two Somalian refugees reach Winnipeg after swimming down the Red

Two Somalian refugee claimants crossed the border into Canada the hard way this week -- in the Red River.

On Wednesday, Yahya Samatar, who was shivering and soaking wet, climbed out of the Red River in Emerson, and into the pickup truck of a Good Samaritan who cranked up the heat, gave him a sweater and called 911.

"I didn't know where to go," said Samatar, a 32-year-old English-speaking aid worker from Somalia. In an interview with the Free Press Thursday, he said he and a companion were dropped off just south of the Canadian border crossing after midnight Tuesday. "I saw the lights of the port" at Emerson, he said. They were both afraid U.S. border patrols would pick them up and send them back to Somalia, so they headed for the bush.

"I crossed the farms and saw the bushes. I went in the bushes and saw the river."

Disoriented and in the dark, they figured the river ran east to west rather than south to north and, if they waded across it, they'd be safe in Canada, he said.

His companion entered the river with a backpack containing Samatar's wallet and phone. He was quickly swept up by the current and carried downstream, he said.

"I wasn't seeing him," Samatar said. He thought his friend had drowned. "I didn't hear him calling my name."

By that time, Samatar had already taken three steps into the mighty Red. Realizing it wasn't a lazy river they could just wade across, he scrambled back up on the bank.

"I slept in the bush." In the morning, he took a chance. "I thought I could cross if I left my trousers and shoes behind."

He learned to swim as a kid growing up in Kismaayo, a port city south of Mogadishu on the Indian Ocean, but he was not prepared for the cold, fast-moving river.

After two or three terrifying minutes in the water, Samatar said he swam back to shore and pulled himself out of the river. Shivering and shoeless, wearing nothing but shorts and a T-shirt, he walked into Emerson. "I didn't know if I'm in Canadian territory," Samatar said.

"I met a guy parking a truck... He was shocked by me when he saw my condition... He was a very nice guy." He told Samatar he was in Canada, gave him a sweater, put him in the cab of his truck with the heater running full blast and called 911. Paramedics and RCMP arrived.

After determining he wasn't hypothermic, Samatar was arrested, handcuffed, draped in a blanket and taken to the Canada Border Services Agency office nearby.

"They gave me food and trousers and a sweatshirt -- they gave me what they had."

The refugee claimant was interviewed, photographed, fingerprinted and given an October date for an Immigration and Refugee Board hearing. Then he was released.

But with no money, no one to call to pick him up, and nowhere to go, Canada Border Services Agency officials called Welcome Place in Winnipeg to get help for Samatar. Their offices had already closed, so they called Hospitality House Refugee Ministry. It handles private sponsorships of refugees, not refugee claimants, but their settlement manager jumped in her car and drove south to Emerson to get Samatar and put him up at Hospitality House residence in Winnipeg.

On Friday, Samatar learned his friend made it out of the river, hitchhiked to Winnipeg and was on his way to Toronto to make a refugee claim there.

Hospitality House settlement manager Karin Gordin took him to Welcome Place to fill out paper work for his refugee claim and to check in with the Canada Border Services Agency at The Forks.

"They were impressed with his English," Gordon said. "They told him he might have a future as an interpreter working for them."

Samatar hopes he's at the end of what has been a year-long survival odyssey.

He fled Somalia in August of last year when he became a target because he does aid work with a non-governmental organization and had no one to protect him.

"There's no functioning government," Samatar said. "As long as your clan has not a lot of power, you're at risk." Militia groups and Al Shabaab are active and night-time attacks are common, he said.

Samatar said he and his family scraped together US$12,000 to pay smugglers to get him to Ethiopia, then Brazil, and help him make his way by land through Central America to the U.S. border at Matamoros, Mexico. "I took buses and walked in the jungle for one month," he said.

In the U.S., he was apprehended as an illegal alien and spent six months in a detention centre in Texas and another 10 weeks in a centre in Louisiana. After his refugee claim was formally rejected, he was released to await deportation back to Somalia. Desperate to set down roots in some place safe, he headed north. A contact in Minneapolis's huge Somali community rented a car and drove Samatar and his companion close to the border crossing at Pembina, N.D., he said.

In Canada, the kindness of strangers has been a shock to his system, he said. He feels welcome and hopes to make this his home.

"I want to upgrade my education and get a job to support my family," said Samatar, who is married to a journalist who also fled Somalia. She is in Kenya with their baby and their three older children are with Samatar's mother.

"Hopefully, my asylum is accepted, and I can sponsor them."

Return to Somalia: No longer a refugee

The flight took just one hour, but for 26 year old Fatuma and the 115 Somalis on board, it was the journey of a lifetime.

They have been living in exile for years, hosted in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp located in a remote corner of northeastern Kenya.

On 5 August 2015, they went back home to Somalia. Fatuma returned to the Somali capital Mogadishu as a mother, bringing with her Fardowsa, born in May 2013 in the refugee camp where she lived for three years.

Dadaab has been a safe haven for refugees from Somalia, since it was initially set up in 1991 when civil war broke out in Somalia. Planned to host around 90,000 people, the complex of five camps has grown dramatically over the years, reflecting the reality on the other side of the border.

In Somalia, prolonged armed conflict compounded by consequences of recurring natural hazards, have forced millions to move in search of survival and protection. Today, 333,000 refugees make up the refugee population in Dadaab with the vast majority being from neighbouring Somalia – a country within which more than one million people continue to live in displacement.

