Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Slow Progress for Pilgrims

Winning the lottery to make the annual Haj to Mecca is only the first of many challenges Afghan pilgrims encountered this year.
By Nazifullah Sader

For devout Muslims, completing the Haj is a lifelong goal. Making the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia counts as one of the five pillars of Islam and the ultimate act of worship, and is the duty of everyone physically able to make the journey.


But Afghans hoping to participate in this year’s pilgrimage found they had first to overcome numerous obstacles, including restrictions imposed by the Saudis and their own government, as well as alleged corruption by officials responsible for coordinating the trips and mistreatment by law-enforcement officials.


With more than two million visitors from all over the world attempting to reach the holy sites for the start of the Hajj ceremonies on January 18 (the eighth day of Dhul Hijjah in the Muslim calendar). Saudi Arabia has often been overwhelmed by the sheer number of pilgrims. In recent years, such overcrowding has led to violence and deaths.


To cope with the problem, the Saudis have imposed quotas on the number of pilgrims who can come from any one country. This year, 30,000 Afghans were allowed to make the journey.


To cope with the large demand by would-be pilgrims, the Afghan government established a lottery to determine who would be allowed to make the trip.


But some of those who won the right to travel to Mecca claimed they were forced to wait for days for their transit papers and transportation, and that they were abused by soldiers charged with maintaining order. Some said they were victims of attempts to extort money.


Haji Nader Shah, 48, said he had been waiting for 24 hours to get the documents to make the trip. "Officials at the Haj ministry asked me for 2,000 afghanis, 40 US dollars, to process my documents quickly,” he said.


Shivering in the freezing cold, Haji Dost Gul, from Paktia province, said: "We have been here for eight days and nights in this cold weather, just waiting for our turn.


"When we ask to see someone in authority, the security forces beat us with their rifle butts and do not allow us to see anyone. One woman has died due to the cold weather and others have been admitted to hospitals," he said.


And Ghulam Hussain, 45, representing 135 pilgrims from the central province of Bamyan, said he had been waiting in Kabul for 35 days.


"When we apply to any official, we are neither heard nor helped," he said.


Deputy minister in charge of Haj affairs, Qaseem Khan, acknowledges that there were problems processing the pilgrims.


"Our country has faced many problems, and transportation is one of them,” he said. We only have two international airports flying to Jeddah - one in Kabul and the other in Kandahar. Kabul airport has been assigned to transport pilgrims from 13 provinces, and Kandahar for the remaining 19."


Qaseem Khan said the government was able to fly pilgrims from regional airports in more remote provinces to Kabul and Kandahar.


He added that Ariana, Afghanistan’s national airline, flew between 700 and 800 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia daily.


Qaseem Khan noted that Afghanistan’s quota of pilgrims was 5,000 higher this year than in 2004.


“We have also provided more facilities but dealing with such large numbers always causes some problems," he said.


As for the allegations of bribery and mistreatment, Qaseem Khan said, "I have no knowledge of this, and anyone who has a complaint should come and talk to me."


Nazifullah Sader is a freelance reporter based in Kabul.