Thursday had started off as a quiet day at Haj House, as several staff members were on leave for Eid. As soon as news broke about the stampede at Mecca, however, the phone began to ring off the hook, with anxious enquiries from the families of Haj pilgrims.
The reception area at Haj House has been turned into a control room of sorts, as three phone lines were set up to address anxious enquiries from the relatives of Hajjis. File pic for representation
Within a few hours of the stampede being reported, Haj House — home to the Haj Committee of India — received over 100 calls, while the lone staffer managing the phone struggled to keep pace. Since then, the committee has set up three 24X7 phone lines through which citizens can seek information about their loved ones.
At the time of going to press, the death toll from the stampede had gone beyond 717, and at least 860 were reported injured. However, none of the 4,760 Hajjis who went from Mumbai this year have been reported among the victims so far.
With communications down at ground zero in Mina (about 5 km from Mecca), pilgrims were unable to get in touch with their families, who then turned to the committee for answers. In fact, even the Haj Committee chairman — who is amongst the pilgrims at Mecca — is unreachable, but the CEO, Attaur Rehman who is also there, informed the office that they are both safe.
At first, it was just Asif Katote, an assistant at Haj House, who was attending to calls that came in from across the country. “I have been handling all the calls alone since morning. The relatives sounded very worried and asked for information about the pilgrims. I have got calls from Bihar, Orissa, Rajasthan... I am trying to help out as much as possible,” he said.
Officials then decided to set up special helplines and roped in more people to man the phones. “Three 24X7 helplines were started. We had to rope in more people so that three people can man the helplines in the day and three at night. Right now, my only aim is to ensure communication between relatives and the pilgrims,” said deputy CEO Zahir Hussain.
He added that all pilgrims had been given SIM cards by the committee, but those numbers were either switched off or were unreachable. “We are constantly in touch with the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia through the Ministry of External Affairs. No Indian has been reported hurt so far. We are also giving out all the information we have on our website so that people are not misinformed,” Hussain said.
‘All is well’
Only one family actually visited the Haj House near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to enquire about Hajjis Anwar Ali Shaikh. Shaikh (54) and his wife Farida (52) (in pic) who had left for the pilgrimage earlier this month.
After trying to contact them for the better part of the day, it was only while talking to this reporter that the couple’s son, Rafik, finally got through to them. “They are fine.
They said they had left the stampede spot just before it happened. They had slept off in their tent and didn’t even know about it,” said a visibly relieved Rafik.
>> About 1.5 lakh pilgrims went to Mecca from India this year
>> 1.2 lakh went through the Haj Committee, and 36,000 through private travel operators
>> Each pilgrim was handed a bracelet to wear around the wrist, with info like their passport numbers, registration numbers and their names.
Help is at hand
For information about Haj pilgrims, call the Haj Committee on: 022- 22717100/ 01/ 02