Returning home, to areas people once fled from in Somalia, is a trend gaining ground over the past three years. More than 60,000 internally displaced have been supported by UNHCR and its partners to return to their areas of origin since mid-2012, and voluntary repatriation has picked up since a framework offering support to safe, dignified and sustainable returns was agreed on in 2013.

The Tripartite Agreement signed in November 2013 between UNHCR and the Governments of Kenya and Somalia, constitutes a framework to ensure that repatriation must be safe and dignified and fully voluntary.

Close to 2,600 Somali refugees decided to leave Kenya and return to their areas of origin in Somalia in the course of a seven-month Pilot Phase from December 2014 during which UNHCR provided repatriation and reintegration support.

Fatuma and the 115 refugees onboard of the plane from Dadaab, are the first refugees to return to Somalia since a new and enhanced repatriation programme was endorsed by the Tripartite Commission on 29 July.

From the dusty plains of Dadaab, they cruised over troubled areas of South Central Somalia where they could not go by road. Soon after, the plane prepared for landing in Mogadishu, along a beautiful stretch of coastline where Somalia meets the Indian Ocean.

On the ground waiting were several Somali government representatives eager to meet and greet the returnees. The UNHCR-sponsored flight allowed the group of now former refugees to return home despite the still fragile security situation in parts of their country. Future refugee returns will continue to be primarily by road, and only the most vulnerable will be airlifted from Kenya to Somalia.

In Dadaab, Fatuma ran a small kiosk and will now start looking for some start up assistance for a shop in Mogadishu to earn a living. Fatuma and her daughter are fortunate to have a home to return to. They will move into the house of her mother and sister, and wait for the return of her husband who is in South Africa. Other returnees, especially those who have been away from Somalia for many years, often need to start all over building once more a foundation for their lives and livelihoods.

UNHCR supports returnees to return and reintegrate in their areas of origin where an increasing number of rehabilitation and development projects are ongoing. The joint aim for these projects undertaken by UN agencies in collaboration with federal and regional government authorities, is to restore and create access to water, sanitation and basic services. For many, however, the choice to go back remains difficult, when their longing to return to their roots is overshadowed by fear of insecurity, continued conflict and lack of access to jobs, schools, hospitals and other essential facilities that are not yet in place.

While some – including the governments of Kenya and Somalia – argue that the returnees are part of the solution to rehabilitate and stabilize Somalia, many refugees in Kenya want to first see conditions in their home country that are more conducive to their return.

On board the plane from Dadaab was also Hureji Osman Siat, 72. She did not want to wait any longer to return. Hureji Osman Siat was on the plane with her daughter and several grandchildren, one of them a boy with a physical disability. In Dadaab, she was working with Handicap International and wants to continue working to serve her people through humanitarian work, she says.

Hureji Osman Siat left Mogadishu in 2008 and her house then located in a central part of the city. She returns without yet knowing where she and the rest of the family will settle. Most of the relatives are still in Dadaab, but Hureji Osman Siat says that their plan is to contact former neighbours to help them find a place to stay.

All she carries is 20 kilos of luggage, and a heart and mind full of hope. "I am happy to be back even if I have to sleep under a tree, because returning to Mogadishu is what I have been thinking about for a long time," she says.

By Alexandra Strand Holm Nairobi/Mogadishu

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Is the khat plant a cultural weed?

Khat (Somali qaat or jaad; Ethiopian chat) is a flowering plant native to tropical east Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It contains the alkaloid cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant which is said to cause both excitement and euphoria.
In 1980, WHO classified khat as a drug of abuse that can produce mild to moderate psychological dependence. It is a controlled/illegal substance in many countries but is legal for sale and production in many others.
In early 2009, a Nigerian was arrested at MIA while attempting to import khat into Malta.
During the weekend of October 3, 2009 a fight broke out at the ─Žal-Far open centre involving rival Somali tribe members. Subsequently, charges were brought against a number of individuals.
The Times of Malta (October 10, 2009) reported that the presiding magistrate was told that the fight had been sparked off by arguments between rival tribe members over “the recently legalised (narcotic) khat”.
Sometime in between the two incidents, the Maltese authorities had naively acquiesced to the legalisation of khat, in deference to the ‘cultural customs’ of Malta’s ever-growing illegal immigrant population.
Khat may have fuelled the violence featured in several incidents that made international news.
During the 1993 siege of Mogadishu, Somalis loyal to Mohammed Aideed, high on khat, battled the US military for many days. Four hundred Somalis, as well as 18 American servicemen, were killed.
Evidence suggests that it may be the narcotic of choice of suicide bombers and it (or its South African equivalent) must have induced in 5,000 Zulus a sense of invincibility at Rorke’s Drift and other battles in 1879 as they faced the superior British firepower.
Kenya is also a major producer, and the Kikuyu Mau Mau used khat to stimulate their resolve while taking their blood oath to fight the then British colonial regime. Likewise, khat may account for the audacity of Somali pirates.
When it comes to illegal immigration, Malta’s track record of enacting laws governing matters relating thereto, aside from being reactive, has been one of fits, starts, trial and error. This is pardonable considering that the government was ill-prepared for what was to come.
The Times of Malta (July 31) published details of the implementation of tighter controls on the use and distribution of khat. This action, brought about by the Justice Ministry, in collaboration with the Drugs Commissioner, is definitely a step in the right direction. Except that tolerance of this, or any other narcotic, for that matter, should be done away with.
Many in Malta would support a policy of zero tolerance. This would also make matters less complicated for law enforcement.
Ethnic, cultural and tribal differences have been more of a bane than a boon to the concept of regional harmony in Africa. There is no reason to believe things will be any different here, even with integration and assimilation.