Sons of Indian haj victims desperate to know how parents perished

 Firojsha Aiyubsha and his two brothers only found out that their parents had died in last week`s stampede during the haj in Saudi Arabia when a boy from their village deep in western India spotted the names on the Internet.

Jargal: Firojsha Aiyubsha and his two brothers only found out that their parents had died in last week`s stampede during the haj in Saudi Arabia when a boy from their village deep in western India spotted the names on the Internet.

Now the siblings, all policemen, are desperately seeking information from tour operators, government helplines and their parents` cell phones about events leading to the tragedy on what was to have been the journey of a lifetime.

"All we have is the death notice on the internet. Nobody has told us anything, nobody has seen their bodies," said Firojsha, the youngest brother who lived with his parents in their crumbling home in Jargal, in Gujarat state.

"Someone must have seen them, even if they fell. Someone must have dug them out."

Gujarat is home to 11 of the 45 Indians known to have perished in the worst disaster to befall the Islamic pilgrimage for 25 years.

At least 769 people died in a crush of pilgrims near Mecca when two large groups converged at a crossroads.

India sends one of the largest contingents of pilgrims each year to the haj; its Muslim population is the world`s third biggest, and Saudi Arabia offers each country one spot per 1,000 Muslims.

The passport details of Bafaisha and Jubedabibi Aiyubsha, aged 65 and 62 respectively, were posted online by the Indian government and are accurate, but their sons want to know more before performing rituals and prayers for the dead.

Bafaisha, a retired government clerk from India`s Muslim minority of 180 million, was more keen than his wife to go on the pilgrimage, saying he wanted to carry out the sacred journey while still healthy.

Jubedabibi, a diabetes patient, had kept her sugar levels low by walking 5 kms a day in the months leading up to the haj.

The couple emptied their savings accounts, paying 570,000 Indian rupees ($8,600) to a tour operator that was more expensive than the government-run scheme but promised better services.

They hosted meals for villagers in celebration of their journey, bought a suitcase to pack four sets of clothes and finally, at Ahmedabad airport, purchased the shroud-like white garments pilgrims wear just before they left.

"They were the only ones from our village who were going, but we were confident they would be fine. They were going to God`s house," said Firojsha.

He and his brothers blame the tour operator who arranged their parents` trip, Madni Tours and Travels, for failing to provide enough information about the circumstances of the couple`s deaths.

Calls made by Reuters to Madni Tours and Travels on a number provided by the family went unanswered. 

The one time the agent who accompanied them answered his telephone, he said he had seen 500 bodies, but not those of their parents, said Miskinsha, the eldest brother.

On another occasion, someone answered their father`s mobile, but he was speaking in Arabic and they could not understand a word. By the time the brothers got hold of the local imam, who speaks some Arabic, the phone was dead.

"I am a policeman, I deal with these things regularly. You need to give proper information to the family members in case of a tragedy," Miskinsha said.

"We want a picture of our parents. They must have taken a video, anything, if they have been buried. We want to see their faces. We have to carry out prayers here according to our custom; how can we do it if nobody has seen their bodies?"

Saudi Arabia does not send the bodies of pilgrims who die during the haj back to their home countries, burying them in unmarked graves.

The government-supported Haj Committee of India, which sends the most pilgrims each year, said it was making arrangements for the victims` next-of-kin to travel to Saudi Arabia to offer final prayers.

"We are talking to the Saudi authorities to allow the family members to travel as far as possible," said K. Zahir Hussain, deputy chief executive officer of the Haj Committee based in Mumbai.

While no one in the village openly criticised Saudi Arabia, Miskinsha questioned whether the haj might be organised differently in future.

"Shouldn`t they be restricting the numbers of pilgrims in the light of what has happened?" he said. "They should host only as many people as they can handle."

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